CTO Compass

Navigating Tough Choices: How Understanding Your Intrinsic Values Can Guide Decision-Making

CTO Compass series

Have you ever made a decision that was ultimately unsatisfying or perhaps even regrettable, even though it resulted in a good outcome?

If that’s true, then perhaps it’s because your decision didn’t take into account your intrinsic values.

What are intrinsic values?

They are what you value for their own sake, not because it’s a means to an end. These values could be respect, learning, and fairness.

Contrast them against something like money. Money is valuable to us, but only because we believe it is convenient to trade for things we want. It is not intrinsically valuable. If we found a better way to trade, it would simply become useless bits of paper.

The Clearer Thinking website created a useful infographic of many intrinsic values:

Typically, you’ll hold some combination of ethical beliefs about how you and others should be treated, subjective experiences and behaviours you feel are important for yourself and others, and scenarios you might like to obtain in the world. Some will be inherent traits you’ve always felt strongly about, while others will form as you experience life.

Everyone has their own unique set of intrinsic values, almost like a fingerprint. If you want to learn more about yours, Clearer Thinking also has a free Intrinsic Values test you can take.

When our actions align with our intrinsic values, we feel a deep sense of rightness and fulfilment.

So, how does this relate to making better decisions?

It’s simple, really. If you’re not making decisions that align with your intrinsic values, you’ll likely end up feeling that the overall decision was poor, even if you did well in other regards.

Living in the real world

That’s easy to say, but how does this really play out in reality? Often, you’ll find conflict between your values, your organisation’s, and the desired results, particularly in work situations.

Imagine you’re a manager facing a tough decision about a long-time employee. This person has been a loyal and dedicated worker for years, but their performance has recently taken a nosedive. You’ve tried coaching and support, but the situation hasn’t improved. Now you’re weighing whether to let them go.

As a leader, you likely have intrinsic values around loyalty, compassion, and fairness. You want to repay this employee’s years of service with patience and support. Terminating them feels like a betrayal of those values.

At the same time, you have a responsibility to your team and the broader organization. Keeping an underperforming employee could be seen as unfair to their colleagues picking up their slack. It may even compromise team results and morale. There’s an argument that the compassionate choice, from this wider lens, is to make the hard call and let them go.

So, how do you untangle these competing values? One approach is to zoom out and consider what’s best for the organization’s long-term health. Sometimes, leaders must make difficult short-term decisions to uphold deeper intrinsic values, such as stewardship and integrity.

Another option is to reframe the situation to find a middle path. Perhaps there’s a way to honour both loyalty and high performance. This could involve finding the employee a more suitable role, providing a generous severance and career transition support, or, at minimum, handling the tough conversation with deep respect and empathy.

There’s no perfect answer, as with most intrinsic value conflicts. The key is consciously acknowledging the tension, grappling with the trade-offs, and striving to make the wisest overall choice possible. The more you practice surfacing and reasoning through these clashes as a leader, the more skillfully you’ll navigate them over time – and the more you’ll stay true to your deepest intrinsic values, even in the face of complex organizational pressures.

It’s one reason organizations should have a strong set of core values that all employees align with. These guide decision-making to ensure consistency with the desired organizational culture.

If you don’t really know what you truly value, then you are more likely to make decisions based on what society tends to value, which doesn’t necessarily align with what you actually think. Sometimes, we’ll rationalise a decision because we think we ought to do something, even if that’s not how we truly feel.

Once you better understand your most important intrinsic values, you’ll make better decisions that align more closely with how you view the world. You’ll be more satisfied with your choices, even if the outcome doesn’t go exactly as planned.

The path to a more fulfilling life isn’t paved with haphazard decisions but through decisions deeply rooted in your values.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

Make a list of at least 5 of your most important intrinsic values. You can use the wheel from Clearer Thinking as a starting point or optionally take their test.

Review some of your recent decisions and how they aligned or didn’t align with those values. If you recorded other potential options that you didn’t take, how would taking those options compare if you paid attention to your intrinsic values?

Would you be more likely to choose a different option that is more closely aligned next time?

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