Why remembering the origins of your values is a source of strength

By Nick Foster

The past few years have been unusual to say the least. Disruptive. We are bombarded by instructions about how to keep safe. And constant updates about the number of people who got covid yesterday or the number of people who got vaccinated yesterday. We hear a wide spectrum of theories and theories of conspiracy. It can drive a person to distraction. And distracted we are.

Many years ago I learned an interesting process that involved values and in my eagerness to learn more I offered to use this process on anyone who would give me an hour of their time. It involved asking three simple questions:

  1. What are your personal values?
  2. What values do you see operational at your place of work?
  3. What values would you like to see at your place of work?

That’s it. I arranged time to sit with my friends, colleagues, previous colleagues and sometimes it was with people I had been introduced to and had never met.

The first step in my process was simple. I asked each person to start with one of the values from the list of the personal values they had selected. I was curious to know more about that value – how did they define it or describe it? This proved interesting because it would be easy to assume that everyone defines a value in fairly consistent terms. Not so. What turned out to be important was their definition and not any assumptions I could make.

In order to really understand the value, I asked each person to tell me a story that illustrated that value. I was curious to know where they might have gotten that value from. Was it something they saw their parents’ model? That turned out to be true quite often. Sometimes a value was adopted as an opposite – they saw behaviour they didn’t like and took on a value that was the antidote. In this process I heard many interesting and sometimes very personal stories. A real sense of intimacy surrounded these conversations, and I was drawn closer to each person in the process.

Asking people about their personal values and asking them to dig into their memories, to find a source, turned out to be deeply meaningful for many people. To re-connect with values is important. To re-member the source of your values is to bring them closer to your awareness and in doing so they become a great source of strength.

The second question in the survey asked people to identify the values they saw operational at their place of work. I typically asked each person to notice the overlaps (or lack of overlaps) between their personal values and the values that they believed to be operational at their workplace. Again, asking to hear stories about these values was helpful to getting a deeper understanding. Sometimes what people described were difficult workplaces to navigate. Sometimes, what was noticed was a very healthy overlap of values.

Asking people to contemplate the importance of working in an environment that honored values that were important to the individual was very productive. I remember one person who was contemplating a move to another organization who was offering more money. The realization that there was a high values alignment in the current workplace had them asking more questions of the potential employer and ultimately they chose not to take the position. Money isn’t the only thing.

A lot of organizations have values. To ask people about how those values are lived is again a process of remembering. There are often great stories that bring a value to life. When you hear the story you really “get” the meaning and the importance of the value. What was just a word suddenly becomes a light-filled vessel of knowing. Organizations don’t always live up to their values but when people reconnect with the history of the organization through these stories, they remember how to live into the values that they selected.

Sometimes what people noticed was the lack of alignment. None of their personal values seemed to be values that were operational in the organization. I noticed that these people seemed to carry a greater weight when they talked about work. Work was hard. In this case it was often important to shift to the third question about the values they would like to see at their workplace.

What I noticed is that people often selected values that aligned with their personal values. If Integrity was one of their personal values – something they learned at an early age from their parents – and it was missing in the current culture it wasn’t surprising that it would show up as an answer to the third question. As human beings we yearn for alignment. We suffer through mis-alignment.

For people who had high alignment between personal values and the current workplace any values that showed up in response to the third question became a simple roadmap of what they could work on to make things even better.

For people who had low alignment between personal values and the current environment it became a question of possibility. If alignment was represented by a higher degree of overlap between personal values and the values represented in the desired state, what would it take to bring that state into being? Could the person see themselves being instrumental in closing the gap? Again, asking people to remember any past successes in living their personal values in the environment proved helpful as inspiration.

This process of reconnecting with values and remembering how and when they connected with those values was at the heart of everything. The process of two people or a small group of people doing this creates intimacy and trust. I think we all agree that true connection with other human beings is rare and something that is important to our well-being.

As we look at the state of the world it seems to me that each of us needs to connect with our own values. What is important to me that is enduring? What is important to me that is emerging? These things need to be honored for us to feel like we are living a good life. And when the world seems topsy-turvy it is even more important to be grounded in our values. Remembering the origins of our values is a process of reconnecting – with ourselves. What could be more important?

About the Author

Nick Foster is a partner and Co-Founder of the Toronto consultancy 1-DEGREE/Shift, an organization dedicated to inspiring and equipping organizations with the agility to transform in today’s environment. Nick has been leading culture transformation projects at organizations as big as the University of Southern California and as small as a local radio station. Coaching and developing leaders is a big passion for Nick because vibrant organizations are led by conscious, healthy leaders.

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