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7 steps to define & make your core values stick! 

If I asked you what are your Core Values, how would you answer? Do you get a little confused when you think of the word ‘value’ as it applies to you? Is it something you’ve been meaning to do for years but haven’t got around to it, yet? These are the questions I faced myself before starting this exercise a few years back. I always had an instinctual sense that it was a piece of work I needed to do. That there was something missing in me by not having these clear in my own head, and in my gut.

Last Summer, I had the opportunity present at a work event. The presentation was to a local group and it was also broadcast to other sites in our European offices. It was part of a 3-day event celebrating the importance of people at work. Without people, at least for the next few years, while we wait for AI and rise of the Bots to take over (joking, maybe, maybe not), companies couldn’t exist, survive, or thrive. So, I decided to focus the presentation around personal values, hoping to highlight the importance of being clear on your own core set of values, virtues, or principles.

In truth, this is a subject I’m fascinated by and have been for the last few years. During this time, I’ve gone through the process of discovering my own, and now use them as a guiding light when it comes to making important decisions. Identifying these has been pretty transformative and wanted to take this opportunity to share my story and give some examples of how others could identify their own. So, as I was preparing the content, I did a little bit of googling on the topic. Just to get some ‘facts’ to start out with. Here are just a few that I found:

· Personal values are formed at a very young age and are done so largely unconsciously.

· Most evidence shows that your core values don’t change much from late teens/early twenties.

· In a recent survey of employees in the workplace, approximately only 50% have view of what their core values are/were.

To test out the last one, when starting my presentation, I asked the audience in the room if they knew their own core value set. While some mightn’t have been bothered putting up their hand, those that did verified the survey result. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. The core value conundrum is tough. Similar to most things around self-development and improvement, there has to be a genuine WANT in the person to figure them out. I found, going through the process myself, and also through learnings and work done in my executive coaching practice, there can be confusion around what a core value is. This leads to a mental block when trying to identify them. So, I’ve reflected back through my own work and put together a set of steps that worked for me. Here goes!

Step #1 – Seek first to understand!

When trying to get a better understanding of a word, it’s meaning and context, I love to do a bit of digging around its origin. Itsetymology.  (As an aside, I think we absorb so many words all the time and start using them in our day-to-day speech without having a real sense of what they mean. We just go with it. It’s interesting and probably risky. I’m guilty of it myself and can be a bit embarrassing when I use a word in the incorrect context. I wonder if there is a word for that?)The origin for value is from the Latin ‘valere’, which means to be ‘of worth’.

So, when thinking of your core values, keep in mind what is ‘of worth’ to you! Sounds simple? Sometimes we make things more difficult than they need to be.

Step #2Start with the list!

Back to my own value discovery adventure. Being honest, this wasn’t something on my radar in my twenties. I remember attending a manager training course about ten years ago and the topic of core values came up. We were given a handout which was a single page that had well over one hundred words on it, all considered as values. We were then tasked with reviewing it as homework and asked to identify which of these resonated most. I remember looking over it a few times over the next week and managed to whittle the 100+ down to about 50! To be fair, not a great filtering exercise. I continued to refine it, iteratively, finally getting to 12-15 words. I remember losing interest though. It wasn’t sticking for me. I wasn’t really engaging fully into it. I think I saw it as something I HAD to do rather than WANTED to do! Upon reflection, and knowing what I know now, I wasn’t ready to do the exercise seriously. The desire to do the reflection, soul searching and the digging in that it required to really identify get clear on my 5 or 6 were just wasn’t there. Sound familiar?

Value Turning Point

I can’t pinpoint the exactly when in my thirties when desire started figure this out began. A few memories jump out. One memory that comes up is having to face some fears around presentations and the anxiety that I had about public speaking. I discovered the book ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway’by Susan Jeffers. It was/is a simple yet great read, the first self-help book I’d ever read, and helped me put things into perspective. It indirectly kick-started some further self-improvement.  Another big moment is liked to Emotional Intelligence, or EQ. I read Daniel Goleman’sbook on this subject and it hit home. I was spending more time on self-reflection and had a desire to confront some of the less productive habits or behaviours that I had in my life. Ones that were holding me back. I was going through a period of change, it was uncomfortable, the voice within was draining and I felt like I was not really clear on who I was and what I stood for. The more self-reflecting and ‘work’ I was doing on myself, the more I felt my own sense of purpose start to emerge.

Return of the List!

Fast forward a few years. A little more mature, a distance further down the road of figuring myself out, a whole-lot better at silencing the negative self-talk and reducing the self-sabotage that was common place, the personal or core value set question came back into focus. It arrived at a time when I was working with an Executive Coach, who was guiding me through a more structured coaching process to help me identify and work on some opportunities to grow and develop. Coincidentally, this work happened around the same time as I was developing my meditation practice (beginning to develop means not giving up after a few days when nothing was happening).

I mentioned to the coach that the core value question was something I had struggled with defining in the past. Probably not surprisingly, he said ‘it’s not an easy one to figure out.’ It is a common challenge, especially when people are at a point where they’re searching for meaning or more purpose in their lives. Thankfully though, he had an approach that I could try. It started with a familiar page with over a hundred words was produced. I remember the sense of déjà vu. Return of the list! There are many examples online of the value list and I recommend you find a couple. An example of one I use is here.

Step #3Intuitively select & Iterate!

