Professionelle resources

Values in Action

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

What are values? What are your values? How can being aware of your values support your efforts at work and beyond?

Values As Tools

Let me start with a recent story about the value of values and how being aware of them can be a highly useful tool.

For many years I contracted to a well-respected management consulting group. It was a long term relationship that evolved from my being an employee and came with a high level of trust and respect on both sides. I remember that after the first year or so we didn’t bother with renewing the (very short) formal contract. They knew I would work conscientiously to safeguard their clients’ interests and I knew they would pay me promptly, treat me like an insider and send challenging projects my way.

Now, however, I have moved to working as a truly independent consultant and that means I am establishing a number of new relationships with new clients where there isn’t a shared history. We have to rely on two things to try to give our new situation its best chance of success. One is references – what good experiences have others had with this person or organisation, what things do they value? – and the other is contracts – what do we need and expect from each other?

I’ve got two contracts in my inbox as I type this. One is about 5 pages and basically asks me to deliver x work, accept y payment and observe confidentiality. The other is 6 times longer and seems designed to put me on the back foot before I start. Particularly, it steps through three ever more restrictive levels of restraint of trade. These culminate in their claiming the right to come into an existing client of mine, have merely a chat with the client about doing work, and in consequence ban me from doing further private work there!

My eyes just about popped out of my head when I read that clause. I may even have let rip with an expletive or three. I know why: one of my core values is fairness and this contract is not fair. I will be signing the 5 pager but I will not sign this one. And you can bet I will be very cautious about dealings with this organisation.

Identifying Values

My experience shows a pretty good way to identify your values. If something makes you furious the chances are that at some fundamental level it has outraged a value you hold dear. As one woman in one of our networking events said:

You don’t often reflect on your values until they are challenged.

There is a positive way to identify values too: you can reflect on real-life or fictional characters that you admire and try to discern what it is about them that attracts you. Courage, perhaps? Their integrity?

Identifying your own values is one thing, but what about a future employer’s or business partner’s values? In my story above, I looked at the paperwork the organisation sent me and I spoke to others who had worked for them.

Here are other practical ideas:

  • Try and talk to the people you’ll be working with, not just the interviewer. In a large organisation, there can be pockets where the values are different to the mainstream – for better or worse.
  • Talk to the people at the coalface of the firm if you can. If they can clearly articulate the company’s values that’s a great sign. It shows that the message is coming down clearly from the top and they walk the talk.
  • Listen to the stories that the interviewers share. In the interview, informal discussions especially about broader life issues are a good place to get a sense of their values.
  • Don’t rely on the website but read what they write and then listen for how well that matches to the interview and other conversations.

Shared Values

If you find you didn’t have a good match with a potential employer’s values would it matter and what would you do? We love this answer.

There’s values and there’s security of income. I’m the main breadwinner and that’s important. So…. I guess I’d turn them down… but slowly!

It’s easy to think that highly aligned values are a must for a successful relationship whether at work or at home. We’ve been challenged to think more subtly about this. Take this example. A Professionelle member told us that her husband held the value of family loyalty very dear and this would, in extremis, lead him to hide an allegedly criminal family member from justice. She went on:

I don’t share that value, I would give the person up to the police. But I do admire him for having principles that are so true to his core value of loyalty.

Another interesting twist is that it is possible to share a value but to have different ways of expressing that value in practice (or, to put it another way, to have different principles that flow from the value). The value of honesty is nearly universal but we have different cultural ways to express it. Thus “does my bum look big in this?” would be answered:

  • in New Zealand: “no” – our cultural principles are such that we avoid a topic or tell a white lie to save someone’s feelings;
  • in Israel:  “yes, and so does the rest of you since you had your baby” (yikes!).

Here’s an example around the value of professionalism and the principles that could flow from that. One colleague expresses professionalism through punctuality and time keeping. Another person in the same team focuses on getting the job done, even if that means running late to meetings. They share a value, but not principles. Being aware of the shared value behind these differences makes it easier to accept them and to articulate a discussion if things ever get heated.

Staying True to Your Values

Should you always stay true? One view is that we change as we mature and so we need to continue to assess who we are as we grow older. We may initially take on our parents’ values but then experiment and evolve our own. It pays to reassess your values to see if they are changing in response to significant new experiences. Having children is one example that people point to as a trigger for a shift in values, for example.

While values might not wholly change in a lifetime, they might well change priority. Sometimes a person’s values come into conflict and this would be an opportunity to “rearrange the cards” into a new priority order. For example, what if someone with the value of respect for one’s elders and the value of respect for oneself was faced with an older, bullying boss. Which would win out? Putting the second value first wouldn’t mean the first had been dropped, only re-prioritised.

Values can help us navigate tricky situations by giving us clear criteria to weigh our choices and reactions against. However, we shouldn’t feel bound by the past.

The Value of Values

Uncovering your values, being mindful of them when faced with tricky situations and significant decisions, and periodically revisiting them takes effort. Is it worth it? You bet. Your energy expands when you are living your values – the opposite of that drained feeling.

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