What values really guide your behavior?  Not simply what you like to tell other people about what you believe, but deep inside?

If we were all introspective and clear-minded, this might be a purely academic question.  But we aren’t, so this isn’t.  I’m including myself here.

This means that many of us go through life without having given serious thought to what values drive our actions.

I understand it sounds simplistic, but evaluating what you value can be one of the most powerful tools available for personal and professional development.  I provide tools for that exercise in this post.

Why we avoid examining our values. For many of us, the failure to examine values is a function of workload and distraction.  Others believe they know their values because they were raised in, and believe in, a given religious tradition. Others have a vague sense of discomfort about the subject. Perhaps they believe the world is valueless, making it disheartening to ponder what preferences motivate them within a hollow universe.  Or they fear that examining what are values are will necessarily cause them to lose our moral and ethical grounding — that identifying values somehow leads, inevitably, to changing them.

None of these excuses or fears are well-founded.  Workload and distraction are matters of priorities; if examining our values may make us focus with greater clarity on what we care about, then that exercise may increase our productivity and free up time (or increase our output). As I recently pointed out, even the busiest person has potential hours available over the course of any week.

The other justifications also fail. The fact that we were raised in a certain faith may profoundly influence our values, but most faiths do not even purport to decide every question of values.  That the nihilist believes there are no universal values does not lead to the inevitable conclusion that there the notion that values, as I have defined in them in a prior post, do not influence individuals, including the nihilist himself.  And although in a later post I will explore how an individual may attempt to change his (or someone else’s) particular values, rest assured that values are deep-seated beliefs that do not change merely by being identified.

So what are your values? Below are two tools. I suggest you give both a try.

The vacation memo. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, in their excellent leadership book, Credibility, provide an exercise called “The Personal Credo.”  The following exercise is based on their work.

Assume that you’ve been asked to take an extended vacation to a location so remote, so relaxing, that you will be completely unable and unwilling to be in contact with your life back at home for a year.  All expenses paid.  In order to go, however, you must instruct your personal representative and business colleagues how they should make decisions on your behalf — as if you were present — while you are away.  You colleagues and those who will run your private affairs in your absence, “need to know the principles that you believe should guide their actions in your absence.  They need to understand the values and beliefs that you think should steer their decision making and action taking. You are permitted no long reports, however.  Just a one-page memorandum. If given this opportunity, what would you write on your one-page credo memo?  Take out one piece of paper, and write that memo.”  Credibility at 62-63.

This exercise works because it forces you to focus on your key decision-making principles.  You are forced to be brief, succinct, and as clear as possible, so that someone could actually act on your memo.

Remember to explain not only what moving-toward (positive) values (some are available here, here, and here) should guide your team’s actions in your absence, but also (as I noted in this prior post) the moving-away values that they should avoid while pursuing your business and personal affairs. (For those constrained to ask, feel free to mix terminal and instrumental values when describing moving-toward (positive) values in your personal credo memo (see the distinction in this post.)))

Now, take the exercise a step further. For each moving-toward value you described in the memo, ask the following questions (as Kouzes and Posner suggest):

– “Did I freely choose this value? . . . ?

– Have I considered other alternatives to this value and explored them fully?

– Do I truly cherish this value?  Is it something I prize?  Am I passionate about it?

– Am I willing to affirm publicly that I hold this value?

– Am I willing to act on this value?

– Am I willing to act on this value repeatedly, over time, in a consistent pattern?”

Kouzes and Posner, Credibility at 82-83.  If you said yes to all of these questions, great.  If not, consider whether the value is something you really adhere to, or whether you’re simply trying to put up a good front.

For each moving-away value you described in the memo, consider the following questions:

– Why do I dislike this action or end-state?

– What in my background or education leads me to believe that this action or end-state is so harmful?

– Am I willing to disclose to others that I dislike this action or end-state intensely?

– How does my dislike of this action or end-state show up in my daily activities?  Does this moving-away value inhibit any action or end-state in my moving-toward values?

Value survey exercise. You can find variations of this second exercise around the web.  In basic form, the exercise includes the following steps:

1. Using one or more of the lists of values I’ve linked to above (including both moving-toward values and moving away values), identify (a) your top ten moving-toward values — those actions or end-states you most prefer — and (b) your top five moving-away values — those actions or end-states that you most dislike and avoid.

2. Looking first at your moving-toward values, strike the one that you least value.  Then the next least important, and so on, until you reach the five values that you believe you most live by.

3. Use the same process with your moving-away values, striking in order the two that you dislike least.  This will leave three moving-away values.

4. At the end of this exercise, consider to what extent this list of five top moving-toward and three top moving-away values capture the preferences that guide your actions and aspirations.  Are the values you settled on really the ones that guide your actions, or are they merely what you like to project to those around you?

In other words, as I asked at the beginning, what values really guide your behavior? It’s a vital question: maybe the most important question someone can ask themselves or anyone else.