What are values?

Values are our willing recognition of something worthwhile.

They emerge when we see something, acknowledge its goodness, and live with that recognition.

Values matter because they’re what drive business. They inspire exchange. They motivate work. All companies aspire to add value. But, in order to recognize added value, people must have values.

The problem with values is that they can be very isolating.

When the people around me don’t share my values, that difference can be a source of loneliness, anxiety, fear, and inauthenticity. I either compromise my values to fit in.  Or I insist on my values and feel marginalized.

Things get worse when I don’t even feel that my values are acknowledged. There isn’t enough trust between us to grant the possibility that we differ and that the difference points to something we share. Sometimes that can happen out of ignorance. Sometimes out of carelessness. Occasionally, out of malice.

But the fact that we’re often alone with our values doesn’t have to cut us off from those around us.

There’s a ‘jiu-jitsu move’ for turning values isolation into a chance for connection: live as if your values were contagious.

Share them with others. Invite others to recognize the worth and the goodness you see in the people and things around you. And, even if they can’t see it, open up space for relationships of trust. Relationships that acknowledge that sometimes we value things that really are good though others aren’t (yet) in a position to see them as such for themselves.

We assume too often that values are private. Everyone has them, but no one learns them from others. Or teaches them to others. Given that assumption, the best we can do is form tribes to celebrate the private values we just happen to have in common. But that’s a misleading way of thinking.

There’s no such thing as a private value. There are only values we share with others.

Values are taught and learned. They’re caught and spread.

Of course, I can only point out what inspires me to value something. When I do this—and when you respond—I’ve taught and you’ve learned a value. But it’s still up to you to acknowledge what I see. Or to acknowledge me if you can’t see what I see.

That’s the kernel of truth in the idea that values are private: values are intimate. They’re something we see (or don’t see) on our own. But they never have to isolate us from others.

Work isn’t just about adding value. Leaders—and the companies they lead—should be in the business of offering values to others.

Share the goodness. Invite others to respond.