Uncovering Your Core Values and Maximizing Their Power

Written by: Brady Drake
Annie Wood, Associate Director for Student Life, Minnesota State University Moorhead

The word “values” gets thrown around often, and if we never pause to reflect on what our values really are, it’s pretty likely that we’ll default to whatever values are put in front of us. You probably know some of the common ones–the kind you often see in an artistic form on a company’s wall–integrity, trust, respect, generosity, yada yada yada. This is not to say that those couldn’t be your personal values. But until you spend time getting clear on the values that are true for you, all you’ll really have are words. Probably generic words. Words that don’t come alive for you because you haven’t dug deep to uncover the values that ring true for you. Generic values are challenging to live by because they aren’t connected to your authentic self. At least this was the case for me for a number of years.

Personal values are a way of articulating what is important to us and how we will interact with the world. Our values permeate our lives. Sometimes we’re conscious of them. Sometimes we’re not. And whether they’re top-of-mind of not, they shape how we show up as leaders, as teammates, as family members, as partners, as parents, as friends. I find that I operate very differently when I’m in alignment with my values vs. when I’m not. I challenge you to bring clarity to your values by investing some intentional “think time” in defining what they mean to you and what they look like in action. This can help you better understand what guides you and live a life that is true to yourself.

Having well-defined values sounds nice, doesn’t it? Perhaps, though, you’re not really sure where to begin. I’ve got some good news: it’s possible for anyone to uncover and clarify their values.

This idea of “defining your values” may seem like a squishy, hard-to-wrap-your-brain-around concept. But you’re in luck–I have a few guiding questions to help you move toward clarity. Pro Tip: It can also be helpful to seek out a list of commonly held values to build from. (There’s no shame in Googling a list of values! A favorite of mine comes from author James Clear (jamesclear.com/ core-values).

I have learned that so long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values– and follow my own moral compass–then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own. “ – Michelle Obama

Challenge yourself to hone in on five core values. As you explore values, here are a few questions to ask:

  1. Which of these values do I see showing up consistently in my life? Which values show up sometimes? Which values just don’t ring true for me?
  2. Of the values that are resonating with me, are there any that are similar? Are there any that overlap in how I define them?
  3. What has influenced my values?
  4. What are actions I take consistently and how do those demonstrate my values?
  5. What does each of these words mean to me and what does it look like in practice?

A few reminders as you work on defining your values:

  1. There are no right or wrong answers. Your values are what’s true for you.
  2. If you ever find yourself thinking “I feel like this should be one of my values,” that word “should” is a strong signal that idea is coming from an external source and not from within you.
  3. There are no values that are “better” than any others.
  4. Words are just words until you give them meaning. Challenge yourself to create a rich definition that includes the value in action.
  5. Values are principles, priorities, ideals, or how we behave, while beliefs are convictions that we generally accept to be true.

Values influence your decisions, choices, and interactions every day– basically your values are the undercurrent of your life. To plant your flag in the ground and say, “These are my values!” can be challenging and a little scary. Our proclamation means we have to be accountable to those values and commit to showing up in ways that demonstrate them. By sharing them, we are asking the people around us to both cheer us on and challenge us to live by those values. Committing to values can also be difficult because when we say “yes” to something, it usually means we are de-prioritizing other things. Yet, being clear about what our values are can make decisions easier, because they guide us to invest our time and energy into what matters most to us.

As we clarify our values, declare them to ourselves and others, and work to live in alignment with our values, it will be our actions and behaviors that demonstrate to us if we are really living out those values. Our values are more than just a simple list of words–our values are the rich definitions we create and the behaviors or actions that back them up.

One of my deeply held values is “community.” And for me, it is so much more than just a word. To explore what my values look like in action, I often write out a description of the type of person I want to be through the lens of that value. One bullet point within my community definition is “I want to be a person who shows up for the people I care about.” Then, I spend some time thinking about how this type of person–someone who values community and shows up for people–would behave or actions that they would take.

For example, a person who shows up for the people I care about would… check in with them through regular communication. She would know when their birthdays are and acknowledge them. She would intentionally invest time in the relationships, spending time with those people. She would invite them to coffee or happy hour or dinner. She would ask them how they’re really doing and honor/ validate all of their emotions. She would celebrate their successes and cheer them on. She would organize a meal delivery when they have a baby. She would send a good old-fashioned note in the mail from time to time to brighten their day.

You get the idea.

And then, if I’m really honest about community being a value of mine–I must challenge myself to live this way. To take these actions, not just one time, but consistently. At the risk of sounding cliché, actions speak louder than words. I can say community is my value, but until I’m living it day in and day out, it’s just a word. It can be a challenge to really step back and look at how we spend our time and energy to see if we are consistently taking actions that demonstrate our values.

So, I encourage you to think about the values that guide you. Perhaps you’ve given them a lot of thought and you feel clear about them– challenge yourself to look at how you’re living them every day. Perhaps you’re in a spot where you haven’t spent much time thinking about what values are true for you– challenge yourself to use the questions I posed and start to uncover them. Wherever you’re at in your values journey, remember that values are your guide to living your truest, most beautiful, most authentic life.

Why is uncovering the values of your team members important?

So that I can be a leader who supports my team well, I need to understand what is important to my teammates and what motivates them. At the same time, I need to understand what would be out of alignment with their values. When I understand their individual values, we can co-create team values and shared expectations that serve us all while encouraging growth. I can also invite them to contribute in ways that align with their values, letting them really shine and work to avoid instances that would put them at odds with their values.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.