03 June 2010

Values in Action

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

What are values? What are your values? How can being aware of your values help you at work and beyond?

In 2009 we ran two networking discussions on this very subject called "Living Your Values". One was in Tauranga and the other in Auckland. Both were open to members and non-members alike and both were sold out. This topic really resonated with professional women! You can get a flavour for these sessions and the discussions they generated from the short Youtube clip below, which includes snippets from our introductory talk on Values.

Our Networking Sessions

If you haven't come to one of our networking sessions yet, here's a brief overview:

  1. we introduce the topic with a short talk for about 20-25 minutes
  2. you, at your table, discuss a couple of preset questions with the other 6 or 7 women sitting alongside you. We tend to pre-seat you to ensure a good mix of professionals at each table. We give you about 40 minutes to discuss the questions
  3. a nominated spokeswoman reports back to the main group for a quick 2-3 minutes and we then wrap up. We invite you to fill in a short feedback form.

You're welcome to stay on for a little while to chat with your new acquaintances. We try to hold these events on Fridays when people's diaries are usually a little more relaxed. At our values lunch in Auckland there was a real buzz after the discussion and a number of people lingered, in deep conversation!

Values As Tools

Let me start with a recent story about the value of values and how being aware of them can be a highly useful tool.

Some of you will know that for many years I contracted to the Boston Consulting Group. It was a long term relationship that evolved from my being an employee, and came with a high level of trust and respect on both sides. I remember that after the first year or so we didn't bother with renewing the (very short) formal contract . They knew I would work very conscientiously to safeguard their clients' interests and I knew they would pay me promptly, treat me like an insider and send challenging projects my way.

Now, however, I have moved to working as a truly independent consultant, and that means I am establishing a number of new relationships with new clients where there isn't a shared history. We have to rely on two things to try to give our new situation its best chance of success. One is references - what good experiences have others had with this person or organisation, what things do they value? - and the other is contracts - what do we need and expect from each other?

I've got two contracts in my inbox as I type this. One is about 5 pages and basically asks me to deliver x work, accept y payment and observe confidentiality. The other is 6 times longer and seems designed to put me on the back foot before I start. Particularly, it steps through three ever more restrictive levels of restraint of trade. These culminate in their claiming the right to come into an existing client of mine, have merely a chat with the client about doing work, and in consequence ban me from doing further private work there!

My eyes just about popped out of my head when I read that clause. I may even have let rip with an expletive or three. I know why: one of my core values is fairness, and this contract is not fair. I will be signing the 5 pager but I will not sign this one. And you can bet I will be very cautious about dealings with this organisation.

Identifying Values

My experience with the contracts shows a pretty good way to identify your values. If something makes you suddenly furious the chances are, at some fundamental level, that it has outraged a value you hold dear. As one woman in our Auckland session said, "You don't often reflect on your values till they are challenged."

There is a positive way to identify values too: you can reflect on real-life or fictional characters that you admire and try to discern what it is about them that attracts you. Courage, perhaps? Their integrity? One table reported to us that this brings specific examples to mind and these make it easier to distil the value.

Identifying your own values is one thing, but what about a future employer's or partner's values? In my story above, I looked at the paperwork the organisation sent me and I spoke to others who had worked for them. Our sessions generated lots of other, highly practical, ideas:

  • try and talk to the people you'll be working with, not just the interviewer. In a large organisation, there can be pockets where the values are different to the mainstream - for better or worse.
  • talk to the people out at the coalface of the firm if you can. "If they can clearly articulate the company's values then that's a great sign. It shows that the message is coming down clearly from the top and they walk the talk"
  • listen to the stories that the interviewers share. "In the interview, informal discussions especially about broader life issues are a good place to get a sense of their values," said one table. "Your gut feeling at the interview stage is really important"
  • don't rely on the website but read up what they say there and then listen for how well that matches to the interview and other conversations

Shared Values

If you found you didn't have a good match with a potential employer's values would it matter and what would you do? We loved the answer from one woman, "Look, there's values and there's security of income. I'm the main breadwinner and that's important. So.... I guess I'd turn them down... but slowly!"

It's easy to think that highly aligned values are a must for a successful relationship whether at work or at home. But a woman in Tauranga made us all think more subtly about this. She told us that her husband held the value of family loyalty very dear and this would, in extremis, lead him to hide an allegedly criminal family member from justice.

I don't share that value of his, I would give the person up to the police. But I do admire him for having principles that are so true to his core value of loyalty.

Another interesting twist that we discussed is that it is possible to share a value but to have different ways of expressing that value in practice (or, to put it another way, to have different principles that flow from the value). Galia explained that the value of honesty is nearly universal but that we have different cultural ways to express it. Thus "does my bum look big in this?" would be answered:

  • in New Zealand with: "no" - our cultural principles are that we avoid a topic or tell a white lie to save someone's feelings
  • in Israel, where Galia comes from with: "yes, and so does the rest of you since you had your baby." (yikes!)

One table came up with a local example around the value professionalism and the principles that could flow from that. They had seen one colleague express professionalism through good punctuality and time keeping. Another person in the same team focused on getting the job done, even if that meant running late to meetings. They shared a value, but not principles. Being aware of the shared value behind these differences makes it easier to accept them and to articulate any discussion around them if things ever get heated.

Staying True to your Values

Should you always stay true? One view is that we change as we mature and so we need to go assessing who we are as we grow older. We may initially take on our parents' values but then experiment and evolve our own. It pays to reassess your values to see if they are changing in response to significant new experiences. Having children was one example that several people pointed to as a trigger for a shift in values, for example.

One table suggested that while values might not wholly change in a lifetime, they might well change priority. Sometimes a person's values could come into conflict with each other and this would be an opportunity to "rearrange the cards" into a new priority order. The example they gave was if someone with the value of respect for one's elders and the value of respect for oneself were faced with an older, bullying boss. Which would win out? Putting the second value first wouldn't mean the first had been dropped, only reprioritised.

Values can help us navigate tricky situations by giving us clear criteria to weigh our choices and reactions against. However, we shouldn't feel bound by the past.

The Value of Values

Uncovering your values, being mindful of them when faced with tricky situations and significant decisions, and perodically revisiting them all take effort. Is it worth it? I'll leave the last word to our final Auckland table who said,

Your energy expands when you are living your values - the opposite of that drained feeling.


© Professionelle Ltd 2010

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