Living Your Values, Building the Habit of Doing What You Say

I’d like to explore another aspect of human nature, our values, and how they can enhance or undermine the energy that people bring to their relationships both at home or at work. When there is a gap between what we say and how we act, the door is opened for distrust, cynicism and disengagement on the part of those who experience that gap. Especially when the gap is in an area that is important to the observer, there is confusion and anger is often the result. Simply defined, one’s principles or standards comprise one’s value systems. They can be best identified not in what we say but in our actions and choices displayed as we live or work. People hold many different values and the value that we place on different principles or on the standards we see as important in the different aspects of our lives vary somewhat with the context (work, home, social settings). This isn’t necessarily wrong or bad, as long as there is a fundamental congruity in how we act across the board. It is incongruity that causes the problems.

Your stated principles are what tell others what to expect in your personal conduct. One’s stated values and how they align with one’s behavior is a part of the assessment we make in every relationship that we have. We’ll be better equipped to make a decision about how close we want to get to a person if we are aware of what those values really are, how they are lived versus what’s espoused, and if we recognize that different values take different precedence in our different roles or positions. This is one reason why relationships grow weaker or stronger over time. Do we get what we expect? Do we deliver on the expectations that we set?

The discrepancies don’t only revolve among major moral issues; we don’t have to be dealing with lies, theft, or other legal and moral imperatives. When dissonance threatens our sense of integrity, troubles begin. I recently consulted in an organization where the person in charge was highly rational, had a very strong work ethic, was entrepreneurial, goal driven, but not very relationally sensitive. There is obviously nothing wrong with that. Yet, one of his direct reports was highly relational, a people pleaser, who wanted to feel that he was being helpful to the staff and customers. It was one of the reasons that he was hired, to compensate for things that the leader felt reflected his weakness. Problems arose however in the differences between what the boss expected and the priorities demonstrated by the subordinate’s values and choices as he did his work. Both men, over time, became highly frustrated with each other. Both felt let down. The subordinate grew more and more discouraged as time went on (and less and less productive) as he failed to please his boss. The boss became more and more exasperated. It seemed that no matter how many times the boss stressed what he wanted the subordinate, interpreting those instructions through his own filters, give them his own spin. The boss felt that he was being ignored while the subordinate grew to dislike his boss and to avoid him as much as possible. Both men were good people but badly matched for working together. A lot of time, effort, and good will were wasted because they never dealt with the real issues.

Understanding the Gaps:

We often take our values for granted. We don’t tend to articulate in any detail them but believe that they will emerge automatically as we live our lives. Everyone assumes that “good” people will all be on the same page. It is an erroneous assumption. People can be ranked on their commitment to their principles.

  1. Many people expect never put what they believe into words. They just expect that good people will know and do the right things. They expect without establishing a foundation for trust.
  2. Other people never adopt a set of values that they believe in but, instead, live by what they were told to believe, what they “should” believe in. Without clear commitments things get ambiguous very quickly and beliefs and actions required to stay true to those beliefs often don’t match up.
  3. Still others roughly live by a set of principles that they basically believe in and choose to not look closely at the disparities. Under pressure they fall back upon what’s expedient at the moment and lose their moral compasses. Our values aren’t immutable; if they aren’t strengthen by our choices they diminish over time.
  4. Finally, there are people who think hard about what’s the right way to live/work and deliberately commit to living up to those standards. They make those values a defining part of who they are. Even here, without testing the fit between our values and principles, conflicts can occur

Which are you? You probably will believe that these same rankings generally reflect peoples’ commitment to those values. Number ones are the least committed. Number fours are the most committed. Number ones are the least committed because they never dedicated themselves to their “values,” in fact it is hard to call them their values. On the other hand, number fours thought about what they believed to be true, they then made a deliberate decision to adopt those values as guiding principles in their daily lives.

Have you ever REALLY looked at what you sincerely believe to be the right way to live or to do your work? If you haven’t considered them before now, consider doing so today. Such a decision can lead to a great sense of comfort in your life; it simplifies your life; and it contributes to your self-esteem. I recently worked with an engineer who liked to work in a linear fashion. He felt good finishing one project before moving to the next. He found switching between tasks and priorities to be very unsettling. His manager, however, needed him to be able to “shift gears” and adjust to changing business demands and customer priorities. The result was an engineer who felt frustrated at work, disillusioned with management, and found his loyalty to his employer slipping away. Needless to say, he felt often felt bad at work. Having an articulated value system increases your self-respect; it makes you a person whom others respect; and it strengthens your commitments to your beliefs. This is especially true if your organization is aligned with your values.

