Three key examples of the benefit of clarifying your values

Jim Clemmer

A young boy came home and told his dad that the other kids kept stealing his pencils at school. The father stomped off to the school to complain. “It’s not about the pencils,” he bellowed to his son’s teacher. “I get plenty of those from work. It’s the principle of stealing that bothers me most.”

Our true values shine through in many ways. One is at points of crisis, disaster, or adversity.

As we’ve seen during this pandemic, that’s often when actions move people unconsciously from the depth of their hearts and true beliefs.

Throughout history, money has often pulled back facades to reveal what’s truly valued. It’s sad, for example, to hear someone proclaim family values and then trash their “loved ones” over an inheritance.

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Highly driven leaders can slip down the slope of their career ambitions. Some spend more time concerned about the quality of their organization’s performance than the quality of their personal or family relationships. They’re more focused on satisfying their shareholders than their care holders.

One highly successful company was run by a leadership team of extremely driven, hard-working executives. They judged themselves and others by whether they “bled blue” (the colour of the company’s logo). One executive proudly declared they had the highest divorce rate of any major corporation in America. Many wore their divorces as a badge of honour, showing their commitment to the company. In the last years – or days – of their lives, will they regret that they didn’t spend more time at the office?

Clarifying our values have many benefits. Here are three key examples:

Authenticity builds credibility and trust

BS meters are at all-time high sensitivities. We’re fed up with hypocritical leadership. Most people know if someone is acting like a leader or is a leader. Strong leaders are the real deal. Their video is in sync with their audio. The vision, values, and purpose they set out for their team or organization aligned with what they set out for their own lives. Their leadership is firmly grounded in their personal integrity and values alignment.

In, Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, James Kouzes and Barry Posner conclude, “Values are directly relevant to credibility. To do what we say we will do (our respondents’ behavioural definition of credibility), we must know what we want to do and how we wish to behave. That’s what our values help us to define.”

Clearer decision making, priority setting, and time management

The metaphor of putting rocks, pebbles, and sand in a jar has been used for decades to illustrate the time management principle of prioritization. If we start with sand, then marbles, and finally rocks, we likely won’t get many rocks in the jar. And the jar will have gaps and empty spaces. However, if we first add the rocks, then the marbles, and finally sand, we’ll get more rocks into the jar – with no gaps and empty space.

Underlying our Strategic Use of Time Assessment are core values about life and leadership priorities. Do people or processes rank highest? Do we push or pull people forward? Is our approach based on coaching or coercing? Am I driven by the sandstorm in my in-box, or do I take care of the rocks first? Do we add to to-do lists without stop-doing pruning? Is planning focused on budgets and operations with little thought to building leadership/culture capacity? Is accountability what I expect of others with little feedback on my effectiveness?

Does your day planner and calendar reflect your big-rock values? Are you proactive rather than reactive with your time?

Leveraging strengths and inspiring optimism

Do you believe the world is getting better or worse? Do you try to reinforce what’s right or fix what’s wrong? Are your development plans focused on closing performance gaps?

These questions get at deeply ingrained values of pessimism and optimism underlying the Range of Reality. Fixing weaknesses is embedded in our practices and beliefs. In coaching or having performance discussions with a team member, most leaders gloss over strengths to focus mostly on “improvement areas.” While loudly declaring otherwise, many leaders act from a Theory X set of beliefs; people are lazy, will rip you off, need to be “snoopervised,” and must be threatened and coerced. Theory Y approaches are based on opposing beliefs; people are self-motivated and self-controlled, want to take pride in their work, be on a winning team, and can be trusted. These often unconscious and underlying beliefs also undermine culture change efforts.

Focusing on what’s missing or wrong is much less effective. The evidence clearly shows building strengths is two to three times more effective. Leading with strength by focusing on what’s right, strong, and positive – and how to get more of it from ourselves, teams, and organizations – is the pathway to peak performance. It’s also healthier, more motivating – and a lot more fun!

Despite what lovely words may declare, actions reveal what’s really valued. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”

Jim Clemmer is the President of the Clemmer Group, a management consulting firm specializing in organization, team, and personal transformation.

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