Rethinking values: They're muscles, not pillars

Values need exercise and practice. The more you use them, the stronger they get.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer
Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Values are important, no one is denying that. But representing them as your personal or organization's pillars might send the wrong message. Values need exercise and practice or they will waste away. 

Any corporate presentation of values is incomplete without an architectural or structural diagram that shows how those values are the foundations or pillars on which the rest of the company, from strategies to products, is built. When we present values in this way, we're communicating the importance of them to our company. 

Also: 5 ways to be a better manager

But there's a problem with this way of thinking about values -- they simply don't exist by themselves and stand the test of time in the way same way as still-standing Roman pillars, regardless of whatever became of the rest of the temple whose roof they used to support. Values aren't carved in or out of stone. Values are emergent. They exist only inasmuch as they're practiced and only for as long as they're practiced. 

In other words, values are more like muscles. They are structural in a sense that they enable movement and posture, but they don't exist as structural components independent of that movement or posture. The less they are used to move, the more difficult movement becomes. The less they are used for standing, the more difficult standing becomes, and so on. 

Also: New job? Here are 5 ways to make a great first impression

Our values exist only for as long as we exercise them or practice them. The more we practice them, the stronger they get and the more we are able to do with them. The less we practice them, the weaker they get and the less we are able to do with them.

Why does this focus on values matter? It matters because how we think about things is how we apply them or act towards them. If we think about values as pillars that support us no matter what, then we will be tempted to merely admire them. And if we merely admire them as pillars -- and do not exercise them as muscles -- then we will lose them.

So how do you put this exercise into practice? The answer is in at least two ways. 

First, we use our muscles in our everyday life, in all our activities, whether we are thinking about them or not. It's therefore important that we live our values everyday, whether we're interacting with customers, stakeholders and shareholders, or we're collaborating with our teammates or communicating with our employees or even when we're developing products or services or offerings. 

Also: 5 ways to build a career path that works for you

And it doesn't matter what your values are. You may value trust, in which case one of your daily practices has to be telling the truth. Beyond honesty, if your definition of trust is competence plus character, then your daily routine may be to demonstrate reliability, capability, integrity, and benevolence. Or you may value innovation, in which case you need to always think about how to do things differently or to do different things that could lead to better outcomes, such as greater customer engagement or lower cost or higher speed to delivery. Or you may value fun, in which case you'll be wanting to look for opportunities to bring play or humor or light heartedness to all your interactions and to your offerings. 

The more you practice your values in your daily work, the more fit for purpose they will become, meaning the more natural and the more easy it will become to use them -- and the more you and your company will "become" those values. They will become less a set of words or external concepts and more a part of you.

Also: Managing and leading aren't the same thing. Here's why it matters

And second, you can work on strengthening those particular muscles by using specific routines and toolsets as you would in a gym. This effort includes training courses that focus directly and primarily on your values, not just on the functional and/or technical skills that form the basis of delivering your company's particular offering. 

Of course, there will be overlap at times. If trust is one or your values, then competence -- being able to do the things that you tell others you can do, particularly your customers -- is one of the primary ways to demonstrate value. Developing and strengthening your functional and/or technical skills sets is about also developing and strengthening your values. Training needs to demonstrate value as well as teaching skills. In other words, if one of your values is fun, then the training should be fun itself. The training should also show ways in which to infuse fun -- however you choose to define it -- into your interactions, experiences, and communications. If one of your values is innovation, then the training should itself feel fresh and valuably differentiated in some way.

Training is not the only tool you can use, of course. While being sensitive to the risk of linking values to compliance, you can also design policies and systems to reinforce values. For example, if one of your values is trust, you can build simple policies and guidelines that give agency to individuals, signal trust, and which treat them like adults.

Also: Generative AI is changing your technology career path. What to know

Values are like muscles, they are part of what enables individuals and companies to operate effectively. They are part of what enables them to get work done, to get things moving. They are also part of what gives those individuals and companies their identity. It's what makes them different or unique, and part of what attracts others to them; they're part of what makes it worthwhile to develop relationships with them. 

And thinking of values in this way -- as part of a living organism that interacts with the world and others in it, rather than as part of a static, standalone structure with its foundations and pillars, its building blocks and cornerstones -- is one of the ways to become Boundless* and design a future of next-level success.

This article was co-authored by Henry King, business innovation and transformation strategy leader at Salesforce. "BOUNDLESS" by Henry King and Vala Afshar (published by Wiley) will be available for pre-order on Amazon.com in May 2023 and in bookstores on September 13, 2023.

Editorial standards