Your Values Can Be Compromised When You’re Under Stress. Here’s How to Get Them Aligned Again.
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In times of high pressure, aspirational core values can seem completely impractical. When they are bombarded with emails and under threat of disruption or volatility, who has the time to be “bold”, “innovative” and “connected”?
In these situations, values are reduced to stickers on the office wall or words on a website’s About Us page. How many people can recall their company’s values, never mind using them as a blueprint for decision-making and the basis for team alignment and trust?
How workplace values emerge
Leadership values influence employee behavior. Leaders who place financial performance above all else may neglect employee well-being, social connectivity, or environmental impact. Values contagion can be a real phenomenon. No training initiative will change your culture if your leadership values are inconsistent or misaligned. When leaders fail to live up to their company values, employees will roll their eyes.
Values in distress
Distress arises when there is a misalignment of values. Imagine that you are working late at night and sacrificing your family time. If your core value is family, you will feel resentful towards work. Perhaps you are spending too much time caring about your family, when productivity is your core value. This could lead to resentment towards your family. There is no right or wrong. Your values profile is unique.
In life’s journey, purpose is your North Star and values are the flame lighting your way. Although the terrain can be difficult, knowing what is important and acting in alignment increases fulfillment and reduces ambiguity. You will have a reason “why”, and a torch to guide you “how”. You and your team may feel lost if the flame of your values dies down. To ensure our safety in an uncertain environment, we use our ancient survival mechanisms, including our negative bias, to protect ourselves.
Are values purely cognitive?
The missing link in values alignment is our physiological state. Our physiological state is the missing link in values alignment. When we are under threat, or feel stressed, our values shift from being aspirational and collaborative to being primal and protective.
There’s an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala. It detects input via our senses and triggers strong emotions that help protect us against perceived threats. If a lion enters the office, this can save our lives. It saved the lives our ancestors, who had to navigate difficult environments with direct threats to their survival. Modern life is filled with inboxes that overflow and are exacerbated by conflicting demands and pressure to perform. We are our worst enemies because to manage complexity, we need to be calm, present and energized — yet we’re sleeping less and worrying more than ever. Under chronic distress, the flame of our values has been reduced to embers. Our tolerance window shrinks. We become less human. The potential for creativity and collaboration is diminished when we are driven by survival emotions like anger, sadness, fear or disgust. Our values are less about thriving than surviving.
Find your baseline of calm
Values-based leadership requires deliberately shifting from fight, flight or freeze into a state of calm coherence: body, emotion and mind. How do you establish calm? Make space in your day. Schedule micro-breaks. To reset your nervous system, use breathing techniques, meditation, or time in nature.
Get rid of the habitual busyness that comes with having your phone turned off when you are not using it. You don’t want to mistake your phone for a friend. It is an extractive technology and it is mining you attention.
Polyvagal theory suggests that our nervous system is capable of progressing from calm to playfulness, trust, and high performance. High performance allows you to ride the edge of fight-flight and be fully immersed in flow. Here lies the golden zone for values-based action — and a 500% productivity boost. When you trust your team, your environment, and yourself, you can unlock psychological safety and a shift to a values-driven culture.
Values as habits
Your values should be actionable. Instead of describing desirable traits with words, they should be a belief system. If you value kindness, your identity would be: I am a kind person. What does a kind person do exactly? They treat others with kindness, respect, and care.
So we proceed to build micro-habits around this identity. Start with what you can achieve in 60 seconds or less. Place reminders and cues strategically in your environment to prepare it. As someone who is kind, gratitude might be a micro-habit worth implementing. I set a reminder every day at 4 p.m. to reach out to one person to show appreciation, support, or care. This is a habit that I have made a habit of by repeating it. Positive ripples are always sent to my circle of influence. Through targeted, decisive, and practical action, I am becoming the person I want to be.
We are the sum of all our habits. Even a company value such as innovation requires a network of supporting practices. These practices can range from vitality and goal-setting to support it. Leaders who value innovation must make space for it to flourish. Innovation will be supported by habits such as relaxation. This shifts us from fight-flight mode to contemplation, play, and relaxation.
Use a gradual approach to scaling the habits that work. Establish rhythm in your work and personal life.
Instead of espousing aspirational values, lead with values-based behavior. One micro-habit at time, you’ll transform your business, your team, and yourself.
The greatest risk to values is distress, so keep calm. Be the change you want to see in your company. Nurture your values flame to ensure you continue to shine brighter than you burn out. Your team and culture will follow you if you light the way.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.