I sat in my car, in the parking lot, in tears. I needed to go to work. After all, my family was depending on me to pay the mortgage, put food on the table, and keep our health insurance active. But I was so stressed by my job that I had to force myself to enter the building each day. 

My mental health was crumbling, and it wasn’t because the job itself was too busy or overwhelming or stressful. The problem was that the company I worked for didn’t align with my core values.

I’ve talked about the importance of aligning your team around a set of common values. Creating this alignment solves an untold number of team dysfunctions — and it makes everyone’s working life better.

But it’s just as important that your own core values remain aligned with your work. Misalignment results in stress — lots and lots of stress. 

If you’re feeling vaguely uneasy, anxious, or stressed out for no apparent reason — or if you’re finding it harder and harder to remain engaged and excited about your job and accomplishments — then it’s time to check in on your core values. 

Personal and Professional Core Values

Core values are deep-seated beliefs from which a person or organization operates. They are the very essence of ourselves — what we seek out and what we live for. Our core values act as  an internal compass, pointing us towards the activities, people, and places that will most fulfill us and away from situations that are likely to be unfulfilling.

We all have core values, and those values guide our behavior — whether we’re aware of it or not. That means you can’t just name a new core value and expect it to stick. Instead, you need to uncover your core values. They already exist and they’re guiding your actions — so it’s best to understand what they are.

In your personal life, you might value family, independence, adventure, honesty, loyalty, fairness, or the environment —  among many, many other possibilities.

But in addition to your personal core values, you also have professional core values. These can be the same as your personal values — for example, you might value integrity in all areas of your life — but it can be useful to get more specific. What does integrity mean to you in the context of your work? When you can articulate the values you bring to your job, you possess a valuable guide for decision-making. 

One of my professional values is “people front and center.”  This value reminds me that taking care of my team, clients, and stakeholders is the most important and meaningful thing I do. So, for example, if a project goes terribly wrong and I’m wondering what to do… this core value reminds me that the first thing is always to check in with my team. Making space for their feelings and reactions lets us clear the decks, so that when we go into problem-solving mode, we’re bringing our best thinking to the table.

Your Values Are a Springboard to Change

Being clear and specific about your professional values can also help you identify potential conflicts between your values and your organizations. If those conflicts go unaddressed, they manifest in all kinds of other ways — including excessive stress, misunderstandings between colleagues, and feeling powerless to change your circumstances.

Knowing when those problems are symptoms of a conflict in values gives you some tools for resolving them. You can measure the distance between your values and your organization’s and then make an honest assessment as to whether that gap can be bridged. Sometimes it can, sometimes it can’t.  

Perhaps you can work with your supervisor or colleagues to infuse more of your values into the organization. Or perhaps the organization already has stated values that are similar to yours — but they’re just not living up to that vision. If you otherwise like your job and your colleagues, you’ll benefit by working with them to integrate your two value systems.

Or you may decide that the gulf is just too great. That’s fine — and it’s good to recognize that sooner rather than later. Otherwise you might end up like I did — feeling distraught about your work and powerless to make meaningful change. 

Fortunately, I got myself out of that situation. And today, in my own business, I now live my core values. I include my company’s core values in proposals for work so that prospective clients can determine if we are a good fit for their team and culture. I include them in contracts with the consultants who work on my team. Our core values set a standard for how we show up and work together. 

Naturally, I find it stressful when an executive leader or the decision maker on a client team is clearly out of alignment with my values. But now that I’m super clear on what my values are, I’m able to recognize that misalignment much more quickly —  and navigate through the situation more successfully.

This is one of the great hidden benefits of uncovering your professional core values. Because you feel confident about what’s right for you, you’re better equipped to navigate tricky situations with more grace and ease.

So why not give it a try? Grab a pen and do some core-value brainstorming today.  

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