How to realign your values
Do you rank your values?
It costs about £1-per-week to join our growing Rethink community on Substack. You’ll receive (at least!) two emails each week from me and get access to all my posts and discussion threads (like this one on ChatGPT).
Do you prioritise your values?
A few weeks ago, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's prime minister, unexpectedly announced that she was resigning. "It's time," she said in a poignant speech. She admitted that she "no longer had enough in the tank" to fulfil the role responsibly. Her words right at the end of the speech struck a chord. "To Neve: Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year." Ardern courageously signaled a shift in her priorities.
Most people and organisations have lists of values – things like collaboration, inclusion, or curiosity. Yet I have never seen them listed in order of importance. If all values are equal, which one wins when competing priorities exist?
Values over rules
Values are a choice. They are a parent, partner, or a leader deciding what is most important. I've long believed in the power of clear values over rules in guiding how we treat others, interact with the world, and the choices we make. With my kids, when I have to say "no" to something (it feels like often these days as they enter their early teen years), I come back to our family values. It feels far less draconian, even as a parent, to reinforce values than to monitor rules constantly.
But I've struggled with how values work (or don't) in organisations. I once worked for a company with 'love' as a value and had no idea what to do with it! They even signed off emails' xx'. Eeek.
The values gap
In a study conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review looking at the value statements of more than 500 mostly US companies, integrity was the most common value (listed by 65% of all companies), followed by collaboration (53%), customer focus (48%) and then respect (35%). The part of the study, however, that was most striking was how common there was a values gap – the gap between the official company values and how people really behave. Why does this happen?
How desire shapes values
Recently, I came across a concept that made me think differently about why or when we live our values or don't – and that's desire. Specifically, why we want what we want in life and work. For instance:
Why do we want the title or promotion?
Why do we want autonomy or independence?
Why do we want the bigger house, new trainers, or iPhone 223?
Luke Burgis's fascinating book, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire and How to Want What You Need, made me rethink how desire works and its power in our lives.
Why desire is not a straight line
Burgis builds off French Philosopher Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire. The concept, in a nutshell, is that desire is a force that pushes and pulls us in different directions. And like all forces in physics, it follows laws.
“Nearly everyone (unconsciously) assumes there's a straight line between them and the things they want," writes Burgis.
We convince ourselves that our desires are autonomous. It's a fantastic story we tell ourselves, but it’s not true.
The primary law of desire: individuals assign value to things (and therefore desire them) according to what other people want.
For example, we got a dog at the start of Covid because we always wanted a dog, and it seemed like a good time to do it. (Amazingly, all my friends had a similar realisation at the same time!) But we independently decided to get our dog Mack.
The path between us and the thing we want is not straight but always curved. Desire goes through or around what Burgis calls ‘models’ - a friend, a colleague, a sibling, or a celebrity.
When you know what the 'model' is, it's generally not a problem. It's when we don’t recognize a model for what they are that we can become fixated on them without realizing it. Like constantly looking at what an ‘influencer’ is doing, wearing, or eating on Instagram. That’s when desire exerts an outside influence on us and plays havoc with our values.
When desires and values clash
You can pick the, say, three to five values most important to your company, school, or family. But it's desire – wanting more power, money, prestige – that will ultimately control our ability to live according to those values or not. Desire causes value trade-offs.
You've likely experienced a value trade-off without even realising it. Here are a few I've seen at work:
I know it's fairer to promote this person, but I want to be loyal to my friend, whom I kind of promised the promotion over a drink.
To act with integrity, I should say no to this client because I don't believe in what they make, but I'm ambitious and want to hit my bonus target.
I value the autonomy to grow my start-up as I choose, but I want the fame of being a high-flying entrepreneur.
I’m a team player, but I want to be recognised and rewarded when I did all the work.
Ranking our values
Ironically, value trade-offs are often the hardest when there is a choice between positive things. Say between freedom and security. For example, do you keep going as a freelancer or sign a three-year full-time corporate contract for a large sum?
"It's not enough to name values. They need to be ranked. When all values are the same, nothing is being valued at all," writes Burgis. “A hierarchy of values is especially critical when choices have to be made between good things.”
We should rank our values to prevent trade-offs before they happen. If we don't say what the most important value is, desire at that moment will win.
The day after Ardern resigned, the BBC ran a headline, "Can women have it all?" It was misogynistic and disgraceful. Our values - at a personal or organisational level - shouldn't be set in stone. What's important to us might change in one - or five - years. And when individuals and companies make clear how their hierarchy of values informs tough choices, it should be celebrated, not criticised.
A question for you: How would you rank your values? I'd love to know.
I know there is so much free content out there, but your subscription makes it possible for me to spend time thinking and writing – and sharing ideas with you.
This week’s Rethink thread: I’ll be in touch again Wednesday so we can chat more about values, desire, and trade-offs. I find the latter particularly fascinating - and I’ve definitely experienced it a lot in my career.
It would be fair to look at our lives, take note of what we do most, spend on most and gravitate towards most to understand what we "value". There are plenty of on-line websites that you can look at to help you understand what your "values" could be like the Demartini Values Assessment. The question is then, once you know this, how do you use this knowledge to understand your decision making and not let others inject their values on you, i.e. social media "influencers".
My values are simple to state, difficult to practice. Honesty, Generosity and Encouragement to others.