What are your personal values? The usual way of answering this question is with a list of nouns, such as family, duty, care, happiness and integrity. When we intellectualise values in this way, the list can get so long it loses meaning. Values are brought to life for us by events, not questionnaires. So we may be asking the wrong question.
In my previous column I put forward the idea that for a fresh perspective on personal development, we need some new thinking. In that spirit, I would like to offer an alternative view of how you can see your values.
What are values?
We know that access to values is often triggered by trauma, stress or profound change. A shock to the system leaves us with a strong sense of what is important in life. In a crisis, life’s questions are suddenly contained in just a few core ideas.
Most people agree that values express the "why" in our lives. They inform our beliefs, which are the rules guiding the choices we make in how to act. Some people see values as a matter of individual choice, others as society’s "givens". In personal development, as in management, understanding the "why" is surely important, but really the problem is that we are rather muddled in our thinking. When I am working on personal development with our Executive MBA students, I like to present two contrasting views for discussion:
The learned view
Here, values are nouns. Through language we make one value distinct from another and this lets us compare and rank them. Values are precise, logical, rationally worked out and purposeful. If we can’t verbalise it, it isn’t a value. This is the predominant view in Western management development, as evidenced by the lists of value statements on many organisations’ websites. Values are like a moral code that can be handed down, but must be learned by each new generation.
The innate view
In this alternative, values are deeply rooted in our development as a social species. They are pre-linguistic, and our words are just expressions of this deeper, ineffable expression of what is important. Values are messy, and liable to be "lost in translation" when put into language. This view suggests our values are accessible in other ways, too, such as through music, dance, art or metaphor. Or crisis.
Values-based marketing is the attempt by an organisation to meet the needs of a customer in line with that person’s set of values. But marketers also know that when great brands make a "why" connection, can they do so only rationally? Is there a better way of asking the question at the start?
What links values to personal development?
A value is like your peripheral vision – always there but never noticed. Without it you would have tunnel vision, but it is useless trying to focus on it, because as soon as you do, it stops being peripheral. Values are silent, yet all managers need to reflect on them. I believe this reflective attitude holds the key to connecting the personal and the professional.
It is possible to bring the "why" into your management practice, but not by codifying it. We need to let go of naming personal values and be open to a much wider awareness of what in management is right to do.