Can You Act Contrary to Your Values?

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

You have probably heard the David Campbell quote: “Discipline is remembering what you want.”  We all have more wants than we can keep up with.  That’s why tools like Getting Things Done (the book and system by David Allen), PDA’s and note-taking applications exist.  We forget what we want.  Our higher, more important values typically are not front of mind.  Over time, we make a series of choices from a limited menu, only to regret later never completing the truly important things.  We forget what we really want.  Do you ever do that?

Plan to Remember


That’s why it’s a good exercise to write, communicate, share and articulate your values.  If you can create a set of personal or corporate values and let them guide your choices and actions, your decisions are informed by your true values.  You will make fewer decisions without considering the truly important options.  Short term desires won’t crowd out long-held dreams and desires.

You can act contrary to your long-term values by making poor choices in the short term.

Consider this first-person example: I value serving others and making a difference.  I also desire comfort.  Many evenings, I choose comfort and eat a dessert.  I’ve done that so many times that I’m overweight, making me less healthy and limiting my ability to serve others and makea positive difference.  (Sure this is extreme, but it makes the point.)  I often choose short-term reward over delayed gratification.  I choose comfort over impact or significance.

Your actions expose your true values – every time, at least the ones in the front of your mind.  Each choice you make to go to work, to call in sick, to help your kids with school or watch a football game; to spend time on Twitter of Facebook, or do the reports you’ve been postponing; every choice you make is a value-judgment.  You value the option you selected above the option (or hundreds of options) you passed up.

New Inputs

But when a new idea becomes important to you, when your values change, your mind and your body don’t believe you.  You must train yourself to behave according to your new values.  If you’ve been a people-pleaser you must force yourself to say no for a while until it becomes natural.  If you don’t reinforce your new value, it will become an unfulfilled wish.

So as you choose your actions today, do you choose for the past or the future?  Do you remember what’s important to you and make your choices accordingly?  Or do you go with the flow of your habits and years of choices?  You’re free to choose.  What will you choose today?

The question remains:

Is my true value comfort?  What values do your actions testify to? Are we over-emphasizing our  intentions and under-emphasizing our results?  What do you think?

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Susan Mazza  |  21 Oct 2009  |  Reply

Once again you make so many great point and say them so well! “Your actions expose your true values.” That holds true for both individuals and organizations.

In answer to your question “Are we overemphasizing our intentions and under-emphasizing our results?”, I think the answer is an obvious yes if the two don’t align!
.-= Susan Mazza´s last blog ..What Stands are You Taking? =-.

Mike Henry  |  22 Oct 2009  |  Reply

Susan, thanks for your comments. I think we always credit ourselves for our intentions and credit others for their results. I think it’s more noticeable when the two don’t align.

Doug Edgar  |  21 Oct 2009  |  Reply

Hi Mike,

I’ve been taught that core values don’t change unless something really big (usually traumatic) forces us to re-examine our beliefs. We modify our behavior as needed to disguise values that get in the way of accomplishing our goals but our values remain unchanged.

You point out that we can change our values if something becomes important enough that we are willing to overcome our natural resistance to change.

I’m wondering, using your example, does a people-pleaser ever stop being a pleaser at heart after the behavior has been modified or is it something we’re stuck with, the thorn in our side?


PS: Coincidentally, I’m working on a new blog post about core values in the context of strategic planning. You’ve added another dimension to my thinking and much food for thought.
.-= Doug Edgar´s last blog ..How Big the Big Picture? =-.

Mike Henry  |  22 Oct 2009  |  Reply

Doug, thanks for your comments and I’m glad to have provided another perspective. I do think there are tendencies we all must deal with and, like the John Nash character portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, we must have a “diet of the mind” in respect to some of those tendencies. When we can focus on our most important values or objectives, we put ourselves on a diet of the things that matter less.

Gwyn Teatro  |  22 Oct 2009  |  Reply

Wow, some thought provocation going on here!
I go back to the title of your post, “Can You act contrary to your values?” I’m thinking that we absolutely can, and do. And often, it is to serve a purpose that doesn’t necessarily serve us. For instance I can think of many times when I have agreed to do something or be part of something because it was easier to go along with the crowd. But, in my “advancing” years I have come to know that the more often we do things like that, the further we get away from ourselves, running the risk of getting lost in that crowd. Then it becomes harder, not easier.
As for intentions It is also easier to over-emphasize them because they always sound good. And talking about them feels good too. Getting results though, takes discipline and focus. That’s harder. What makes it easier, I think, is that if our intentions and the ensuing results are well aligned with our core values, then our reward is a great sense of satisfaction. If not, then well, not so much.

Great topic, Mike. Thanks!


Mike Henry  |  22 Oct 2009  |  Reply

Thanks Gwyn for your comments. You boiled it off to a great goal, aligning our intentions and our results with our core values. Our focus gives us much more impact and satisfaction results. Thanks for chipping in.

Leslie Knight  |  23 Oct 2009  |  Reply

If one can consistently act contrary to their values, can that person honestly say that something is truly one of their core values? Can we act against deeply held, clearly defined values? I’m not sure that we can…it would be out of character.

Our values are the “why” behind what we do. They define what we stand for and the principles by which we operate.
When our values are not clearly defined, the conscience cannot perceive a violation and bring about a change in behavior. When they are not clearly defined, they are easily subordinated to urgent and/or unimportant matters.

Clearly defined values keep us on course. They are the GPS of the soul of an individual or an organization.

Michael Leiter  |  23 Oct 2009  |  Reply

Thanks for a fine post.
My response to your lead question is, yes, people act contrary to their values frequently. Acting in line with your values can be tough. To be respective, responsive, and civil to others doesn’t require sophisticated expertise, but does require a capacity to remain sensitive to others despite distractions, fatigue, or even overt provocation.

Another point: Core values can be in conflict with one another: providing attentive patient care may require a serious time commitment to a particular patient while assuring the safety of all patients on her shift requires limiting her time with any specific patient, esp when staffing is slim. Fulfilling both values can be impossible. Choosing one value over the other is not always feasible; often one compromises a bit on both, feeling the disappointment profoundly.

Living one’s values is an ongoing life challenge requiring creative problem solving, self discipline, and focus every day. Esp if you’re aspiring for something truly great.

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