The role of values in the quest for purpose
If there is one thing that we look for and often find missing in our professional lives, many of us might agree that it is a sense of Purpose. Purpose is what should get us out of bed in the morning – though too often it is duty or obligation which do so. How then can we live lives that are purposeful? Perhaps understanding the concept better is a good first step.
Private purpose and professional purpose Many of us have personal lives and professional lives that we tend to keep quite separate from each other. We may or may not feel we have a sense of personal purpose, but if we do feel we have such a thing, our personal purpose is something we create for ourselves, and we own. We do not inherit it and it cannot be delegated to us or imposed on us. If it does not come from within us then it is not purpose but may be obligation, and while we may well do many things out of a sense of obligation, as a driving force that sustains us obligation has nothing like the same power as purpose.
Just as we own our sense of purpose, so we can change it. And we do – our purpose can change as our life develops. Marriage, children, illnesses, injury, divorce, death – the litany of things that can divert us from our sense of purpose, or can leave us feeling newly purposeless, is disconcertingly long. Moreover, purpose left unattended is inclined to stall. Purpose needs maintenance.
We can have more than one driving sense of purpose: we can have professional and private purposes that drive us, and we can have a private sense of purpose around family and another around self. But we need to be aware that our sense of purpose will drive our decision-making, so if we do have more than one sense of purpose then we may find that from time to time (sometimes frequently) they are in conflict, and this can make decision-making fraught and stressful.
Purpose at work
Our work purpose is why we do what we do professionally. It guides us. Without a sense of professional purpose, we tend to be rudderless and to drift, our direction decided by external factors that are equivalent to tides and winds. Work purpose can and often does come from the organization that employs us – often wrapped together with other concepts such as vision, mission, and values. Some companies provide careful and nuanced ‘purpose statements’ that are the result of research and thought. In other cases, the purpose statement is no more than a handy soundbite. Work purpose can also be self-imposed, and indeed a sense of professional purpose may be what takes an individual into a particular place of professional endeavour – a sense of purpose around the importance of civic safety may, for example, be the driver for an individual to join the police force.
Meaningfulness, safety and purpose
Meaningfulness is derived primarily from our sense of purpose. If my purpose is to be the very best parent that I can be, or to play the best part I can in alleviating the exploitation of child labour, or to contribute my best efforts to delivering sustainability initiatives that will help to drive positive climate change, or to help build the best local football league that supports and develops young talent in a socially deprived area, then that purpose will give meaning to my life. I will feel that what I do has some benefit and is of some use – my effort will have meaning.
It helps if there is obvious significance in the tasks that I must carry out – I want to feel meaning in what I do, rather than force meaning into it – and it helps if there is variety in those tasks, so that I am not doing the same thing day after day. If that variety can call on several different skills, then that is even better.
Our personal purpose is something we create for ourselves, and we own. We do not inherit it and it cannot be delegated to us or imposed on us
But in doing what I do to deliver that purpose I must feel safe to be true to myself – I cannot be purposeful if there is pretence in my self-presentation. So, whatever my true self is, my internal and my external self, I must feel free to be that person at work as I pursue my purpose.
Purpose and values
Personal and professional purpose, and my willingness and ability to drive towards my purpose, is linked to my sense of values. Understanding what we mean by values, and knowing what values are and what role they play in our lives, helps us in turn to explore and understand our sense of purpose.
Without a sense of professional purpose, we tend to be rudderless and to drift, our direction decided by external factors that are equivalent to tides and winds
The work of Milton Rokeach, an American academic who researched into what we mean by values, is useful here to offer clear definitions. In his 1979 work, Understanding Human Values (Free Press) Rokeach defined values as “strongly held prescriptive or proscriptive beliefs about ideal modes of behaviour and end-states of existence that are activated by, yet transcend, object and situation.” First it is important to note the subjective nature of values – they are “prescriptive or proscriptive” so they are limiting or restricting subjective beliefs. These beliefs are activated by “object and situation” – that is to say, by what we see and by situations in which we find ourselves – but these strongly held subjective beliefs transcend these situations, overcome these objects and dictate our actions by limiting our behaviour to be in line with these beliefs.
Here’s an example: I might have a value – a strongly held prescriptive belief – that living a carbon-neutral life is critically important. That ideal end-state of existence transcends object and situation, so I can’t, with this value, take long unnecessary trips alone by car, or drive when I could walk or cycle, or take avoidable commercial flights, for business or for pleasure.
Values are powerful things to have and when one person’s, tribe’s or nation’s values clash with another’s, the consequences can be severe.
Next, it is useful to explore further what Rokeach means by end states of existence and modes of behaviour. Rokeach used the expression Terminal Values to describe values that captured end states of existence that we subjectively simply found to be highly desirable. So desirable that we were prepared to dedicate our life’s efforts to achieving them.
These Terminal Values tended to be of two kinds. One kind was what could be described as self-regarding and focused on the way we wanted life to be for ourselves and our loved ones. Examples of such Terminal Values might include family security, inner harmony, career success, deep reciprocated love, social recognition, prosperity, or wisdom. Immediately we see that what for one individual might be a Terminal Value may for another be simply a desirable outcome or may even be something beneath consideration. It is also important to ensure that what we recognize as Terminal Values are our own Terminal Values and are not the ambitions or expectations or obligations that others may have for us.
