Blog & Insight

What are values?

Let's start with the basics:

  • Your values are what motivate your every action and inaction. That is, you don't take action unless a value is being met. Examples of values include integrity, safety, honesty, respect, security, adventure, achievement, success, away from failure, control (or perhaps not to be controlled by others), contribution, freedom, communication, laughter, cooperation and so on. I suspect where you are on Maslow's hierarchy of needs may also impact the values driving your action at any time - it would certainly explain why our motivations changed during lockdown.
  • Your values are unconscious desires felt from the heart - not conscious choices made by your mind (if you look at a list to choose your values your mind is simply picking aspirational values that may have no bearing on the real values that motivate your actions).
  • Your values determine how you judge others - in other words your values are often likely to be behind when you get angry about someone else's behaviour - especially when you're vehemently of the opinion that the other person is wrong. That is, they're behaviour is clashing with a belief you have about what particular value looks and sound like.
  • Values are context specific - so what motivates you at work might not motivate you at home.
  • Values are hierarchical - which means someone's hierarchy may contain conflicts or contradictions - for example peace and forthrightness may result in some conflicting behaviours, or they might not - depending on your definition for how to obtain them. 
  • The higher a value is in your hierarchy the more highly prized it is, and the more strongly you'll defend your right to have that value met, or go into conflict with others if they're giving you its opposite.
  • The beliefs you have about what is and isn't involved in obtaining a value are personal to you. The dictionary won't provide much of a clue - what honesty looks like to you and I will be very different (as outlined in the blog linked to here). That is the value isn't 'to be honest' but 'honesty'. Which, although a subtle difference, is a huge difference in the context of dealing with others.
  • Values may be about you behaving a certain way with others, or about them behaving a certain way with you or both of these. This can be fraught with further contradictions and double standards - for example honesty of managers may be expected even if we ourselves withhold information from the manager - and yet that's our definition of honesty and we will even struggle to see the contradiction (that's how blinkered our values can make us)!
  • Values don't, therefore, inherently drive right behaviour.
  • Business values are very different to personal values.

If you're interested in understanding what your values are this post will help, or wanting to motivate others using their values this post will provide some guidance.

The problem that we have with values is they are unconscious, and therefore when they cause us frustration, anger or resistance we're often unaware that they're the reason for the emotion. We often believe our emotional response to be a considered and appropriate response to the behaviour of the other person.

For example, a common reaction about other's behaviour might be "did you see what he did to me" "that's just rude" "that's disrespectful" "that's not fair" "how dare they treat me like that".

The clue that the anger stems from us not having a value met is that other people around us don't judge the behaviour to be so unacceptable, nor be so angry about the behaviour as we are. We can also take it very personally "how can they do that to me."

Examples over recent months for myself or clients have included:

  • Core value of integrity meaning they need to do a good job, and therefore reacting very badly when asked to do something that would hinder, in their opinion, them doing a good job. That is, integrity may be important to most of us but only those with it as a value would react emotionally and angrily to it being compromised in this way.
  • Core value of respect meaning their wellbeing needs to be considered by others, and therefore reacting badly when asked to do something that compromises their well being. Although I realise wellbeing may also have been a value in its own right - so a double whammy with neither respect nor wellbeing being met. 
  • Core value of respect meaning others should call when they say they will, and therefore reacting badly when others consistently don't call, or call late.
  • Core value of recognition meaning they need to be seen by others to be doing a good job, and reacting badly when someone else takes the credit for the work they did.
  • Core value of fairness meaning everyone should be treated fairly, and reacting badly when they or others are treated differently from other colleagues.
  • Core value of family meaning their family comes first, and reacting badly when asked to put themselves first.
  • Core value of freedom meaning they like flexibility in the work they do, and reacting badly to being told to stick to the agenda or process.

Your reaction to even these examples may provide some clue to values you yourself have. Any frustration or annoyance would suggest I've touched on one of your values. To find out which one I'd suggest you answer the question "What's important to me about having the opinion I do about what Alison has written."

It's such a hard concept to convey because the more important a value is the more strongly you will defend your reaction, and more strongly believe that the other person is wrong.

I can't tell you the number of times conversations have become very fraught because even my explanation makes the person feel like I'm defending the other person's actions! Or perhaps disagreeing with them on something they feel is a part of who they are, and agreement on our core values is fundamental to our relationship.

I'm not suggesting the behaviour being experienced is acceptable - just that the strength of your reaction has nothing to do with the other person - and is all about your value, and your need for it to be met. If you didn't have it as a value you wouldn't react the same way. It might not feel like that because currently you're still in the throws of your relationship with the value.

The best metaphor I can think of is relationships - we've all know people who are in love with the wrong person, and will defend to all comers the other person's unacceptable behaviour. It's only once the person's hold on them has been released that they suddenly can see the behaviour for what it is - unacceptable. Or they develop some self esteem or confidence and stand up for more acceptable treatment, and renegotiate the terms of their relationship.

Values can be a little like that - it's only when we've taken a step back from them that we can see how it might be ruling our life, and perhaps driving some unacceptable behaviours (or behaviours that get in the way of us achieving our goals). The series of posts using my values as examples shows you how to determine what they are and what do do when one might have got too big for its boots!

It's perhaps why I find it such an interesting subject because values drive the majority of our actions but being unconscious often lead to much misunderstanding, miscommunication, and conflict, and my values are met when I try to make sense of that with others - especially because everyone is different :-).

I could go on (I suspect my values of truth, contribution and integrity (via doing a good job) drive my desire to keep writing) but will leave you in peace, and I hope contemplation, of how your values may be driving conflicts in your life, and some ideas how these may be resolved.

If you'd like help to uncover your values, resolve any conflicts between them and understand how your values can be used to support you achieving your goals call me +44 (0)7770 538159 or email

Sign up for my newsletter here.


© Alison Smith
VAT Registration: 224 5001 58
Registered in Scotland, Registration Number: SC457105
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram