Getting Clear About Values

Having clarity about our values is really important.

Here are some tips Russ Harris gave at a recent Happiness Trap workshop. I found them really useful – I hope you do too!

1. Values are ‘desired qualities of behaviour’. They are about who we want to be in the world. What sort of employee, manager, co-worker, friend, partner etc.

2. Values are not goals. Goals can be achieved whereas values are moment to moment choices. In this moment now, I can be curious but I can never achieve ‘curious’.

3. Values are not rules.  They are qualities we choose freely. As soon as we start to feel we have to follow a value, it loses all it’s vitality. It stops being a value and starts to be a rule. In vital workplaces, people are happy to sign up for the organisational values. In workplaces lacking vitality, staff members follow the organisational ‘values’ because they will get into trouble if they don’t.

4. Values are about my behaviour not what I want to get from others.  In a recent moving post, Rob gave an example of a ‘value’ that lacked vitality:

‘I value my family, for the love and support they offer me.’

Rob wrote about the importance of exploring the feelings underneath this statement to get to something a little more vital. He made an important point. I would also like to add that this ‘value’ is actually a statement of a want or need. And mixing values and needs is problematic. What if my family get preoccupied with their own problems and don’t give me the support I need? Do I then stop valuing them? Whereas, if I can convert this statement into a quality of my own behaviour then it becomes completely in my control.  Each moment I can choose to act on the value or not. Perhaps it is:

‘I value my family. I show this by being affectionate and caring in my interactions with them’

This means that values can be incredibly empowering. They are about how I choose to behave. They aren’t dependent on how others respond to me.  I do need to add a rider here, values need to be flexible. The context determines which values I act upon in any given moment. With a bullying boss, I may choose to act on my values around assertiveness and justice. With an unhappy client, I may choose to act on my values around kindness and compassion. But because it is always about me, I have the power to choose.

Is This Really MY Value?

When I run workshops on identifying and living values, someone usually asks me:

But how do I know if this is really MY value? Perhaps I have just been brought up to believe this is right?

This is an important question. When we live other people’s values, our lives tend to lack vitality. So how can we tell?  Here are some tests you can apply to your values, to see if they really are ‘yours’:

Think about a time when you have been living that value. Looking back, are you proud of how you behaved? For example, I am English and I have been raised to value politeness. Looking back, there are times when I feel good about being polite (Thanking a waitress. Giving someone my seat in a crowded bus) and others when I feel uncomfortable with my ‘polite’ behaviour (Failing to challenge homophobic comments. Not giving my real opinion about something important.) This exploration then helps me to see that I don’t really value politeness. I value being kind and thoughtful.  It also tells me that I value being authentic and standing up for my beliefs.

Use the perspective of time. If for the next 7 years you live this value, you let this value guide your behaviour, over and over again. Will it have supported you in being the person you really want to be? Or not? The perspective of time is helpful because of the risk/regret tipping point. We tend to make wiser decisions if we take a longer term view.

Give yourself permission. If I gave you an ironclad guarantee that everyone important to you would think well of you, whatever values you lived – would you still want to live this value? (This one was created by Russ Harris author of The Happiness Trap.) You might notice your mind getting hooked by this one ‘Yeh right! Like they would approve of me if I became an axe murderer’. If that happens, thank your mind, and see if you can do it anyway. It is just an activity! If the only thing holding you back from being an axe murderer is that your Mum would disapprove – I recommend therapy! However, if the only thing holding you back from living a rich and meaningful life is that your Mum would disapprove, I recommend this book.

What is Better than Work-Life Balance?

A life dripping with meaning and purpose!

Work-life ‘balance’ is tough.  Does this sound familiar to you? At any moment it is important to me that I: hang out with my kids; spend time with friends; be with my partner; get some exercise; do some marketing; write a blog post; write the session I am to deliver next week; do some chores…..the list goes on and on.

Many of us worry that we are working too many hours. We know that this is a bad idea as it limits time to rest, play, exercise, connect with loved ones etc. But my observation is that just knowing we should work less and spend more time on our health and our relationships, doesn’t seem to lead to change.