The other kind of Terminal Value we could hold is described as other-regarding or selfless and describes a strongly held belief about an end state of existence that we want to help achieve. Examples of these might, alongside a carbon neutral footprint, also be reversing the progress of climate change, improving public health or education, eliminating leukaemia or abolishing child slavery, or building a world free of discrimination, or ensuring national security for your country of birth.
Once again, the list can be endless, and what might be a Terminal Value for you may be someone else’s mild interest. But what is again immediately apparent, and what we will return to, is the link between Terminal Values and a sense of purpose.
Instrumental Values, meanwhile, capture those behaviours that we subjectively feel to hold more worth or value for us than any others. Now here the list of words truly is endless, and what might make my list may not get anywhere close to your list. Contenders might be words like compassion, loyalty, dedication, precision, punctuality, courage, hard work, freedom, understanding, creativity or any of hundreds of others. Whatever your Instrumental Values are, they may capture behaviours that are no more than at best preferred behaviours for someone who on the surface looks exactly like you. Then of course there are what we recognize as rewarded behaviours – those behaviours that our organizations or our loved ones or our teammates reward us for holding to be important.
Understanding exactly what my own Instrumental Values are, and what merely represent rewarded behaviours, preferred behaviours or perhaps required behaviours is very important.
It is only for our Instrumental Values that we will die in a ditch or lie down in traffic
Because it is only for our Instrumental Values that we will die in a ditch or lie down in traffic. We will, when the going gets tough, turn away from all the others and behave in a way that is contingent on the situation – doing what seems best in the moment. That is the power of our true values: we hold to them regardless of situation or circumstance. We act in a way that is congruent with them whatever the cost. These Instrumental Values represent our authentic selves.
It is often the case that there is a link between our Instrumental Values and our Terminal Values. I behave in certain ways because that behaviour helps me to move towards my Terminal Value – my end state of existence that I simply feel is more important than any other. So, for example I am courageous because courage is required to name discrimination for what it is, wherever it is found. My Instrumental Value of courage helps me to deliver my Terminal Value of rooting out discrimination from my society. Or I am conscientious because that helps me to live a carbon neutral life.
Purpose, values & authenticity
I want to return to the link between purpose, values and authenticity. I have shown, I hope, that my personal Terminal Values (of which there should not be more than three or four) give my life purpose. These Terminal Values are likely to encompass some self-regarding end states of existence that capture the sort of life I want to live, and some selfless end states of existence that address more the sort of things in which I want to be engaged. My professional sense of purpose may be self-imposed, in which case it is likely to be expressed through personal values that I hold around my professional activities. Or it may be generated by the company that employs me having a purpose statement, one that engages me and that I find gives me a sense of professional purpose. Often, of course, I may bring my own sense of professional purpose, captured in a Terminal Value, to an organization where the attraction of the organization is that its purpose and mine appear to be aligned.
Now, if I am in a leadership role, I know that people both in my team and in the wider organization, will be looking at me and searching for reasons to be led by me. One of the biggest enablers around leadership is authenticity. People prefer to be led by someone who they find to be authentic. Michie and Gooty (2005) refer to Bass and Steidlmeier (1999) and to Luthans and Avolio (2003) as they suggest that authentic leaders “are said to engage in self-transcending behaviours because they are intrinsically motivated to be consistent with high-end, other-regarding values that are shaped and developed through the leader’s life experiences.” The literature consistently tells us that authentic leaders have examined their values and identified those which are core. Luthans & Avolio (2003) define authentic leadership as leadership where a course of action is decided not by situational imperatives but by reference to an examined, broadly unchanging template of core values.
Knowing oneself and being true to oneself are therefore the essential qualities of authentic leadership
George (2004) points out that to become authentic, each of us must develop our own leadership style, consistent with our own personality and character. Luthans and Avolio (2003) see in the authentic leader a “seamless link between espoused values, behaviours and actions…building the moral capacity of leaders to make selfless judgements”. This places values at the heart of an objective, a codified code of conduct which will lead to predictable and consistent behaviours and ensure that authentic leadership can have no egotistic intent.
The authentic leader’s focused route to achieving the team or organization’s objective must be one which encompasses an altruistic concern for others. George & Sims (2007) definition of authentic leadership describes authentic leadership as following one’s own beliefs with courage and conviction whilst serving others, being genuine and pursuing personal growth. May, Chan, Hodges and Avolio (2003) say that authentic leadership is ultimately about the leader knowing him or herself and being transparent in linking inner desires, expectations, and values to the way they behave as leader every day, in every interaction. Knowing oneself and being true to oneself are therefore the essential qualities of authentic leadership.
So, where does all this leave us?
Finding ways to be more purposeful and, if you are a leader, finding ways to help people in your team to be more purposeful must be a good ambition. We know that people with purpose are more engaged, and we know that more engaged people make for better performing teams. We also know that people prefer to be led by those whom they believe to be authentic, and that central to our idea of another’s authenticity is our sense that they are in some way led or driven by values that are worthwhile and broadly speaking selfless. So, revisiting the Rokeach understanding of values – that we have Terminal Values that describe end states of existence that we pursue most avidly, and Instrumental Values that describe the behaviours that we value above all others – may well help us as leaders to be able to guide others towards a sense of purpose (especially, for example, if we lead within a coaching culture) and therefore increased authenticity.