When Values Create Tension

July 18th, 2023

I have written previously about the importance of values: both personal and organisational. Clarifying and prioritising values forms a key part of mch’s advanced leadership programmes such as its Source of Leadership. Their inclusion stems from the finding that clarity of values helps with decision making. The relevance to leadership becomes apparent if you subscribe to the following definition;

‘Leadership is about deciding what to do and then articulating the decision well to those who matter.’

Another key advocate of values is Brené Brown. In her book, Dare to Lead, she sets the challenge of not only identifying your values, but prioritising them, so that one value trumps all others. In my view, the importance of this exercise stems from the reality that life is messy. It’s uncertain, complex and often ambiguous. Consequently, situations can arise where upholding one value comes at the cost of not upholding another.

I’ve found prioritising my values a very difficult exercise: I started doing so in early 2021 and have yet to reach a consistent answer. Earlier this year, I was reminded of the exercise and why it’s important. In early March, I was practicing my usual routine of yoga, exercises and a walk every morning, together with running three to four times a week and cycling once a week. By the end of March, I could barely walk 200m. My balance, strength and suppleness had disappeared. My fine motor skills were compromised, such that I could barely write or type. I had constant pins and needles in my hands and feet, which made sleep difficult. Furthermore, I didn’t know why any of this was happening.

To cut a long story short, towards the end of April, I was sitting across the table from a couple neurologists at my local hospital. To try and diagnose the problem and thus (hopefully) develop a treatment plan, three tests were scheduled. The test with the longest wait could be done (quicker) privately, or through the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS). Done privately, the test would still be done in a public hospital and performed by a doctor who also worked for the NHS. Fortuitously, I had sufficient savings to afford a private test.

Cue a tension between two of my core values: health and equality. Going private was the obvious decision if I was to prioritise health. Being seen in weeks, rather than months would enable a quicker diagnosis, ending the uncertainty and allowing treatment to start sooner. However, if the specialist did not test me privately, it’s very unlikely that they would spend that time twiddling their thumbs. Instead, they would have more capacity for their NHS work. Thus, in my view, prioritising equality would mean choosing to wait along with most other patients. Given the limited number of specialists, it was hard not to conclude that accessing provision privately comes at the cost of increased waiting times for NHS patients.

In the end, I waited and was seen on the NHS. I was comfortable living my value of equality, at the expense of health, by waiting a couple of months, rather than a couple of weeks. However, would I have been comfortable if the wait had been four months, or six months, or a year? My best guess is that I would have prioritised my value of health if I’d had to wait too much longer. Health has not previously reached number one spot in Brené Brown’s prioritisation exercise. However, the experience has raised its importance. I’ve been guilty of taking it for granted: there’s nothing like realising how important something is, until it’s no longer there.

I hope you do not have to go through a similar experience to get clear on your values. Do you know your values though? Can you prioritise them? The following links can help identify your values:

The above link asks you to consider times when you were happiest, proudest and most fulfilled. It also features a list of common values that you may find helpful to select from.

This link allows you to take a free questionnaire designed to identify your values.

Having identified your values, I would encourage you to embark on Brene Brown’s challenge to identify your number one value. Considering scenarios that test one value against another is often an effective (albeit challenging) way to do so.

All the best with your journey.

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