Why Are Values Important in Your Career?

I was standing in front of a group of about 300 people and trying my best to explain why the South African government was going to place a lot of focus on landfill gas harvesting and burning the methane to convert it to carbon dioxide (CO2). Methane has approximately 28 times more warming potential than the equivalent mass of CO2 (see this chart) and so converting methane to CO2 has a relatively large emission mitigation impact. At the time is was also the lowest cost option of all the mitigation strategies the country had to consider. My supervisor’s boss, the Deputy Director General (DDG) had personally dragged me into his office to explain that the public was not going to accept paying more than they had to for renewable energy options. He told me that the lowest cost options had to have the highest priority and more expensive options would only be considered if most of the lower cost options had been implemented first. Although he agreed with me that the biggest challenge we faced in South Africa was capacity building and broad-based experience in all forms of renewable energy implementation, he still insisted that the lowest cost ideology was the only palatable option to the public. We didn’t have an opportunity to put that assumption to the test. It was easier, from a political point of view to declare that we were following a policy based on sensible marginal cost economics but I didn’t believe it was the best strategic choice. I wanted to give all forms of renewable energy an opportunity to be demonstrated, even if it was only on a small scale, so that we could build on the knowledge, insight, learning and experience we could gain from having real world examples to test, validate and improve on. I wanted to ‘share the love’ and the DDG wanted to put all our eggs in one basket.

Local government didn’t have the same agenda as national government

I also knew how difficult it was going to be to try get around the planning permission required, that was in control of local governments. We didn’t have much influence over them, we didn’t have the relationships in place and I knew that local governments had much bigger problems to solve than trying to help us implement our renewable energy strategy. The balance of power between national government and local government meant that achieving our goal was going to become a political contest and I knew it would take years. So when I saw a few key individuals who understood the challenge as well as I did shaking their heads in that public meeting while I was trying to defend a position I personally didn’t believe in, I knew my days were numbered. I couldn’t authentically support this strategy. There were other problems where decisions were being forced down on me from higher up in government based on the personal and political influence that a handful of stakeholders had. I couldn’t condone defending more policies and strategies that were based on personal agendas rather than good quality evidence-based research. So within 8 months of joining the Department of Minerals and Energy as the Director of Renewable Energy, I resigned. The authenticity gap was too large for me. My integrity and reputation were at stake and these values were more important to me than the status of the job, and the potential influence I might have had had I stayed there longer and become a political creature. My values weren’t aligned with the role.

The irony is that I had left the oil and gas industry to work on renewable energy solutions because I wanted to be part of the climate change mitigation solution, rather than being part of the problem. This move had also been a value-based change driver.

The Lesson

The lesson here is that we should do a risk assessment before we take on a new role and evaluate whether there is a chance that we may be forced to compromise on our non-negotiable values and to have a mitigation plan for dealing with the issues if they arise. In addition to having a plan to deal directly with any potential issues if they arise, one should also have an exit strategy.  In fact, I would highly recommend that regardless of what career change you embark upon, you should always have a plan B.

It wasn’t the first or the last time I made a change because there was a mis-alignment between the requirements of the job and my values. So I realised that getting clear on values and how it influences our career changes is quite important. It’s easy to take a job because it sounds good, or because it pays a salary but if we don’t also take our values into account then we might discover that the job is not sustainable.

Values are Different for Different People

Values form the principles and standards for our behaviour and are based on what it important to us. Different people have different values. That doesn’t make one person’s set of values right or wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they are better or worse than another set of values. 

Each person makes their own value judgements. To one person a choice feels right and noble, and to another person a different choice feels right and noble to them. This is the nature of values, everyone has values but not everyone’s values are the same. It’s okay to have different values to others, it doesn’t make your values or their values wrong or inferior.

Don’t allow yourself to feel judged by other people’s opinions based on their values. They will speak with conviction and certainty but that doesn’t mean it is right for you. You really need to understand what your values are, and if challenged, just acknowledge that you value different things. If you feel under pressure, then take the opportunity to describe the other side of the value equation.

Working long hours may be valued by one supervisor as a demonstration of commitment, but to another, spending time with family after hours may be more important. These two supervisors may have different expectations of you in terms of your own willingness to work over time. 

How can you ensure that you are in alignment with your values?

Take some time to reflect on what is important to you. When you have listed the things that are important to you take some time to refocus on this list and dig deeper to understand why these things are important to you. The deeper work is where the true value lies because it helps embed the importance of these values and makes it easier for you to evaluate new options that come your way. 

Not all values are created equal

One of the challenges I experienced when I was working on understanding my values was that there were so many! How is it possible to apply alignment between your values to your career choices?

If I presented you with the following list of values is there anything that you would say you didn’t value? My guess is you would value all of these things:



























Growth or Development



































Put Values into Context 

Different values are applied to different contextual situations. Values are conditional. To some people some values may be considered to be absolute, and in these cases it just means that the values are not negotiable to them within the given context. 

