When Values Clash: Finding Your Moral Compass



Values matter, particularly in uncertain times. We all tend to fall back on our values to guide us in making major decisions, particularly when navigating uncharted waters. However, most of us struggle to clearly articulate our values in a meaningful way. In a recent conversation with Ivan Misner, founder of Business Networking International (BNI) and author of the newly released book Who’s in Your Room, he shared that whenever he asks audiences to share their values, “the silence can be deafening.” The reality is most people, including seasoned leaders, struggle to articulate a clear set of values.

According to Misner one of the reasons people don’t spend time on their values is that they see “no tangible reason to sit around and do it.” Values are very personal and can be a bit uncomfortable to talk about. In addition, there are a lot of social influences including upbringing, religion, culture, and work that exert a lot of pressure on you to espouse certain values, at least publicly.

Inoculating yourself against these outside influences requires purposeful reflection. In his book True North former Medtronic CEO Bill George explains, “the values that form the basis for your true north are derived from your beliefs and convictions.” Orienting yourself toward your “true north” starts with a hard look in the mirror and some meaningful reflection on what you truly value.  

A Simple Test of Values

A quick search online will yield a number of values checklists, most of which have significant overlap. These lists typically contain anywhere from 30 to 300 words or phrases. It’s important to remember that any checklist is really just a starting point. The purpose of the checklist exercise is to narrow down your list to a core set of five to seven values with the ultimate goal of putting them into your own words.

As you narrow your list it is important to ask yourself the extent to which you really live these values. A common trap is to list aspirational values as opposed to actual values. In other words, there are those values we truly live day-in and day-out and there are those values we aspire to achieve, but have yet to act on. To find out if the values you have selected are ones you actually live, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I willing to fight for it?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice for it?
  • Am I willing to pay for it?
  • Am I willing to spend time on it?

We all have a lot of values with varying priorities, so cutting your list down to five or even seven isn’t an easy task. Challenge yourself to consider how many of those values are truly a priority when it comes to making tough decisions. Prioritizing your values can be tough, but if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

Work Vs. Personal Values

Knowing your values is one thing, acting on them is entirely another. One of the greatest sources of employee stress, and probably least talked about, is the misalignment of values. When your personal values clash with the values of the environment you operate in, being true to yourself can be a struggle. The challenge is that many of us try to reconcile this clash by creating a separate set of “work” values that feel more aligned with our work environment. Over time this subset of values will likely erode as they are more of a compromised rationalization than true reflection of who you are. Hitendra Wadhwa, Columbia University Professor and Founder of the Institute for Personal Leadership agrees. He believes “we should dissolve the false boundaries between work and life and learn to practice our core values in all circumstances.” Wadhwa points out that you just can’t separate your inner-self from your business self and expect to function in a healthy way.

Take some time over the holidays and ask yourself the tough questions about what you believe in, what matters to you, and the kind of person you want to be. Also, reflect on the beliefs you currently hold and don’t be afraid to question them, particularly if they come from work. Perfect alignment of values is rare in life, but the closer the better. You are at your best when your compass is pointing you in a direction that is consistent with the environment you are operating in. Remember, no one should ever tell you what your values should be. It is up to you to determine your own values. Set your compass to your true north and follow it.


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