A Values Battleground?                                                                                                                                 Find this on LinkedIn

When I reflect on the dubious behaviour of work colleagues over the years, I sometimes wonder if perhaps they left their values at home before opening the office door. I wonder if we can all honestly say that the home “you” is the same person as the “work” you.  Authenticity is widely discussed and generally welcome, yet what is stopping you being the person you already are? My ponderings today are not about corporate greenwash or lengthy leadership debates, they’re about us: our individuality and inner dealings.

We all know that values are a key driver of behaviour: what we believe to be important to us plays out in our words and deeds.  It’s just as easy to see how some values will last a lifetime and others will change with the demands and needs of life.  Imagine the couple where fun drives her need for spontaneity and adventure and security drives his need for a predictable, low risk lifestyle. Predict how two board room members will interact when one has a core value of altruism and the other has a core value of power and financial gain… Of course, when values line up, the resonance and energy ignite and we can sit back and watch the sparks light up the night. Job security may not matter at all to early career professionals but it will gallop towards the top of the list when they hit mid-career and have families and lengthy financial commitments. Positioning and influence may be the core values for many executives, but this quickly changes if health deteriorates and priorities change overnight.

I remember utilising all my skills in a strongly competitive, sales role for nearly four years in my early career and although I exceeded my targets, I felt (but never openly admitted…) like a round peg in a square hole. I loathed the “10 sales hits a day” target – I could understand it and I could do it…but I never believed in it or felt driven.  On I went, silently swimming against the tide because I wasn’t paying attention to my altruistic values.  It wasn’t until I began a role that put quality and people first – with no sales targets to be seen – that the penny finally dropped. And that wasn’t the only shift – I quickly became one of the finest sales people in the organisation because, finally, I believed in the purpose of my job and the mission of the organisation.
As I coach individuals who are looking for careers that fit, it’s easy for them to reflect on a list of work values. This is usually the easiest element of the whole self-evaluation experience. In a remarkably short time, they achieve that wonderful satisfaction of knowing what’s really important for them. And then there’s pure glee: the realisation that making choices is so much easier with clear and prioritised values. So, armed with clear values, can we now charge forward with our career campaign plan, feeling ready for anything?  If only… Along come three battle-hungry foes to make a jolly big mess of our cosy clarity. These threatening rogues are Fear, Seduction and Expectation.

Let’s take enemy number one: Fear. We feel it, and from bitter experience, we are all familiar with its impact. Fear is, without doubt, our greatest threat to achieving our career goals. I have lost count of the number of coachees who have described their ideal career path but felt too afraid to venture into new realms. “It’s too hard, it’s too difficult, I can’t do it, I don’t have…” And this fear is so strong that they ignore their values and continue down a path that misaligns with everything they know to be true about themselves. And this is so very easy to do, there are so many forces at play that influence our decision-making – nothing is straight forward. Sadly, careers are often derailed when individuals don’t match their role values and organisational values.

Let’s meet Seduction. Seduction is the invisible assassin. Let’s imagine we have this value set: working close to home (work/life balance), purposeful work (altruism) and like-minded colleagues (affiliation).  Out we go and evaluate sectors and organisations that create a great match. We’re so excited about how clear this is for us! And then… we fall upon an unexpected job ad and Seduction sneaks in unnoticed. The job pay is stunning, the role is further away, it’s a sexy brand but there’s no purposeful work that makes your heart soar. Seduction is smart – even though we know the role is not our ideal fit (not even close), we find ourselves drawn to it and off we go, tempted and drawn into roles that ultimately we will leave.

And so finally, let’s look at Expectation. This is a biggie. We are clear on what matters to us, we know what we want. We are resolute that Fear and Seduction will not stand in our way. Then along come our family, friends and peers.  Without even verbalising, you know what is expected of you. An MBA graduate from a business school is expected to earn high salaries in skin-tingling sectors. I consistently hear smart, talented MBA students say this sentence: “I’ll do management consultancy for a couple of years, make the money, get the positioning – and then change career”. This isn’t usually a concern in reality, because consultancies are savvy recruiters and they don’t offer roles to people who don’t match. But this example is Expectation and it comes to us all in many guises. Imagine a family member who is expected to keep the family business/tradition going and take it to new dizzy heights of success – irrespective of their interest or match. Loyalty versus career match – no easy choice. When we think of our peers (school mates, graduating classes, LinkedIn network) “obviously” they are all in roles which are perceived to be sensational – and clearly we must be too. Western culture is still very steeped in the ridiculous assumption that a commercially impressive and senior job means you’ve made it.

Thankfully, our society is changing (and, arguably, on the brink of significant shift) we can transition into different careers without raising suspicion. We can work for organisations which offer a far greater diversity of roles that meet every values mix. For those who are driven by altruism, the return of strategic corporate responsibility has set organisations on a path of social and environmental accountability. No longer do we need or want to recognise our values mix and tuck them away out of sight and be OK about that. There’s a long way to go, but a start has been made…The boom of social enterprises directly indicates how much more important it is for people to make a difference, to combine enterprise with social impact and put values at the centre of their mission.

I’d like to offer a magic potion, a pithy strapline that delivers us from this battleground and drives us towards our best future – but life is far more complicated than that. All I can say is that when we finally step out of the battleground and be true to our uniqueness, we reach stellar levels of awesomeness inside and out. We are liberated because we are doing work that feels made for us -and we’re doing it fabulously.