The Power of Growth Values
The process of personal development is about overcoming our subconscious programming and conditioned responses and living from consciously chosen values that help us grow. Growth values, which pull us in the direction of our conscious or best intentions, are distinguished from assumed or unconscious values handed down to us from our parents and society.
Most of the clients I work with are rarely able to express their values clearly. Or if they can, they typically share them as if they were a personal brand — principles they believe live by unquestioningly in all circumstances. Ironically, their values appear to be used as an image management tool to look good to others, rather than as a daily growth practice. Growth values explicitly invite us to acknowledge the gap between our best intentions and our behaviour. They invite us to consider the most important qualities we need to develop in order to overcome the fears and attachments inhibiting our growth.
For example, I was once working with a team whose leader was notoriously avoidant. He struggled to have tough conversations and hold people accountable, and this was common knowledge among his team. In one exercise, we guided participants to choose their two most important values. When the team leader initially chose the values of compassion and kindness, an almost audible groan passed through the room. It was obvious to all that these were not the areas in which he needed growth. For the team to function better, they would have preferred that he chose the values of honesty and accountability.
This team leader was using his values to further embed his avoidant tendencies. They concealed his unconscious programming, whereas the growth values of honesty and accountability would invite him to explore it and consciously reprogram it.
On a personal level, if you struggle with impatience and anger and begin to acknowledge the negative impact this is having on your life and leadership, you might choose patience or kindness as a growth value. Or if you find yourself constantly avoiding conflict and you recognise the enormous cost this is having on your mental wellbeing and leadership, you might choose honesty as a growth value. (Interestingly, few of our new clients realise that conflict avoidance violates the values of integrity and honesty.)
To help individuals, teams and organisations define their growth values, I provide a long list of potential values and virtues and the development needs they meet in my digital program, The Mindful Leader: Vertical Growth. An initial brainstorm helps narrow things down. This exercise needs to be an inside-out rather than an outside-in job. To best navigate our lives in a rich and purposeful way requires that we move away from social desirability and image management to really listen to what our inner wisdom wishes to express.
Clarity around our growth values is critical to living a self-examined life. Given that our conditioned patterns can easily move us away from what we value most, these values will guide us as we navigate life and leadership.
In some cases, our values may already be well anchored, but this does not mean they will always show up when times get rough. We can easily move away from these values when we feel threatened, leaving room for our shadows to slip in. Our mind is often hijacked by our older mammalian brain, so our patterns to reduce discomfort or seek out short-term pleasure kick in. The more clarity we have on our growth values, the greater our immunity to moving away from them.
Find your growth edge
When it comes to personal development and behavioural change, there are three zones in which you can operate.
The first is the comfort zone, where you do things as you’ve always done them, out of habit, with no attempt to change or improve. You experience no growth in this zone, only stagnation.
Opposite the comfort zone is the terror zone, which can frighten you so much that you experience a fight, flight or freeze response. Your amygdala is so triggered that you are overwhelmed by fears and emotions. There is no growth in this zone because you are so shut down that you can’t think clearly. Indeed, this zone can traumatise you.
Between these two zones is what we call the growth edge. You’re pushing out of your comfort zone and into your terror zone, but not so far as to overwhelm you. You experience discomfort and anxiety, but it’s manageable.
Steve Baert, a former executive at the pharmaceutical firm Novartis, explained to me that the growth edge is where we consciously interrupt the conditioned patterns in which we’ve been trapped. As he put it, ‘We are always creating a level of order for ourselves, and that order becomes our comfort zone. But it can be a dysfunctional order. We can be comfortable in patterns that don’t serve us. So in order to grow again, first we have to disrupt our sense of order completely and move outside of our comfort zone. Then and only then can we build a new, more holistic, more functional order. But it’s very painful to disrupt the order we create for ourselves.’
Interestingly, when we’re in this growth zone, the discomfort we feel is often far more amplified than other people might see or realise. For example, one of my colleagues tended to avoid difficult conversations. As we began working on this, initially his conversations with me were very tentative. Out of fear of offending me, he struggled with being honest. He would deliver messages to me mildly and kindly, while being convinced that he was actually being very direct and tough. At one point he told me he thought he was being far too blunt and even rude.
I chuckled and assured him that he was doing a wonderful job of being both direct and considerate. From my perspective, he was just being honest in a respectful way, and it seemed very relaxed; from his perspective it felt extremely uncomfortable. He was pushing through some deep misperceptions of his own behaviour. This is growth work.
Isabel Matthews, Head of People and Organisation of the Global Drug Development division of Novartis, told me how hard she had been working on changing her pattern of avoidance and giving people clear and direct feedback. It had been challenging, though. ‘When I hear my own voice, I sound like a monster. My head is telling me that my feedback is harsh, blunt and aggressive.’
The Practice of Growth
To feel more comfortable in the process, after giving feedback to people she would ask them, ‘How does that feel for you? Because this is something I feel uncomfortable with, and I’m practising being clearer. Did that land like I’m a monster, or was it okay?’
Just as my colleague discovered, Isabel was surprised to hear that people actually prefer her directness because they know better what’s expected of them.
When you start a new practice, you really need to push for that growth zone. You may feel like you’re going too far, when you’re actually being quite mild. A good sign you are really progressing with development practices is when people tell you that you’re taking it a bit too far. In fact, ‘going too far’ is a rite of passage in vertical development work. If you are afraid of going too far, you will almost certainly never go far enough.
I enjoy swimming for exercise and was trying to improve my stroke so I could keep up with the faster swimmers in my group. A friend of mine is a swim coach so I had him look at my stroke and give me feedback.
He told me, ‘When you’re hitting the water, your arm is crossing your body too much. You’re not bringing your hand to the center point, and that is twisting your body, so you’re not as streamlined.’ He taught me to throw my hand out farther in front of me. When I practised it, it felt like my hand was too far out, but he told me, ‘That’s perfect.’
This is how behavioural change feels. In our minds, we may be overcorrecting and taking things too far, when it’s more likely that we’re not pushing hard enough.
As with all learning and growth, the key is to practise persistently and be patient with ourselves. As Selina Short, at EY, put it, ‘Part of me is always looking for those ta-dah! Moments, when everything clicks and you’re done, your patterns magically transformed. But it doesn’t work that way. It has to be continual and you have to just stick with it.’
Gervais Tougas, at Novartis, added, ‘When I apply transformational practices just once in a while, it’s hard and clumsy. But when I consciously practise every day, things don’t tend to build up and it gets easier and easier. I’m getting better at saying to myself, You weren’t as bad as last time, and you didn’t take as long to correct. You’ll do even better next time.’
The purpose of holding values is not to pretend that simply identifying with values alone makes us good people. Rather, it’s to help us identify our values breaches, address them, and change our behaviour to grow in the direction of our values. We don’t choose growth values based on who we believe we already are. Rather, we choose them in areas where we see room for improvement.