What we value informs our choices and our identity, as well as our organizational culture. So, it’s incredibly important that we know what our values are. Since culture is defined as a consensus of what is honored and what is shamed in an organization, we will honor the behaviors that align with our values, and shame the ones that do not.
An exercise to discover your values
Start with a list of values printed on a pile of index cards with one value on each card. Since this exercise is very subjective, the words on the card can mean different things to different people.
If you’re doing this exercise as an organization, make sure you have a shared understanding of what each value means. But if you’re doing this as a personal exercise, make sure that you know what each value means to you.
To get started, go through the deck of cards that you’ve printed. As you go, sort your cards into three different piles.
In the first pile, put the cards that make you say, “Yes! This is absolutely important to me!”
In the second pile, put your maybe values. These are the cards that make you think, “This might be kind of important to me.”
In the third and final pile, put the values that you don’t think are important to you at all.
This exercise might be difficult because the entire stack is a list of good things. Since you have to physically choose which values are most important to you, this exercise can help clarify what’s important to you.
After you’ve gone through the deck once, get rid of the “no” pile you just made. And when you’ve shuffled together the “yes” and “maybe” piles, do exactly the same thing you did in round 1.
As you go through this second round, remember this:
Everyone claims they value truth, honesty, or integrity. We hate it when people lie to us. But that doesn’t mean we value truth.
Value is about agency in our own lives more than what we enjoy receiving from others. What happens when we have a choice between truth and something else? Will you let some truth slide by to keep the peace? If so, you might care about peace more than truth. What are you willing to bend the truth for? The answer may point to a value you hold more deeply than truth.
As you complete round two, ask yourself: Do you really value this? If someone were looking at your life or hearing your inner monologue, would they see evidence that this is important to you?
After round two, discard the “no” and “maybe” piles. For this round, go through the remaining cards making only two piles, “yes” and “no.”
Keep in mind, this does not mean you don’t value these other things. Rather, there is a hierarchy to our values, and we want to discover our core motivators.
It usually takes at least five why’s to get to the heart of the issue. The deep value, and true motivator, comes out after pushing through the walls we create for safety and self-preservation.
As you work through round three, consider the following example of asking “why”:
Q1: “Why are you here to see me?”
“I want to lose weight.”
Q2: “Why do you want to lose weight?”
“I want to look better?”
“Well, I want to attract a spouse?”
“I don’t want to be alone.”
“I want to share my life with someone.”
“I want to feel loved and accepted.”
The five whys help us dig through the layers and get to the core of the vision we have for our lives. In that way, vision is something we discover more than something we make up.
This person really wants to lose weight to be loved and accepted. None of their other answers really matter, since those other things are just conditions they think they have to meet to be accepted.
The end is acceptance, and all the other answers are just means to that end.
For round three of the exercise, consider why? Why do you have this value in the pile? Is it because your parents enforced it? Is it a relatively superficial mask for what truly matters to you? Does it nest under a deeper value? Or does it resonate with some core aspect of who you are? Ask yourself, “Is this a hill I am willing to die on?” If the answer is yes, you are getting somewhere.
After round three, get rid of both the “no” and “maybe” piles. Then, try to whittle down the remaining pile to five values.
Look at the cards and figure out if one value might actually be the why of another. For example, someone may have two cards, “Freedom” and “Creativity”. Which of those is the deeper value? Do you value the creative process because it is an expression of freedom or freedom because it removes the obstacle of oppression from the creative process? Many of our values nest under others.
What are your top five values? How do you see them playing out in your life?