Defining your values

core-valuesFor a meaningful, purposeful and fulfilling career

Sadly, you don’t have to look very far to find people who are unhappy in their job or profession.
Research confirms the gloomy reality. Worldwide, only 13% of employees are engaged at work and unhappy employees outnumber happy ones by two to one.

It’s usually easy to pinpoint the problem. A lack of passion for our work; no real connection with our employer or colleagues; bad management; limited use of our skills; poor opportunities for learning or no sense of purpose are all common complaints that see many of us wishing we were somewhere else.

But working out what changes to make – either in our current role or with a new career path – is often the biggest barrier to a successful transition. Whether we have a hunch about the right direction for us or we face a blank sheet of paper, fear that we will make the wrong decisions can keep us stuck on the same familiar but unfulfilling treadmill.

Acting on our instincts or trying to come up with ideas on the best course of action is hard to do without guarantees of success. That’s where defining and aligning with our personal values can make all the difference, setting us on the path to lasting career satisfaction and success.

Values and their impact on work choices

Values are our own personal reference guide for the way we need to live and work in order to be happy. They are our internal markers for what is good, beneficial, important, meaningful, useful, desirable and constructive for us.

Values underpin our sense of right and wrong or what “ought” to be and are the criteria by which we judge ourselves, our life and the world around us. Unique to each individual, values are part of our personal make up and tend not to change too much beyond our mid-twenties.

They are important because they (should) drive us from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep. When we make choices and behave in a way that matches our values, life is usually good – we feel a sense of purpose, satisfaction and contentment. But when our choices don’t align with our values, things feel out of kilter, unfulfilling and often downright unhappy.

Value conflicts in a chosen career path or work environment can present big roadblocks to fulfilment and happiness. Imagine that you value harmony, but regularly face conflict at work? Or that you value family but have to put in 70-hour weeks? What if being creative is intrinsic to you but your organisation doesn’t value new ideas? Or that you value integrity but your sales role requires you to ‘massage’ the truth about company products or services?

The result will be internal stress and struggle. It might leave you feeling lost or rudderless, angry, uncomfortable, disengaged or exhausted. You’ll almost certainly feel dissatisfied and wistful about a different kind of role.

The power of values-based choices

My experience working with hundreds of people over the years affirms when individuals put their personal values at the heart of their decision making, they are much more likely to find lasting satisfaction and excel in their chosen career.

The recent results of a 14-year study at West Point Military Academy in the United States back up this assertion. Data on the subsequent career success of 11,320 cadets was analysed in relation to their stated motives for attending the academy at the start of the course. Those cadets whose motivation was driven purely by internal, personal values (think “I want to serve my country” or “I want to test my abilities”) outperformed those whose choice was underpinned by external factors (for example, “I want the prestige of being an officer” or “I want to get a free scholarship”). They also outperformed the cadets who were a hybrid of the two. Effectively, the cadets who were true to themselves and their values achieved greater career success than those who didn’t.

Teresa Amabile‘s research at Harvard, which analysed nearly 12,000 diary entries by 238 employees in seven companies, concluded that the greatest career engagement is derived from ‘making progress in meaningful work’. As our values reflect what is most meaningful to us, they provide a useful foundation from which to assess and steer our career decisions. This premise makes the employee feedback from a 2014 global survey interesting.  Respondents gave little credence to ‘deriving more sense of meaning from work’ when asked about the most important employment factors when choosing a job.  In fact, they rated it 13th out of 17 options. The disparity between Amabile’s research and this survey might go some way to explaining the high levels of unhappiness at work. It’s not hard to deduce that putting external factors ahead of internal ones driven by personal values might contribute to low job satisfaction.


This is an extract from a chapter in the book, Secrets of Success. Available from Amazon,

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