For people to take action, a number of approaches seem to be helpful:

  • Exploring what it is about work that keeps us hooked in. For me, work is interesting, challenging and meaningful. Work often gets me into flow.  At work I get to use my strengths. Any meaningful ‘work-life balance’ plan needs to acknowledge this. It is important to recognise that sometimes it is hard to step away from the satisfaction that work can provide.
  • Looking at what painful thoughts or feelings are avoided by spending too much time at work. (‘I am not good enough, if I don’t work long hours I will disappoint my clients.’ If I leave work undone I feel anxious). Again, any meaningful plan must involve developing a willingness to experience those thoughts and feelings.
  • Identifying what is important enough to be willing to tackle this issue over and over. This is a moment to moment choice.  It will involve repeatedly getting it wrong. This issue is unlikely to disappear for many years (and when it does and we have retired, we will probably feel sad about it!).  This is where identifying values helps – The Brief Bull’s Eye activity can be a good place to start.
  • Getting better at mindfully and compassionately noticing both when I am living my values around this and also when I am a long way off. This is a wagon I fall off over and over again. And each time I notice I am out of kilter, I gently and compassionately readjust my behaviour.

When I am 80, I won’t judge my life by how many hours I did or didn’t work. I will judge it by whether my life had meaning and purpose. My hope is that if I keep making small moment to moment choices based on my values, then I will look back and feel pleased.

The Non Verbal Nature of Values

Values are really important with clients who want to make any kind of change.  That’s because values operate like a form of compass, which can help us navigate uncertain or new territory.

I have worked with organisational and personal values for many years, but for a long time  my work with clients in the area of values produced results like this:

  • I value my family, for the love and support they offer me.
  • I value my work, because I love to feel part of a team.
  • I value coming up with new ideas to problems.

Now, these are all incredibly worthwhile.  Yet, somehow they also lack depth or resonance.  My own value of ‘meaning’ in work can sometimes feel like a commodity, a word which begins to lose its meaning over time.

At the last ACT World Conference, Kelly Wilson showed me how limited this verbal view of values was.  Values must be described verbally, but that is only because words are all we have to articulate to others what we are experiencing.

Wilson brought this idea to life by asking us to identify someone in our lives who we really value. He asked us to write a couple of lines that describe what we value in them.  Mine was my Mum, and the description went something like this:

I value my Mum because she has always supported me, and been there for me in difficult times.  Despite struggling with her own problems, she has always given everything to me, and she is kind, human and a real Christian.

This describes well some of the things I really value about my Mum.  Yet, the words strangely lack impact.  They are commodities, well-worn grooves in my mind, like a pre-rehearsed package of sounds.

Then Wilson asked us to think of a specific moment that encapsulates what we value about that person, and then to recall that moment through our senses.

Mine related to a time when my Mum was a single parent and I would hate the time when it came for her to leave to go to work.  I wrote:

I recall the days when you would leave for work early in the morning and I would feel a rising sense of dread as you prepared to leave.  Then, at the moment you came to leave, terror that you might never come back.  Even writing now, I feel it with a beating heart and clammy hands.  You used to sing ‘Save all your kisses for me’ to me, but I can see myself now, a tiny figure consumed by worry that you, like my Father, may simply walk out of my life and never return.

But you always did return.

And when you did, I remember the hug you would give me; deep and long and cold as your winter coat pressed on my hot cheek.  I remember how you smelt of fresh air and the outdoors, and I would breathe it all in with long gulps.  And I would know, I was safe and I was wanted, and it was going to be OK.

Do you see a difference? Values – the things we value in life – need words to describe them but words cannot describe them.  Not fully.

Our human experience is primarily sensual, but over time it becomes more verbal. In some ways we need to de-learn our verbal impulse to experience life at first hand. We need to clear words out of the way to allow life to happen in its rawest, most vigorous and vital sense.

And that’s what values connect us with – not things we think are important, but things we feel as important.  A small but powerful difference.

How Can Job Design Improve Workplace Health and Productivity?

A great presentation by my old supervisor Frank Bond is published on the Institute of Employment Studies website.

What’s interesting about this kind of intervention is that when combined with ACT, the benefits of organisational redesign are also enhanced (Bond, Flaxman & Bunce, 2008).

What this study found was that increasing job control significantly improves mental health and absenteeism. But these effects were enhanced in people with higher levels of psychological flexibility.

Those with higher levels of psychological flexibility perceived that they had greater levels of job control as a result of the intervention, and this greater perception of control led these people to experience even greater improvements in mental health and absenteeism.

Psychological flexibility therefore allows people with more job control to better notice, where, when and the degree to which they have it, and therefore better recognise goal-related opportunities.