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 live by unquestioningly in all circumstances. Ironically, their values appear to be used as an image management tool to make themselves look good to others, rather than as a daily growth practice to improve weaknesses.
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 once worked 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. So when he 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 shadow, whereas the growth values of honesty and accountability would invite him to explore and resolve his shadow.
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.
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, formerly at 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.’
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.