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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

Helping Leaders Connect To Their Values

You’re walking out of a large meeting at work. The presenter was covering much ground and tended to ramble on. You don’t feel that this was a good use of your time but you’re now ready to return to work. As you walk out of the meeting, you overhear a couple of people ahead of you make totally inappropriate remarks about the presenter.

You are shocked. You find it inconceivable that someone would say something like this about a colleague who happens to be a member of a visible minority group. You can’t let it go. You’re debating with yourself how you can best intervene.

What just happened here is that one of your high-priority values has been contradicted. You are surprised by the vehemence of your reaction. It’s simply not acceptable to you. This is an example of the power of our values even though, for the most part, we cannot name or articulate them.

Awareness of our Values

Most people need more awareness of their values. The main barrier for people to understand their values is that we don’t really have words to help describe them with discernment. Because their lives depend on it, some Inuit people have 9 words to describe snow accurately, such as slushy, icy, fluffy, etc. We don’t have such a nuanced list to describe our values other than vague notions. I have met senior leaders who claimed to be values-centred but asked what their values are they cannot name or describe their values. Using the iceberg analogy, values live below the watermark. Whether or not we have a clear idea of what they are, our values are at the heart of how we live our lives, make choices and exercise leadership.

Most people don’t know what their values are. If you ask them what their values are, they will come up with a few words that are part of the “conventional” list of values, such as leisure, work, family, integrity, success, education and more. It is not unusual for a successful male executive to claim “family” as their most important value only to find out this value comes at the bottom of their prioritized list when going through a rigorous values clarification process.

Finding a Teacher

Two years after joining a large Canadian financial institution, I was asked to put together a program for leadership development that would bring a shift to a customer-centric culture. It was a daunting challenge.

I was relatively new to the organization and felt the need to understand the thinking of the people involved. I interviewed more than 100 leaders and asked them to review and modify what I wrote to validate and deepen their thinking on the leadership they currently exercised and what they aspired it to be in support of the culture change the senior leadership wanted to achieve. I then spent time analyzing this information from every angle. I was still struggling to make sense of it all when a colleague said, “You ought to speak with Brian Hall; I think he can help you.” I had no idea I was about to meet someone who was to have a huge impact on my work to this day.

As it turns out, Brian Hall was Professor Emeritus at Santa Rosa University in Santa Cruz, CA. He spent decades seeking to understand the role of values in human development. As he travelled the world, he asked himself, “What values underlie the behaviours I witness.” His pioneering cross-cultural work gave us a framework defining universal human values. Like Innuits’ discerning words for snow, Brian Hall’s work gave us names and definitions for values placed on a development spectrum.

We collaborated for over 10 years in a relationship where I had the incredible privilege of being the apprentice. Beyond helping me map out how to give shape to a major cultural change effort, this collaboration allowed me to deepen my work on leadership and organization development ever since. Over the last several years, I have worked with more than 500 leaders to help them connect with their values and place them at the core of their leadership practice.

Defining Values

Values are best defined as ‘prioritized ideals’. Two individuals could have the same values in their top five priorities but if they are in a different order, it will lead them to make radically different choices. People often believe that they make decisions on a purely rational basis. Our underlying values shape our decisions and behaviours, whether or not we are aware of them. Along with mindsets, our values and beliefs provide the tacit foundation of our knowledge. In other words, they make us who we are as people and as leaders. The more aware we are of our values, the more confident and authentic our leadership will be. Authentic leadership requires an awareness of our values. Self-awareness is the keystone of the capabilities that support an effective leader.

Hall’s framework contains 126 distributed along a development spectrum. Each value has a brief definition. A questionnaire allows respondents to prioritize their values by comparing the importance of these values. Values do not stand in isolation from one another. They are part of a cognitive ecosystem where they complement and tug at one another. These dynamics are engaged, for instance, when someone wonders whether they should finish a pressing project this weekend or take their kids on a hike. An Individual’s inner dynamics are most preoccupied with 7 or 8 of their top priority values. Ultimately, the dynamics between these values will be key to shaping their choice.

Connecting with Values

When reviewing the results of the questionnaire, we ask the respondent how a value they have identified as important manifests itself in their everyday life. The great majority of people have no problem providing supporting examples. By engaging in discussion to answer this question, the individual connects to their values.

Through this discussion, we can identify thematic beliefs that run through their values map. We draw linkages that go across developmental stages. If values in preceding developmental stages do not support a highly aspirational value, we identify the existing values at earlier stages that may need to be emphasized from a developmental point of view.

Although changes take place slowly, values are dynamic. As some values that are well anchored in earlier developmental stages drop in importance, others become more front and centre in the person’s awareness/preoccupation. If some dramatic event has not occurred, there is no point in filling out a questionnaire for 2 years. It was fascinating to see the changes that had taken place when a senior leader filled out a questionnaire everything two years over 6 years. As values became ‘acquired’, they went down the priority order while others went up to support other more aspirational values. From that standpoint, it is clear that values play an essential role in developing leaders.

What does this all mean?

1. When people connect to their values…

a) it creates meaning for them and reinforces their beliefs.

b) they understand how to enable and live their values more fully.

c) they can see more clearly why they react in certain ways and are less questioning of themselves.

d) they can more clearly see a pathway for their growth to realize aspirations they have for themselves.

e) they can more easily detect and connect with like-minded people – and discover why they encounter incongruence with others. (The detection is easy: there is congruence if someone gives you energy when they speak with you. If they draw energy from you and leave you depleted, your values are likely, not congruent).

2. Incongruence or misalignment with our values causes discomfort. Understanding where your values come from and how they have been shaped is important.

3. Be more consciously aware of your values and work actively to align them to your behaviours and choices: the more congruence with your values, the more fulfilled you will be.

4. Be rooted in who you are and what matters to you most. Knowing what you stand for makes knowing what to do in any situation much easier. It will give you the courage to stand quietly for what you believe.

5. When making decisions, map out the underlying values pressing you one way or another. Then, decide in a way that helps you realize your deeply felt aspirations.

6. Changing our values is not unlike wanting to change our biology: it can be done but proceed with caution: it takes discernment, dedication and time to achieve it.

What next time something happens around you that deeply disturbs you, reflect on what value(s) you hold is being transgressed and find a constructive way to redress the situation. Strive for congruence in your life.


1. Brian Hall, Values Shift

2. Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life



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