Upgrading Your Values

Upgrading and Revising Your Values

There’s a lot of information bandied about regarding values: how to identify them, how to live up to them, how to drive them more deeply and thoroughly into whatever organization you’re involved with, and so forth.

But there’s darn little information available on how to revise them when they no longer serve you well, when they don’t accurately reflect something new you’ve come to know or believe, or even just when they’ve grown out of date. But revising them from time to time is definitely something we should do.

Revising or updating our values is important because the culture we live in constantly evolves, often for the better. And so do we. Yet most people – myself included – form our values at relatively early ages. Then – while society progresses and the ways people can live get better – we foolishly or frustratingly remain locked into the values we formed during those earlier times.

These values inform the choices, judgments, and decisions we make about pretty much everything, including:

·   How we spend our time and our energy,

·   How we behave toward other people: family, friends, coworkers, strangers, and so forth

·   Our lifestyle, appetite for risk, and approach to daily living,

·   The goals we do and don’t set for ourselves,

·   The kinds of treatment we accept or reject from others.

and much more.

Partly we stay with our existing values because we don’t think about what they are, or how they impact ourselves and others around us. Partly, we keep them because we rarely examine with a critical eye the values we live by. Partly we prefer to hang onto our existing values because gravitating to new ones is uncertain and scary. But mostly we stay with our old values because we don’t have the slightest clue how to upgrade or even tweak them gently to help us live a better life.

I’m going to change all that for you (and me), right now:

Get Educated on Values

As you work on changing your values, it’s helpful to recognize the differences between the major categories of values you live by. Values from pertinent categories effectively control pretty much all of your choices, judgments, and decisions.

At a minimum, we hold:

·   Core values. These are deeply ingrained principles that inform our most important choices, judgments, and decisions. They generally develop while we are children, before we have much power or wisdom to consciously shape our values. Yet for many decades these values significantly determine how we behave, and why.

·   Aspirational values. These are alternative principles we don’t live by, but probably would in an ideal world. At least some part of us would like to see these values reflected more often in our choices, judgments, and decisions.

·   Sanctioning values. These are some practical rules we’ve embraceed to tolerate less-than-ideal behavior in specific situations. Some are conscious, some are unconscious, but we accept them all as conveniences or necessities. For example, you may feel OK about jay-walking or rolling through a Stop sign, even though you think of yourself as a law-abiding citizen. An extreme example would be our willingness to steal a loaf of bread to feed our family, despite our Core Value proclaiming our essential honesty.

·   Supplementary values. These are values we live by in the routine moments of our lives, often developed and expressed without overt intention. Examples might include transferring our takeout restaurant change into the tip jar, treating serving and cleaning staff well (or gruffly), and our stance on littering.

Mostly, your values emanate from the culture and subcultures in which you were raised and now live, although we often make individual alterations to suit us better.

Generally, a person accumulates values around a handful of central concerns, including how much you:

·       Care about a specific “cause” or matter of importance.

·       Support personal freedom, equality, fairness, and similar social standards.

·       Feel loyalty to one or more particular groups.

·       Honor external authorities and moral codes.

·       Come naturally and easily to certain behaviors.

What’s more, we build up and retain values that help define who we are, where we came from, and how we see ourselves. That’s why a change in values can support or even precipitate an effort to improve who we are and how we fit into the world.

Values also have a big impact on how we relate to others, including friends, coworkers, family, and life partners. They can directly limit or expand our ability to form and maintain healthy, supportive bonds.

Fortunately, our values are susceptible of change when necessary or beneficial.

For example, you may have consciously updated your values regarding conservation of natural resources, perhaps taking shorter showers, buying a more fuel-efficient car, and recycling materials instead of throwing them away. You may have revised your values regarding work, perhaps becoming more (or less) entrepreneurial, or swerving to a new career direction as personal fulfillment became more (or less) important to you.

But because we don’t know enough about how to do it, we may delay revising even our most important values far longer than we should, and in the process feel far more pain than necessary.

Once you recognize the formula, however, revising your values need be no more difficult than watching your weight and staying in shape – not easy, but eminently within your grasp.

To begin revising your values, you must…

Recognize the Need for an Update

It’s time to update one or more of your values when any one of these is true:

·   Your values are out of step with the times, or with your situation, in a way you don’t like.

·   Your values block you from striving for or accepting rewards and benefits that other people routinely enjoy.

·   Your values conflict with one another.

·   Your values do not promote personal or professional growth, productivity, satisfactory earnings, and success.

·   Your values hamper your ability to make choices, judgments, and decisions that would or could benefit you.

·   Your values make your life unnecessarily difficult, hazardous, or frustrating.

·   Your values prevent you from doing something wonderful, either for yourself or for others.

Start the Value-Update Process

Once you recognize the need to update one or more of your values, there’s a very specific way to proceed.

