Why the question “what is most important to you?” might be the best way to achieve behavioural change
In our busy lives where we constantly seem to be running from one thing to the next, it can feel as if we have to be experts at juggling priorities, spinning plates and keeping the multitude of people who rely on us happy. In order to achieve meaningful success in our lives, it is incredibly important that we somehow carve out some space to ask ourselves regularly, “what is most important to me?”, “where do I want to direct my energy?” and “who do I want to be?”. Underlying these questions is an exploration of our values.
Dr Steven Hayes, in his fantastic book ‘A Liberated Mind,’ defines values as “chosen qualities of being and doing, such as being a caring parent, being a dependable friend, being socially aware, or being loyal, honest and courageous. Living in accordance with our values is never finished, it is a lifelong journey. And it provides a way to create enduring sources of motivation based on meaning.” When we are coaching clients we are often focused on goals. Goals are great, they help us to get from A to B. Goals are even more powerful when they are aligned to values. If goals are the A to B then values are the direction on a compass, they tell us the general direction we need to be heading in but they are not something we can tick off of our To-Do list, they are ways of being that we need to continually work on.
Working with Individual Values
My career has taken me from Shipping to Pharmaceuticals to Youth Work and finally to Business Psychology and Organisational Development. When I reflect back it’s evident that my values played a leading role in guiding me to shift direction. They provided me with a sense of uneasiness that I didn’t quite fit where I was, or that what was important to me might be better realised through moving upwards, to another role or a different organisation. Now that I have invested time in identifying and applying my values I find making decisions about my career much easier. I now have a practice of writing about my values for ten minutes most mornings. For me, this enables me to focus on how I want to show up that day and what I need to put my energy into in order to perform at my absolute best.
When we are coaching leaders within organisations, particularly those in the process of transition or experiencing high levels of stress, we use an evidence-based approach called Acceptance and Commitment Coaching (ACC). Values-led action is a key feature of ACC and several studies have identified the positive benefits of identifying and working with values in respect to reducing the stress response and supporting individuals to connect with the difference they are making. When we are working with individuals and teams it is rare that we don’t in some way explore what really matters to people. People are generally at their best when they are focusing on what’s important to them and teams feel aligned when they can see what connects them.
Values Led Leadership
A values led individual or leader is clear on their core values and assesses pretty much everything they do in terms how well it aligns, or not, with these values. This ongoing awareness enables something very important, choice. Knowing our core values and their relative importance enhances our self-direction. It enables us to choose what we do and don’t do, and at the very least will influence how we do what we do. So, our values can therefore help us to, as best we can, navigate through challenges and opportunities while staying true to ourselves.
In his book ‘From Values to Action,’ Harry Kraemer firmly holds the view that “the only true leadership is values-based leadership.” He outlines the four principles of values-based leadership. The first is self-reflection; having the ability to identify and reflect on what you stand for, what your values are, and what matters to you most. Being willing to look within yourself and strive for greater self-awareness. The second is balance, which is the ability to see situations from a variety of perspectives to gain a fuller understanding. Balance means that we consider all sides and opinions with an open mind. The third he calls ‘true self-confidence,’ by which he means accepting yourself for who you are. This means recognising your strengths and weaknesses and striving for continuous improvement. The fourth is genuine humility. This means never forgetting who you are and where you came from. Genuine humility helps to keep life in perspective and helps you to value, and treat with respect, each and every person you encounter.
Some of the ways an organisation might apply these ideas is through:
- Coaching – Coaching can support leaders to explore their values at a deeper level and identify how they can act on them to drive their performance and their development.
- Developing the coaching skills of leaders within organisations – the adoption of a coaching culture, where leaders ask great questions of their teams, can lead to greater empowerment. Leaders asking questions of their teams which connect them back to their shared values helps to embed values and ensure that teams keep coming back to a focus on what is collectively important.
- Supporting leaders with the use of values within their teams – There are many ways to help a team focus on what is important. Simon Sinek’s ‘Golden Circle’ is a great framework to stimulate thinking as is the values-finding process described in Brené Brown’s book ‘Dare to Lead’.
Organisations are collections of individuals who have their own values and are aligned in working towards a common purpose (hopefully). Everyone within the organisation is in a constant process of constructing their own perspective of reality and making meaning through the language of the organisation and the conversations they have. People identify what is important within the organisation by being guided by cues, like what is rewarded, who gets on, how failure is treated and how decisions are made. When we talk about organisational culture, often described as ‘the way things are done around here,’ we are in the most part talking about the impact of underlying collective values and the behaviours that come from them. In his classic book, ‘Organizational Culture and Leadership’, Edgar Schein identifies three levels of culture. Values, and the related beliefs and behaviours, are evident at all three levels. This demonstrates how important values are in any work we are doing which involves culture change.
The process of clarifying what is important to people within the organisation, both in respect to the elements that are currently working well and also in relation to the future success of the organisation, provides signals for where individuals need to direct their focus of attention and energy. This is not to say that everyone in the organisation needs to share the same value set, it is a recognition of the particular elements of people’s value sets that need to be pulled on in order to achieve collective success. When individuals look at an organisation’s values, there will understandably be some that resonate with them more than others. Having a diverse range of individuals in the organisation is important, that they are able to identify with the collective definition of what matters and what the organisation is fundamentally about is important too. Where values are embedded and brought to life, there is much more clarity about expectations around behaviours inside the organisations. It also provides a signal for customers around the experience of what they can expect when buying a product or receiving a service.
If an organisation is thinking about entering a process of clarifying or refreshing its values some of the key things to think about are:
- What is the intention? The intention will guide the approach taken to understand the shared values. In our work, we take an approach called ‘Appreciate Inquiry,’ this involves listening to stories that explain what’s working within the organisation and identifying how to get more of it. Any approach which is collaborative, involving people throughout the organisation, will signal that the organisation values understanding what its people value.
- How can we ensure they are aligned? What other systems and processes do we have that will need to be reviewed in light of the clarification of values? This might be recruitment and promotional processes, it could be induction or leadership and management training or the way that decisions are made and shared.
- How will they be brought to life? How will we help our people connect with what is important to us collectively? How can we use real stories and language which resonate?
- How will they be embedded? How can we ensure that the values continue to be talked about and that our people use them to continuously challenge themselves and others to focus their energy on what is most important?
Asking the question ‘what is most important to you?’ to our ourselves and within our organisations is fundamentally about actively focusing our brains on what really matters. It is through this active focusing of attention and energy that we can achieve changes in behaviour that lead to our individual and collective idea of success. Values can provide an important reminder of what truly matters to us, which in a complex, noisy and fast-moving world, is invaluable.
- A Liberated Mind by Dr Steven Hayes
- Acceptance and Commitment Coaching by Jon Hill and Joe Oliver
- Conversations Worth Having by Jackie Stavros and Cheri Torres
- Dare to Lead by Brené Brown
- The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle
- Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar Schien