May 28, 2010

How Values Work

Start with energy. Values are packets of energy usually identified by a single word or phrase, and represented by behaviors. When we perceive or use values language, we trigger that energy in ourselves and in others. Sometimes that energy is positive in its nature, sometimes negative. When it’s positive, we usually call that motivation. When it’s negative we usually call it disrespect. Either way, it can be surprisingly powerful.

We choose our values. Values are not like the genetic information we are born with. We are taught what is important, what to value, and how to behave to support those values. But when we find ourselves in new environments, we tend not only to modify how we behave, but we also might change the priority of what we value most highly given a particular situation. We see this when we compare our private or home lives to our public or work lives. This is not to say we lack integrity by shifting our values at work, only that we choose to prioritize our values differently depending on the situations we experience. We successfully accommodate these changes because values can be intentionally selected and prioritized. There are thousands of human values. At any given time, we have a natural tendency to choose to focus on a select few. It is also important to remember that no single situation, or job, or life challenge requires us to prioritize a given set of values. We may achieve the ends we need through many different possible values combinations. And, diverse values among different people can give us access to more than one approach to solving problems and generating new and useful ideas.

 Values motivate our behaviors, but they do not guarantee skills or competencies. So we can think that Financial Success is extremely important, but we may lack the skills to achieve that success, and find that we need training in managing finances. When we recognize we may lack supporting skills for a value we think is important, it begins to act as a future objective, and becomes part of the vision we have of ourselves in the future. Once we recognize a given value as an important aspiration, it will affect the choices we make in order to gain the skills we need to make the value a reality in our lives.

 Different people often define the same value differently. The meaning for a value like “Honesty” can seem obvious to us, but we are often surprised to find out that other people can define that same value differently, and also behave differently to support it. Of course the assumption that we all mean the same thing when invoking a particular value can be manipulated—and we have all seen it happen in politics and advertising. To avoid confusion, we need to be asking the question, “What do you mean by that?” in a non-confrontational way. Otherwise we may assume we’re talking about the same thing because we are using the same word, but in fact we are not, and the difference can be critical.

 Values link together to make meaning. People simply do not hold just one value at a time. Any given value naturally links and connects with our others among our highly-prioritized values. Values may tend to group together with a recognizable theme, such as “how I relate to people.” Or they may cluster into a natural, mutually supportive progression whereby one value provides the awareness and skills needed for a subsequent value, for example the value of Respect being requisite for Trust. Another way values group is by what we call a Perspective, such as Family values, or Management values. The Values Perspectives survey is a process that helps you identify your basic core perspective, as well as your top priority values.

 Values form the basis for social relationships. We tend to associate with those who hold and apply values that are similar to our own. The opposite also works: we avoid people that oppose our personal values and priorities. So, being consciously aware of our own highest-priority values can be a useful tool when deciding with whom we wish to associate, what work we want to do, and what organizations or social networks we will align with.

The Values Perspectives survey can help you identify your basic core perspective as well as your top priority values.