Specify the Problematic Behavior(s)

Values reveal themselves in the form of behaviors. A value is not problem and doesn’t need to be revised until it starts leading to behaviors based on choices, judgments, and decisions that don’t meet your needs, preferences, and desires. The more clearly you can identify problematic behaviors, the more effectively you can move forward with your value update:

To dig into the process:

·   Identify the behaviors reflecting choices, judgments, and/or decisions that make you feel you need a value-update.

·   Itemize the areas of your work and your life where these choices, judgments, and/or decisions crop up, and where they don’t.

·   Drill down to observe exactly how these choices, judgments, and/or decisions emerge from a particular, problematic value.

A good way to identify a particular value is to run “what if” scenarios in one area after another of your work and life. The question to answer in each scenario is: “If you were to behave differently, what would the new behavior say about your values?” 

Plan Your Updated Behavior

Armed with a list of behaviors that emerge from an existing problematic value, it’s a simple matter to develop a list of replacement behaviors that will better meet your needs, preferences, and desires.

For example:

·       If you defer to other people’s opinions even when you probably shouldn’t, you could replace that behavior with assertive actions that reflect a new, higher valuation on your own ideas, attitudes, and analyses.

·       If you let others grab too much credit for good work you have done, you could replace that behavior with a more assertive stance claiming rightful ownership of your efforts and results.

·       If you rarely volunteer or donate to a worthy charity, you could replace that behavior with efforts to give your time, unwanted goods, and even money where they will help others. 

Identify an Updated Value

Starting from the new behavior you’d like to substitute for your current behavior, you can now work backwards to articulate and understand the new value or belief that would inspire it. For convenience and clarity, focus on only one new value at a time.

For example:

·       If you’re going to start valuing your own ideas, attitudes, and analyses more often, consider that the underlying value to embrace might be that you’re entitled to respect, or that your opinion matters, or that you’re a smart person worth listening to, or that you’re willing to take more risks (or all four!).

·       If you’re going to start asserting rightful ownership of your ideas and your work, consider that the underlying value to embrace might be that credit belongs where it is due, or that your professionalism requires adherence to a certain code of conduct, or that any form of plagiarism must be called out and opposed.

·       If you’re going to start contributing your time, unwanted goods, and even money, consider that the underlying value to embrace might be that generosity is a virtue, or that helping others is a worthwhile endeavor, or that everyone deserves a fair chance at a good life. 

Take some time to identify and articulate the new value that you want to put in place to drive your preferred new behavior.

Be prepared to go through an intricate and detailed deep thought process requiring lots of introspection and resolve. The effort may seem daunting, but updating your values will ultimately prove worthwhile.

How to Cement Your New Values in Place

As you begin to identify, exhibit, and embrace a new value, you’ll enter a transition phase in which you’ll want your behavior to stop reflecting your old values and start reflecting your new ones. To facilitate this transition:

Stop Giving in to Habits

Much of what we do comes from habits rather than active thinking and planning. Because your habits were formed from your old values, they will probably betray you during this transition phase.

That’s why it’s important to restrain your habits as much as possible until you solidify your updated values.

Think Before You Act

With your habits on “hold,” take some time as often as possible to think and plan how you’ll handle specific situations you encounter. Before you act, try to come up with several reasonable courses of action. Then consider what each behavior would say about your underlying values. When you’re ready, try to do what best expresses your new value.

Recognize the difficulties inherent in this transition: It’s almost guaranteed you will feel uncomfortable, perhaps somewhat insecure about the new you. There’s a good chance you’ll encounter resistance from those around you. You’ll likely fall back on habitual behavior, particularly when you experience moments of weakened resolve, frustration, or a longing for the way things were.

But stay the course. You’ll find all this will pass. The new you that begins to emerge as your new values take hold will experience new levels of both personal satisfaction and real-world, tangible benefits.


As you begin to display these new behaviors, you’ll experience different feelings and probably different results. Make it a point to evaluate them.

How do you feel when performing these new behaviors? Are you feeling more (or less)?:

·       Comfortable?

·       Proud?

·       Happy?

·       Capable?

·       Relaxed?

Anything else?

How do others react to you as you behave these new ways? Do they treat you with more (or less)?:

·       Appreciation?

·       Respect?

·       Inclination to follow you or ask your advice?

·       Willingness to accept your choices, judgments, or decisions?

Do they treat you any other ways? Do any of these reactions surprise you?

How are the results from your new behaviors similar or different from your old results?:

·       Closer to your criteria for success?

·       More satisfying?

·       Easier to obtain?

·       Quicker to establish?

Any other differences?

As you continue to think and plan before you act, your new behaviors will start to develop into habits as strong and compelling as your old ones. Science tells us this process takes about three weeks.

Revise and Repeat

You’ll benefit by going through this values-update process regularly. Make it part of your personal and professional routines, and let it pervade every part of your work and your life.

Of course, you’ll need time to feel comfortable with each incremental values-update. But try to recognize this kind of discomfort as a “growing pain:” a natural part of every important change and a sign of positive improvement.