Why don’t we live our values on a day-to-day basis?

There are several reasons why we fall short of living our values.

  1. As mentioned above, we never get around to thinking things through. When push comes to shove, we find that we don’t believe what we say strongly enough to be willing to take the consequences attached to living those values.
  2. Another reason is that many of us live our lives moment by moment, we react to the situations and opportunities open to us on a moment to moment basis. We don’t have a plan for how to live. We don’t routinely think in terms of what we believe.
  3. We don’t have faith in ourselves. If you don’t have faith in your abilities or your competence you are more likely to grab for things that are available to you rather than to act to build opportunities the “right” way.
  4. We act in little ways against our beliefs. The damning words that we use are, “just this once,” and/ or “it really won’t hurt anyone this time,” or even, “I’ll never get caught, so what’s the harm.” These excuses lead us to believe that we can live our lives successfully based on whether or not anyone will ever find us out. As if getting caught should be the deciding factor. These thoughts erode our values. Like a stream flowing through its banks the erosion seems to be a slow subtle process until all of a sudden a huge part of the bank has no support and it suddenly tumbles into the stream and is washed away.
  5. As was implied above, fear and anxiety often lead us to forgo our values. It might be the fear of other peoples’ disapproval of us, or it can be a fear of ridicule. At times, it can be that we fear that the consequences of taking a morally courageous stand will be more than we want to pay. This is especially true if all that we have to do is to sit back and NOT TAKE A STAND. Think of the average German citizen during the Hitler years. Doing nothing in the face of evil can lead to great harm to ourselves or others.

How Do We Acquire the Habit of Living Our Values?

The magic word here is habit. If we expect ourselves to live our values day-by-day we must practice living our beliefs. If we honestly believe that living our values will lead to a more successful life, then there is no reason not to practice them.

It is the same process that leads to building physical muscles. We have to exercise those muscles. We have to exercise them regularly. We have to strain our abilities by exercising them even when it is difficult. Life will give you opportunities to test your value muscles. By facing the challenges and passing the tests we strengthen ourselves for whatever real test we may face in what we say that we believe.

Passing those tests of our commitment to our values is how we prove ourselves to be worthy of our self respect. If it was easy there would be nothing to it, and so, truly living our values builds our self-esteem. It reinforces our beliefs and at the same time, it gives us the confidence to make difficult choices. Such decisions strengthen our moral courage and better enable us to withstand the consequences of our choices.

It is easier to live our beliefs 100% of the time than it is to live them 98% of the time. 98 percenters live on a slippery slope. It is too easy to give yourself an easy way to rationalize your way out of a tough spot by giving yourself permission to screw up, “just this once.” It’s never just this once, for that outlook leaves you open to rationalizing and justifying weakness. It erodes the value muscles you’ve been trying to build.

Finally, if you are trying to build values muscles you can do so by acting “as if” you were morally fit. You can fake it until you make it. You see, acting on a belief, even a weak one, builds the capability for doing it again in the future.

Your value system isn’t designed for easy times and unchallenging situations. Having a set of personal principles by which to live is most valuable in tough times and ambiguous situations. It is just such circumstances that you need to have thought through your beliefs. It’s when things are unclear that your values operate as a beacon in the darkness. You may not know “where this is going,” but you can have faith that you won’t stray far if you stick to you principles.


The strength of our relationships depends on the congruence between what we say that we believe and then how we act day-by-day. Trust, loyalty, and affection are strongest when the gap between espoused and lived values is minimal. Our values are more real when we make the choices that support those principles. Values are more easily kept if we live them 100% of the time. Even a 98% commitment erodes our beliefs. It is the accumulation of minor compromises over time rather than momentous decisions that damage our integrity. If we don’t stay true to what we believe on a daily basis we don’t have the strength to stick with them during a crisis. There are steps that we can take to build our moral muscles. We build those muscles by exercising them regularly. By acting “as if” we have the values that we aspire to actually builds our capacity to be true to our principles when push comes to shove.