How many times have you made misguided choices and weren’t even sure why, and then felt frustrated with yourself afterwards? We all experience this on a regular basis. We’re all subject to unconscious programming that controls our behaviour in ways we can’t even see.
The only way to escape our unconscious programming and live more consciously and congruently is to clearly define our values, and then strive to live in accordance with them.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) defines values as ‘chosen concepts linked with patterns of action that provide a sense of meaning that can coordinate our behaviour over long timeframes. Examples of such patterns might be acting lovingly towards one’s partner or being present with one’s children. Values in this sense can never be fulfilled, satisfied or completed. Rather, they serve to give us purpose, intent or direction for each instance of behaviour.’9
We simplify the definition as follows: ‘A virtue or value is a quality that, when cultivated, creates long-term connection, trust and harmony within us and in the environment or groups we live and work in.’
I emphasise long-term because sometimes following a value in the short term can be quite stressful. But if we follow it repeatedly, over time it develops deep trust and congruence within us. Ultimately, it gets us what we want, which is internal harmony as well as harmony in our families, teams, organisations and communities. Values help us achieve our highest potential.
Values, such as honesty, respect, curiosity, kindness, generosity and presence, were once expressed as ‘virtues’. The philosopher Marsilio Ficino, the father of the Italian Renaissance, asserted, ‘If you perfect one virtue, you perfect them all.’ What Ficino understood is that the process of perfecting a virtue is what transforms our behaviour and cultivates the awareness and maturity required to master our mind, rather than the virtue itself.
Values help us to be happier by cutting through our mind’s conditioned responses to whatever we experience in life.
Avinash Potnis, Managing Director for the Pharma division of Novartis in Turkey, shared a powerful personal story of how developing his value of authenticity has been a huge factor in his rise to success. ‘By authenticity I mean that I don’t have to be anybody else,’ he explained. ‘I don’t have to pretend or put on masks. I can just be myself. It’s the only way I can connect with people.
‘However, authenticity has not come easy for me. I have had to work on it. I came from a very small village in India. I was able to get a degree and enter the corporate world, but that wasn’t enough. I was always trying to hide my humble roots and pretend to be someone I was not. This manifested as arrogance, though it was in fact deep insecurity. I was not really connecting with people, and I didn’t understand why.
‘My inauthenticity caught up with me in the summer of 1999, when I was at the pinnacle of my arrogance. I was called in to interview for a global position at Novartis. I had 16 interviews in two days. I felt confident that the position was mine — until my last interview, with the department head. Within five minutes of our interview he told me, “You’re not going to be part of my team.”
‘ “Why?” I asked. “You haven’t even interviewed me.”
‘He answered directly. “I read the summary of each of your previous interviews. I fear that your internal growth is not where it should be in order to become a global leader.”
‘I came back to India shattered. I had no idea what had gone wrong. I was in complete denial, and I stayed in denial for at least six months. To drive it all home, in December of that year I was fired from Novartis. My wife wasn’t working and our child was a year and a half old. We had five days to vacate our apartment, which Novartis had been paying for. It was brutal. To this day I have nightmares thinking about that period of my life.
‘Sometimes it takes situations like this to wake us up. When I look back at the person I was before getting fired, I would not employ myself. I had no humility, and I was not being authentic.
‘During this time I attended a seminar where the speaker did an exercise that ignited something in me. He showed us a clear glass of water and said, “This is your state of mind when you’re born.” He then put a drop of ink in the water, which became murky. He said, “This is the state of your mind now. All the open curiosity you had when you were born has now become preconceived ideas and the mask you wear for the world. The data in your mind is murkier still.”
‘To complete the exercise, he then added water one drop at a time and with each drop the water became clearer. “What this represents,” he told us, “is that you have to deliberately work with your mind. You have to keep putting awareness (clear water) into it in order to clear your murky thoughts and beliefs.”
‘For the next two years I listened to thousands of audiotapes and read a couple of hundred books. About 18 months into the process, I started noticing how much my mind was opening up. My insecurities began disappearing and I began to live much more authentically than I was ever able to before. I realised that the world has space for everybody, and I don’t have to be insecure at all. The moment that happened, I became a better contributor. I was okay within my skin, with my accent, my thoughts.
‘When I tasted the freedom of authenticity, I wanted more. So I continued to cultivate this value in my life. Between 2002 and 2005 I was a project manager for a company in India. Our small team was able to accomplish amazing things. In 2005 Novartis called me back and rehired me. My first job was in the Philippines. Then, within just a couple of months, the regional head came to visit me from Germany and asked me to be the country head for the Philippines.
‘Almost overnight I went from being a small project manager to a country head. This was all the result of the growth that came as I strived to become more authentic over the course of years.’
For Avinash, perfecting the one virtue of authenticity impacted every aspect of his career and life. Steven Baert, former Chief People Officer and Executive Committee Member of Novartis, shared with me how the process of consciously choosing his values has helped him overcome conditioned responses in his leadership. As he put it, ‘When you try to change deeply embedded patterns, you’ll always have a voice in the back of your mind that says, Go back to that comfortable road. You know how to drive that road. What are you doing out here in the jungle with a machete trying to create a new path, when you know there’s already a very comfortable, well-beaten path?
‘I had to lean into the fear that arose in me as I tried to change behaviours in me that weren’t aligned with my values. At some point you realise your comfort zone is no longer attractive because you need to grow throughout your career. And although there is pain that comes with growth, it’s also refreshing and liberating to realise you can choose new behaviours that serve you better.’
Values to increase engagement and commitment
In addition to transforming our behaviour, following values also makes us more engaged with and committed to our work. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner performed a large study to gauge the relationship between living values and people’s commitment to their work. They asked participants three questions:
- How clear are you on the values of your organisation?
- How clear are you on your personal values?
- How committed do you feel to your work?
They mapped out the responses on the four quadrants of the matrix, as shown below.
Impact of values clarity on commitment
It should be no surprise that when people scored low on their personal values as well as on organisational values, their average commitment score was only 4.9 out of a possible seven points. Interestingly, those who reported having low clarity on personal values but high clarity on organisational values actually scored lower — an average of 4.87.
Even more interesting, however, is the engagement and commitment level of those with high levels of clarity on their personal values. As the figure shows, there was not much of a difference between those who were high on both personal and organisational values (6.26 average commitment score), and those who were high on personal values but low on organisational values (6.12 average commitment score).
What this shows is that having clarity on personal values impacts our engagement and commitment more than having clarity on organisational values. Those who are clear on personal values tend to be more engaged and committed regardless of organisational values. The bottom line is, when we’re clear on our own values and we shape our life around them, we feel more alive and engaged in life in general.