However, some values are mutually exclusive. One employee may want additional supervision while another in the same situation may prefer to work independently. The same person may value apparently conflicting or opposing values in different contextual situations. 

A classic example of this is asking the question when is it permissible to kill someone? Most people would say never, however, change the context – what about a war scenario? What about a life threatening situation where self defence is required. What about the case of someone having a terminal illness and wanting to end their own life because their quality of life has become insufferable? What about the person who is on life support and has been for months, and who is clinically brain dead and the question arises about switching off the life support equipment?

The relativity of values means that we find paradoxes where ‘one person’s nightmare may be another person’s dream come true’. There always seem to be a different perspective on any situation. One person can profit from another person’s misfortune. A dreadful disease that kills many people is an opportunity for another person to find a cure and become famous. The great fire of London in 1666 that destroyed many properties put an end to the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) by killing off the rats, which were the vectors carrying the lice that transmitted the disease to humans. There are times when opposites like equality vs hierarchy, or routine vs flexibility has its place. 

The Focus Question

Understanding what values apply in which context is a potentially impossible task where everything counts, one way or another. The solution to this problem is to consider the ‘focus question’. Which values apply to what situation? The things I value in the work I do are probably going to be different to what I value in myself and in others. Examples of focus questions are:

What do I value in a supervisor that I will be reporting to? 

What would I value in an organisation that I will be working for or creating? 

What would I value in the role I am doing and my contribution? 

What would I value on the teams I am working with?

What would I value in terms of my working conditions, or my life style? 


Once you’ve resolved your contextual problem you will probably stumble into the next problem: which is relativity. Albert Einstein is one of my all time heros in life and it’s important to know that he didn’t discover relativity – he solved a relativistic physics problem by identifying a universal frame of reference in the speed of light. When you are evaluating your values your universal frame of reference is The Focus Question. One you have framed your focus question and listed the values you associate with that specific contextual setting, then you need to rank and classify your values to make them useful in decision-making about your career options and choices. 

The way I rank and categorise my values is to assign them to the following sub-divisions:

1. Absolutely essential (and ultimately non-negotiable)

2. Also important

3. Things I appreciate

Having done this I then asked myself, if I was offered a job that paid three or four times as much as I would ideally like to earn, which of my ‘absolutely essential’ values would I be willing to compromise on, even if it was only for a short duration to complete this highly lucrative assignment? 

The values that remained standing are your non-negotiables. These are your deal breakers. Any value that you are willing to compromise on, even temporarily, should be relegated to the second item on the list i.e. Also Important.

When you start evaluating career options in terms of values you will find that it is very difficult to select between options. The solution to this problem is to consider values as an ‘option qualifier’, rather than a means to identify ‘option winners’. 

I’ve borrowed this concept from my MBA Operations Management lecturer, Norman Faull, who lectured on competitive capabilities and suggested that we should understand which of the common value drivers constituted ‘order winners’ and ‘order qualifiers’. He called the four most common value drivers The Four Horsemen of the Competitive Apocalypse:

  • Price
  • Quality
  • Flexibility
  • Availability

A powerful decision support technique that I like to use, when appropriate, is a decision matrix. Setting up a decision matrix to evaluate and score various career options against your values is a fruitless exercise because all the things you value should apply. If they don’t apply then the option is not really an option for consideration and can be removed. For this reason non-negotiable values enable you to disqualify options. 

When evaluating an option run through your list of questions and ask your self ‘Will [insert value] be compromised in [insert situation]?’ or whatever variation is appropriate to achieve the same effect.

If you find yourself saying “it depends”, then you are into negotiation territory. List these questions for follow-up once you get to the negotiation phase, or for clarification before you apply for the job (if this is the route you feel is best for you). 

You have to do the work yourself

It’s really important to do this exercise and step through each value one by one and ask yourself how and whether it applies to the decision you are trying to make. You have to do the work yourself! There is a very good reason for this and I will address this in another post (watch this space).



  1. Values are subjective – different people have different values
  2. Due to the subjective nature of values no set of values is better or worse than any another set of values
  3. Values are relative, not absolute, and only appear to be absolute within a given context
  4. Values only have contextual meaning – the same person will assign equal value to conflicting or mutually exclusive values under different circumstances
  5. A lack of alignment between your values and your work will eventually force you to make a change or affect your happiness and mental health
  6. Every career change that you make should have a Plan B or an Exit Strategy
  7. Take some time to reflect on why certain values are important to you
  8. Not all values are created equal, so take time to rank them into categories of priority and stress test your non-negotiables
  9. Values are relative and need to be put into context with The Focus Question
  10. Treat values as a way to disqualify career options rather than to select between them. 

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