What are values and principles and how do they determine why we do things?

Why do we do things? What are the values and principles that underpin our actions?

The ‘why’ represents our values.  Our values are part of our identity; they are the things we love, the ideals we prioritise.  They are central things that define why we have a certain vision, why we do the things we do, why we attract or are attracted to certain people. I often think values as being summed up by 3 Ps; our:

  • Principles
  • Passions and
  • Priorities

Values shape our beliefs, our worldview and the paradigm that we operate from. These are often things we hold in common with others at one level, but the particular combination and application of the values make them unique to us as an individual or specific organisation.

“I’d asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question, ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting for money.” 

Andy Warhol

Should we ask the question ‘why?’

People often avoid asking ‘why’ questions because they can elicit an emotional response. They can make people defensive, or make the questioner appear judgemental. But if we fail to ask ‘why’ questions of ourselves we can really miss a trick.  If, or rather when, things get tough people do start to ask ‘why’ questions. We need to make sure we have some answers before then, particularly if you are a leader.  Let’s face it; things will inevitably get difficult at some point on our journey.  In challenging times we need to understand the deep things that motivate us towards a vision or mission.  It is much better to get those ideals clear ahead of time rather than having to discover them in a time of crisis.

When it comes to why questions we can learn from young children, as they are very good at asking the question ‘why?’  They will often keep asking why until they get a satisfactory answer; children are hard to fool! You can tell when children are following this line of questioning as there are usually accompanied by a red-faced adult who is becoming increasingly irate! The parent’s frustration grows as they start to run out of responses and realise that perhaps they do not actually know the answer themselves.  As adults, it seems we are much better at fooling ourselves and settling for a more superficial answer to a why question.

Simon Sinek identified the importance of asking why in his book Start with why. He argues that people who know their ‘why’ are the ones who lead and inspire others. Therefore we need to ask why, but we can also choose to construct our why questions in such a way that is less confrontational. For example, asking someone ‘what motivates you?’ is often better than ‘why are you doing that?’

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe” 

Simon Sinek

The 5 Whys

Asking why several times over and applying the why to each subsequent answer can help us dig down to the motivational root of an issue. 

I was out running one day and spotted someone fishing by a riverbank. Apart from eating the fish, I had never really understood the allure of fishing, so I asked them why they enjoyed it.  Their first answer was because they enjoyed being outdoors.  Instead of asking directly ‘why’ again, I said: “that’s interesting, I love being outdoors too, what particularly do you like about it?” They answered that it was the only time they really slowed down and felt at peace.  When I questioned further they said that the most important thing was getting the time to reflect.  I then left them to enjoy their peace and reflection but by asking ‘why’ several times over I had gained a deeper understanding into the motivations of that person and learned that fishing was not just about catching fish!

The art of asking why in this way was used by great effect by Sakichi Toyoda who developed the ‘5 whys’ approach to problem-solving within the Toyota Motor Corporation and helped to revolutionise their manufacturing and make Toyota production far more efficient. Every system and action was analysed by asking why over and over until the primary reason was revealed and the process could be refined.

Reflection question:

  • Which work processes could you do this for? Choose a process that you follow and ask why you do it. Keep asking why until you get the real reason for the existence of the process. Once you know the answer, consider, how could this be done better?

Revealing our values

So we need to look at why we do things and ask ‘why’ of ourselves many times over.  Then, as we delve into our answers we begin to see our principles and values revealed.

As we go through this process we will soon see that there are actually many things that we value or that we would agree are good principles.  The key here is working out what are the things that you value the most.  For example, you could say that you value making new friends as well as maintaining long-standing relationships. But, if in looking at both these activities you see that you spend a lot more time on one than the other, then arguably that is the one you value the most.  Equally, you could say that you value two worthy charities. But again, the one you give the most money to would probably give a good indication of where your priorities lie.

These are simple examples but the principle applies even to more abstract concepts.  Loyalty and integrity are both excellent things to value. It might require some careful thought working out which one you prioritise most, but it can be done. There are further exercises in the posts and links below to help you.

Identifying core values

You will probably start with quite a long list but it is a worthwhile exercise to drill down to a list of 4-6 core values for yourself or your organisation. Any more than that and it becomes harder to see how your values differentiate you from other people.  If you are an organisation trying to discover, agree and instil values into your workforce it is also hard for people to remember many more than this!

Then, of this shortlist, identify your top two. Brené Brown (author of Dare to Lead) has done a lot of research that backs up the importance of knowing your top values and priorities.

Refining the expression of your core values

As you hone down to your core values it can also be useful to use adjectives to really help capture the particular nature of a value.  So, for example, you might value of community, but what sort of community?  Is it close community, global community, fun community, caring community, inclusive community, or diverse community you are thinking about?  Adding the right adjective moves you closer to your unique perspective and combination of values.

There are further exercises and advice on how to identify and refine your values in the post What are your personal values?

The importance of values

The process of exploring your values is one worth spending time on. Values are at least as essential as the discovery of our vision and mission. Don’t worry about getting them perfectly captured, especially on a first try. Even our values evolve over time so think of this as a cyclical process, as with other decision making approaches. Do some thinking, record or communicate your thoughts, and then return to reflect on them again regularly in the future.

Once we have identified our values we may not always need to refer to them all the time but they are always there steering us, even if it is just at a subconscious level.

When I was in the Alps for the first time I had a particular dream in mind: a dream of standing on the summit of Mont Blanc.  Success was therefore easy to define; my aim was to get to the top of Mont Blanc and back safely.  Most of the time the vision was there to see, as Mont Blanc loomed large above me. The mission was also clear when I looked at the route on the map.  But, as I climbed higher up and the cloud started to roll in, I could no longer see the mountain clearly.  I could see the route on the map but I could not relate it to the ground.  It was at this point that I had to rely on my compass and altimeter to keep me on the right track.

Values are like a compass; they help us keep on track even when the route to achieving our dream is unclear or the mission is challenged.  Values are therefore invaluable.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Reflection question:

  • Once you have identified them, what can you do to keep your values in mind?

One thing I do is to have my personal values and vision at the top of my to-do list. My list of tasks is organised by role and having my values at the top helps me to weigh my priorities correctly.

If you want to read more about values then check out why things we value define our personal identity.

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