We hear a lot about values. During election campaigns politicians talk about “traditional values.” There are also cultural values (“American values, European values, etc.), “family values”, “value based leadership,” etc. etc.
We hear about how important values are in society, or about important it is to instill strong value systems in our children. But, when we speak about values, what exactly are we talking about?
What are values?
While most of us have an intuitive idea about the nature of a value, few could provide a clear definition of what one actually is. Most recognize that values are generally related to something of worth, or meaning. When we say we have a particular value, we are by default assigning worth and meaning to that value. We are saying it is important to us.
For example, if we say that “success” is a value, we are saying that we believe that being successful is worth something, or that it has meaning to our lives. From our statement we can assume that “success” is worth taking specific, and perhaps difficult, steps to achieve. In other words, our goals and actions will reflect the value of “success.” They form the basis for our behaviors and motivations.
Values are typically abstract concepts. For example, although you and I may both say that “success” is a value, we will most likely have at least subtle differences in how we define success. Therefore, our motivations, goals, plans, and behaviors may be very different as we pursue success.
To summarize, values define what we desire, or seek to achieve.
But there is more…
As I mentioned above, values are usally very abstract. When we say that “success” is a value, we are saying that we desire success, and that success is worth some effort to achieve. But how do we clarify what success actually is?
Robert Dilts, in his book Sleight of Mouth, contends that another construct is at play in our value systems. According to Dilts, we use what are known as criteria to further define our values. The best way to describe criteria and how the relate to values is by an example.
If my definition of success is having very strong relationships with friends and family, I will probably not work 60 hours each week to get that next promotion or bonus. Instead, I will choose to do things that build those relationships over things that build my career, such as spending more time at home, or with friends, building those relationships.
On the other hand, if you define success as becoming a Vice President before age 35, you will most likely put in those extra hours, even at the expense of some of your relationships.
So, my criteria for success is strong personal and family relationships. Your criteria for success (in this example) is career growth.
Our criteria make the abstract value of success more concrete for each of us, and therefore influence our goals and behaviors.
Contemplating your own values
Most (all?) of us could sit down and write out a list of values that we believe to be sacred. Perhaps values like “honesty”, “integrity”, “loyalty”, “achievement”, “family”, and many others would appear on most of our lists. Some of these values have been passed down through our own family or national cultures. These are expected values. But how do we really know they are “our own” values?
There are two obvious tests.
First, sit down with your list of values, then go through each value and write down the criteria for that value. Odds are, if you cannot write down several criteria for any particular value, you have not really defined what that value means to you. And if you have not defined the value, you probably have not internalized it. And a value that is not internalized is not really a value that you own for yourself.
Second, after you have really defined your values, reflect on how well you actually keep them. If you say you value family, but your efforts are mostly focused towards work, there may be cause to reconsider how strongly you hold the family value. In other words, the more strongly your behavior reflects the values you purport to hold, the more strongly you actually hold those values.
The hierarchical and fluid nature of values
You may feel a little concerned or confused (or even offended) after reading the last section. There is really no need, because it is entirely possibly, even probably, that some of your values may conflict with some others. This is because values are hierarchical and fluid by nature.
This statement may surprise you because you may have been taught that values are set in stone, universal, and concrete. But on reflection, can you name a single value that actually is any of these?
Some may say that respecting human life is an absolute value. But, in the next breath we may justify killing terrorists, or a criminal that has committed murder, or another person who is threatening the life of your own child.
So, do we say that we do not value human life? No, what we would say is that we do value human life, but not as much as we value justice, or defending our own children. So when we think about each of these values: human life, justice, defending our children, we see that there is a hierarchy.
To complicate things further, some of our values and criteria may even change over time. For instance, it is not uncommon for people to change their value criteria as they grow older and experience more. A traumatic or highly emotional event may change the values a person has as well. Sometimes we may even choose to reflect on a value, and modify it or its criteria to better fit in our own map of reality.
Values are complex psychological constructs. They are ambiguous, vague, and abstract. But in our own minds we assign them criteria to further define them and make them more practical. Values govern our behaviors and motivation, and therefore our perceptions of reality.
However, it would be wrong to say they “control” us, because they are fluid and hierarchical. We have the ability to modify our values and criteria based on our own experiences and needs. I encourage you to explore your values, understand their criteria and hierarchy, and align your work and behaviors with them. In doing so you will lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life.