What Are Values?
For millennia, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and others have tried to figure out just exactly what values are. You have them; all humans do. The word comes from the Latin valeo, to be strong. Values can be likened to roots that keep a tree upright and anchored against the onslaught of the elements. Your values steady you against the maelstrom of everyday life.
The definition of values varies, but there are some points upon which most experts seem to agree.
Deeply held constraints, ideals, convictions, or standards.
Lifestyle priorities. Even among people with identical values, each person will give a value greater or lesser importance in relation to that individual's life.
Motivators for behavior. You are motivated by those values you adhere to most passionately.
Highly subjective. Your unique combination and prioritization of values define you as an individual. There is no one “right” set of values for everyone.
Ways that you react and relate to the world around you. Psychologist Milton Rokeach calls values “ways of being.”
Developed from your life philosophy. This comes from culture; nation; experiences with teachers, friends, parents, and others important to you; and other environmental influences.
Always present, often unconscious. They're part of who you are and color your work and nonwork actions and decisions whether you are aware of them or not.
Relatively stable over time. Values may shift as your needs and perceptions change and you grow, learn, and mature. Societal events can affect values, too. An Australian study found that the priority of values such as safety and security increased markedly among workers after September 11, 2001.
Values are not:
Physical objects. However, objects can come to represent our values, such as the way a treasured heirloom can represent values of family, tradition, or beauty.
Beliefs. Beliefs are convictions or opinions, but values grow out of and are greatly influenced by underlying beliefs.
Emotions. One's values can lend clarity to circumstances clouded by emotion and can even transform one's emotional state.
Behaviors, habits, or attitudes. Values influence your behaviors and attitudes but don't predict them. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Do as I say, not as I do!” Perhaps that person was acting against her values because of a particular set of circumstances.
Morals or ethics. Morals are established standards for good behavior. Ethics are agreed-upon codes of behavior. Morals, ethics, and values are interrelated and affect one another. One way to remember the difference: Morals and ethics constrain; values motivate.
Principles. Principles are time-tested basic truths, rules, or standards. They can be self-imposed or adopted. The British social researcher Richard Titmuss pointed out the difference between principles and values when he wrote, “Even thieves have values. It's their lack of principles that makes them different from others.”
Fixed in a hierarchy. It is impossible to determine for all time and in all circumstances that being polite is more important than being forgiving or that being capable is more important than being logical.
Situational. You don't just conjure up friendliness, ambition, or broad-mindedness when you need it. If these are some of your values, they pertain to all aspects of your life, not just at work or at home.
Derived from what you're told. As noted previously, values emerge from how others behave toward you. No one can tell you to love or respect him or her. Where values are concerned, actions do speak louder than words.
Values are abstract ideas, and as such it's sometimes easier to recognize them when they're absent, like health or respect. Values are often confused with many things with which they are related, so it helps to know what values are not.