Most organizations have, at some point, gone through the exercise of articulating their mission, vision, and values. Some, such Twitter, Google and Southwest Airlines, are lauded for adhering to their values—keeping them top of mind when developing strategies or making decisions. But in my experience, many more organizations engage in the values exercises as a well-intentioned formality that ends up playing little to no important role. Organization values will likely end up on some hidden corner of their websites, or listed in an internal Google doc that no one ever reads after their first day of orientation. When asked, employees are probably not even unable to name the values, suggesting they have little impact.
If you’ve had a similar experience in your professional life, then you might have some skepticism about the utility of examining your own values as an individual professional. Still, I encourage you to read on, as I’ve found that periodically reflecting on them can be a powerful tool for catalyzing greater fulfillment and success in your career.
What do I mean by values? They are certainly abstract, but also integral to your daily life. Values are ideals that represent your convictions—the guiding principles that shape (or, at least should guide) your actions.
As is the case with many businesses, we, as individuals, can sometimes lose touch with our values. We may give up vegetarianism for an occasional burger even though we are environmentalists; we may give advice to someone whose beliefs we disagree with for the sole purpose of networking. Whatever the break in our values is, doing so can cause unease. And so, getting back in touch with what we believe—on and off the job—can bring a greater sense of fulfillment and meaning to our day-to-day lives.
Recently, I worked with a client I’ll call Marissa who was feeling disengaged, perhaps even bored, at work. She was just a few years into her career, and had even landed what some would describe as a “dream job.” Her job afforded her challenging work, access to senior leaders, a caring boss who was an active mentor, and real opportunities for influence. Still, after a while of dealing with a large workload, daily annoyances, and keeping up with deadlines, she had lost touch with the initial feelings of excitement that she had about her work. Instead, she unhappily found herself amongst the ranks of those who dread Monday mornings, and look forward to Friday happy hour with anticipation.
So Marissa took a step back, and reflected on her values. She realized that some of the most important values to her were achievement, service, learning, and personal relationships. And, when thinking about it, she was able to see how her current job was very much aligned with her personal values, a recognition that reinvigorated her motivation. She was learning new things and expanding her knowledge every week (sometimes every day), and felt very proud of the accomplishments she had made. Although her role didn’t allow her to work with the organization’s customers directly, she was able to see how the work she was doing contributed to making other’s lives better. Although she enjoyed her relationships with coworkers, considering her values more critically urged Marissa to realize that she was not spending enough quality time with her significant other. So she committed to spending more time on her relationship, while also appreciating the ways that her job aligned with her values. As a result of these enormous insights and very small shifts, she felt a greater and more profound connection to her daily work, and fulfillment with her life as a whole.
With greater meaning and fulfillment, comes greater engagement, and likely greater productivity and higher-quality work.
Research has even shown that getting in touch with your values, can help to combat stereotype threat, the potential decline in performance that can unwittingly occur as a result of not wanting to be seen as conforming to negative stereotypes regarding your demographic group. (For example, in research, women have been found to perform more poorly on a measure of math ability when their status as women was made salient in experiments). However, in one study, researchers found that a brief writing exercise in which women reflected on their personal values helped to mitigate the effects of stereotype threat. In other words, reflecting on your values may improve your performance.
Getting in touch with your values can also provide you an important cue—namely, that it’s time to move on if and when you determine that your values are in conflict with the work you are doing. Research has shown that when there is a mismatch between your personal values and that of your organization, you are at increased risk of burnout. Cynicism, one of the components of burnout, occurs when you feel less attached to, and engaged with, the work you are doing. If a values clarification exercise reveals to you that you are simply in the wrong job or at the wrong company. I’ve dealt with clients (and experienced it personally), who were in jobs that were mismatched to them. On the other side, they’ve been happier. Even those who didn’t leave voluntarily (i.e. they were fired), often felt a sense of relief and acceptance once they got over the initial shock. In retrospect, they were able to see how at least part of their under-performance was related to being disengaged or conflicted because of a values mismatch.
The easiest way to get in touch with your personal values would be to simply contemplate them. As you reflect on your life, what values are most important to you? Make a list of what comes to mind (you might want to use a journal for this exercise). If you have a hard time coming up with them, do an internet search of personal values to find a list of words to choose from. Choose 5-7 of them, and rank order them.
You might also want to sleep on it, to see if they still resonate with you after you have had a bit of a chance to consider them.
As you are engaging in the exercise, you might find that there is a disconnect between the values that are most important to you on a daily basis versus the values that you would like to be most important to you. For example, if you, like Marissa, determine that a core value in your life is getting the short end of the stick, that’s useful information! Use it to make tweaks that will bring things back into balance.
Once you have settled on your values, put them somewhere that will allow you to be reminded of them often—maybe on your nightstand, desk, computer wallpaper, or on your smartphone. They don’t need to be very conspicuous—but recording them in language can help you internalize them so you can keep in touch with the ways that your work actually does align with your values to fuel a sense of meaning, even on the days you may feel less motivated. Plus, if you determine that you are in a situation in which there is too great of a mismatch between your organization and your personal values, you can begin to make important changes that can bring a greater sense of happiness and well-being to your life.