There’s so much talk about values in the workplace—often applied to an organization, not an individual—that it’s sometimes hard to make your personal values concrete in the midst of it all.
Why is it so important to know what you value?
Your unique values drive your behavior, even if you’re not conscious of it. They determine how you react to adversity and what brings you joy. They can explain why that conversation you had at work bothers you so much that it keeps you up at night, but might not have the slightest impact on your colleague. And in the context of your career, working in a space that honors your values can make the difference between fulfillment and discouragement.
If you’re not entirely clear on your personal and professional values, it’s time you embark on a bit of an exploration by allowing yourself a few weeks to complete the process described below. If you dig into it with an open mind, this can be the start of a lifetime of exploring—and getting—what fulfills you.
Three ways to tap into what you value
First, explore what’s important to you with some visualization exercises. In a quiet space, with pen and paper to take notes, put yourself in each of the three scenarios below and reflect on how you feel.
- Recall a specific moment in your life that was especially rewarding—a time when you were doing what you felt you were meant to do, being the person you are meant to be. Remember the sights, sounds, and feelings. What were you doing? Who was with you? What was your impact?
- Recall a recent experience when you were angry, frustrated, or upset. What was happening? What was upsetting to you? What did you really want to do in that moment (even if you didn’t do it)?
- Bring to your mind someone you know and admire—someone who has qualities you strive to have yourself, someone you love being around. What qualities do they have that make it enjoyable, fulfilling, inspiring, or comforting to be around them?
With the notes you’ve taken, write a list of four to 10 values that are apparent in your responses, referring to the lists here for ideas if you get stuck. If lists don’t inspire you, make this more salient by creating a drawing or coloring a mandala with each section representing a value.
Lean into the values you’ve identified and see what happens
Now that you have a list of things you believe in, start to drill down into the nuances. What does it mean at the end of a day when one value isn’t met but another is? In what ways do your values conflict with one another (don’t worry, they will and it’s okay)?
Perhaps you’ve identified that connection is really important to you. You might regularly find connection by calling a friend or volunteering in your community. Track informally how much time you spend in a typical week honoring connection. Is it just right, or are you so tapped out you can’t take another happy hour?
After a few weeks, you might start to notice what gives you energy and what depletes it. You might recognize times when you are reflecting on a specific value to make decisions. This means you’re onto something!
Take your values to work
Time to amp it up! Wouldn’t it be fulfilling if you could honor what’s most important to you at work?
Here are some ways to put this into practice:
- Take a look at your annual goals. Your mind (and your boss) might tell you that conducting outreach to new stakeholders is critical to your program’s success, but the part of you that values accurate communication finds it difficult to hit “send” on that email to 500+ supporters. What are other ways you can reach out to your target population or other venues you could use to communicate in the way that best suits you? Consider what you can change in the structure of an upcoming project to energize you toward meeting the goal.
- Create a personal user manual to clarify what gives you energy and how you work best. Check out Aaron Hurst’s work on creating a personal user manual as a start. Share your user manual with one colleague and ask for their reaction.
- Acknowledge that even your most cherished values might be in conflict with one another from time to time. Some will be very easy to honor at work and others might be more easily fulfilled on the weekend or during a vacation. Decipher what you think you need at work so you can make conscious choices and trade-offs when needed.
Pro Tip: To get the most out of this exploration, talk openly with your manager about what you’re learning. Communicate clearly and make a plan in writing if your development conversations result in a change of plans or annual goals, and know that even incremental changes can make a difference in how you feel at the end of the work day.
Enjoy the long-term benefit of understanding your values
This is like riding a bike. Once you learn about your values, they can’t be unlearned. Lucky you! You now have a tool you can use for the rest of your life to help you pursue what fulfills you most and aid you in making difficult decisions when they arise.
Knowing how to act in ways that honor you the whole of you will not only bring you more peace of mind but also allow you to shine as your unique, most authentic self.
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Liz S. Peintner is a leadership coach and consultant based in Denver, Colorado who has spent her entire career in the social impact field. She helps people to better understand what drives them so they can choose careers they love and ultimately make positive social impact in ways that speak to their talents and passions.