This time around I was in a different place, so was open to trying it again.  On the coach’s advice, I reviewed the list, identified a set, left it for a few days, came back, changed a few, narrowed a few, and continued to iterate on it over the next few weeks, until our next session. Before, I was doing this as part of manager training I wasn’t fully invested in. Now, I was doing it for me. Out of a real want. Combine that with the extra few weeks I had to do the work, I was able to narrow it down to a set that were much more meaningful. Homework, it was not.

#4 – Phone a Friend. 

In full disclosure, this wasn’t a step I used during my own process, but I 100% would have knowing how useful it now is. I’m including it as it’s been a real eye-opener for coachees’ I’ve worked with in the last couple of year. I remember suggesting it to a coachee a while back when they were stuck defining their own value set.

‘What would your wife say your values are?’ I asked.

The look on the client’s face said it all. They hadn’t thought of asking the person that was closest to them. That knew them best. It opened up a door. And the values came in. The subsequent conversation helped shine a light on a blind spot the coachee had, and also helped reaffirm some of the ones they already had picked. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

Step #5 – Decide, Chose & Share! 

While it’s important to take time with this exercise, like anything, without a deadline or some pressure, you might never decide on anything. Get your left brain working on a date and make it know you’re going to share these with others at that time. This puts some pressure on you. I was struggling to narrow my own set down to the final 5 or 6. Thanks to my coach, some pressure, and my fear of drowning, it worked!

The Sinking Dingy – Get Strict

When I met with the coach again, my condensed list was roughly ten values. For coaching to be impactful, there needs to be a few key ingredients. One of them was trust, another the ability to be very straightforward and direct. Both were very evident with Pat, my Coach, and continue to be there as we still work together. He was very direct with me, advising that ten was way too many to be ‘core’! What happened next helped me move forward.

Visualisation is an important and powerful tool for coaching. It can be used in many situations however. Pat asked me to visualise a scene. I was out at Sea in a small dingy. The waters were choppy, to say the least. I was in danger! With me, in the life-raft, were my ten values. The words, as I imagined them, were heavy and made from stone. Their weight was causing the boat to sink!

‘You have to off-load a few of these to stay afloat, Rob’, Pat challenged. ‘You can only have 5 or 6 with you. All the others have to go.’

This simple, almost cheesy visualisation, was powerful. I’m not sure why it resonated with me. Maybe because of my own fear of deep water and being a poor swimmer. So maybe my fear of drowning kicked in. Whatever it was, it worked. After a short while, I was able to refine down to my core set of six. I very much went with my intuition on these six. They were the ones that felt right.

Step #6Know the Why?

When you get close to your final set and find yourself more certain, ask yourself Why? Why are you picking these? Do they have a backstory?

Over the next couple of weeks, after landing on my final 6, I reflected back on each one selected (and still do) to better understand the ‘why’ for each. I was keen to figure out if there was a story behind each one. If I could make sense of them. That reflection and time pondering was very interesting. For the majority of them, I could find a reason, an origin, a meaning behind it that made sense. I found that reassuring. An example I often use is one that focuses on my value of hard-work. I firmly believe that has been something I had instilled in me from my Grandfather. He worked for most of his life in tough manual labour for BordNaMona, working in the Bog lands of Ireland) for 30+ years. A hard slog working on the land. I remember growing up, seeing him leave early and return in the evening, pretty much getting it done to provide for his family. He just got on with it. Didn’t complain. Did the work. That’s just one example. Working through the others, similar memories and ‘stuff’ came up for me that made them feel right.

I’d encourage you do that same. And just because some don’t have a backstory, doesn’t make them wrong. If feel right, stick with it. Time will tell if you need to adjust. But, in most cases, you’re going to be confident with them at this point.

#7Make them Visible!

Whether that’s on your whiteboard, blackboard (if they still exist), Post-it notes, phone or laptop background or screensaver, or bathroom mirror. Make them front and centre. Have them in eye-shot. Especially until they became part of you. That you can recall them at any time without thinking. A decision comes your way, and, in an instant, you can run it through your value set, to see how it stands up, and make the call.

Since I landed on my six values a few years back, I’ve kept them very close to me. They haven’t changed, but I still regularly revisit them. When I find myself faced with a tough decision or choice, I always try to use my value set to help with the answer. Whatever aligns to most of these generally makes the decision for me. It can save a lot of time too!

Now as a Coach myself, I find that a lot of clients I’ve worked with are also unclear on what their own set of core values are. Using an exercise like the one I’ve described, or a few others that I’ve learned since, can be very powerful in helping the client get clarity and generate learning and progress for them in their own coaching journey. While it’s not always an area a client needs to go, it’s one that can be very transformative if the need arises.

So that’s my story and experience with Core Values. I’ll go back to something I said earlier. It’s iterative. It can take time to get to the right set. But don’t give up, don’t give yourself a hard time during the process. Below I’ve summarised the steps I walked myself and generally use these myself when coaching others. I hope you find this useful and I encourage you to try it yourself. Even if you’re already clear on what yours are, no harm in testing out the below process to validate them.

Hope you enjoyed this piece. The Question of Core Values is one I talk about in many of the conversations I have with guests my podcast – 1% Better. Every time, I get a varied answer, and even a few new approaches to identify them. I love hearing the answer to this question.

Links to some articles used:


Rob is a qualified Executive Coach and has been Mentoring and Coaching over the last decade in various roles held during his career. In 2017, Rob launched the Rob of the Green Platform which hosts the 1% Better Podcast. Rob currently is a director of Project Management and Leadership Coaching at Dell in Cork, Ireland. Rob also publishes articles on productivity, goal setting, meditation, and other topics. 

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