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How do you decipher someone’s values?

What are your values? You need to articulate them before you can reorient your life.

5 min read



Susan Fowler

Several years ago, I wrote about my friend Deborah’s novel idea to evaluate a potential online dating candidate. She said, “I wish I could just ask him for his credit rating, type of car he drives, and his BMI (body mass index).”

For Deborah, asking about a young man’s credit rating could provide insight into his values concerning responsibility or financial security. Asking him about the car he drives might point to values such as status or environmental concerns. Asking about his BMI could reveal values around his self-concept or or health.

Even though Deborah was joking, she tapped into a powerful concept that I’ve continued to refine: What can you ask to decipher a person’s values? Research shows that the most important criteria for forging meaningful relationships is a match in values.

But, dating prowess aside, values also hold the key to more than relationships. When you align your work-related goals to values, you attribute meaning to your work. When you align personal activities to values, you gain fulfillment in even the most mundane moments.

The problem? If you haven’t consciously developed your values, meaning is elusive.

Try this little exercise to begin the process of developing your own values, which will also help you become aware of and sensitive to other people’s values.

First, make a list of five to 10 of your general life values.

Then, evaluate your stated values against two questions:

  1. How do you spend your money?
  2. How do you spend your time?

With these two questions, you can determine the veracity of your stated values and if they are fully functioning in your life. Your answers immediately point out discrepancies between your espoused values (what you say you value) and your true values (what you act on). For example, you write …

  • “I value innovation.” But, in truth, you don’t spend time nurturing people’s creativity, but rather, applying pressure to drive results that shuts down people’s creativity.
  • “I value work-life balance.” But you spend 65 hours a week at work, often choosing business matters over family matters, and expect the same of your team members.
  • “I value compassion; I really care about people.” But, what percentage of your income do you donate to charitable causes? How much time do you spend helping the less fortunate? Does the way you spend your money and time support your claim of compassion?
  • “I value health.” You bought a gym membership, but don’t have the time to use it, wasting your money and spending your time elsewhere.

Ironically, if you are in a leadership role, the people you lead may know more about your true values than you do. People judge your values through your words, deeds, and behavior. They notice how you spend your time and the budget decisions you make.

Research shows people use their values judgements to conclude whether you are a servant leader of a self-serving leader; whether you can be trusted to act on what you say, or not. If they see you as self-serving and untrustworthy, you are also seen as less effective and not worth following.

I can’t vouch for how the exercise works with online dating, but I can assure you that comparing your espoused values with how you spend your money and time provides potent insight into your own and someone else’s true values. I encourage you to expand on the basic exercise to develop values for yourself and those on your team.

For example, Barbara applied it when participating in budget decisions by asking herself and her team members: “Where do you propose to allocate discretionary funds? Are there areas you feel so strongly about, you would spend your own money to make it happen?”

Ed wrote that he intends to ask his team:

  • In what ways do you spend your personal energy at work moving the mission and vision forward?
  • With whom and with what initiatives do you spend your precious time making a difference and being fully engaged?

Leslie suggested that this exercise would be helpful during hiring interviews when seeking a staff member whose values align with the demands of the role.

Aligning goals with values is a powerful way to generate positive energy and experience optimal motivation for yourself and with others. However, this means people need to have deeply held values that are acted upon over time. The good news? Values are personal choices. As a leader, you can guide people through the process of defining and developing their values, then help them align their goals to those developed values.

Remember, you choose your values. Begin to explore the values you currently have by asking yourself: How do I spend my money? How do I spend my time? Then develop values you act on and cherish by making conscious choices about how you want to answer those questions.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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