Choose values over resolutions this year

How to be effective by identifying what matters most to you and setting your intentions accordingly


It’s that time of year again when news stories and social media posts are dominated by heartfelt quotes, well-meaning advice and inspirational anecdotes intended to help you move forward in your work and life in a positive way. But, as we all know, simply resolving to do something differently doesn’t mean that it magically manifests. How can you make meaningful changes stick, to create the life you want?

My provocation to everyone is to put aside empty promises and focus instead on operating from core values, which enable transformational change at both an individual and an organisational level. 

What are values?

Over the last 25 years, I have travelled to more than 180 different countries seeking to understand how values define behaviours, impact relationships, and inform culture. Through this work, I have discovered that values permeate a nation’s history and culture and underpin its contribution to global influence and society (and vice versa). I have seen up close how values shape the lives of people, and how individuals, communities and organisations harness them to drive much-needed change and evolve. 

Examples of values which characterise countries (and which can equally apply to individuals or organisations) include English steadfastness, Chinese pragmatism and US entrepreneurship. Equality is the value which represents Denmark – the idea that people should aspire to be more similar than they are different – while before there was a hint of war I had already identified freedom as a key value for Ukraine. Other values include faith (India), forgiveness (South Africa), harmony (Malaysia), hospitality (Turkey) and positivity (Peru).

One great insight that has helped shape my thinking about the meaning of values is from Mahatma Gandhi, who said:

  Your beliefs become your thoughts,
  Your thoughts become your words
  Your words become your actions
  Your actions become your habits
  Your habits become your values
  Your values become your destiny

Gandhi was speaking about how values can become the driving force behind everything you say and do and every decision you make.

Throughout our lives, we face a myriad of choices, challenges and opportunities that reveal our motivations and character. These can range from life-changing, defining-moment type choices to the regular drumbeat of smaller, less dramatic decisions. Big or small aside, every single decision is informed by our values, working away in our subconscious.

Despite your best efforts, and no matter how fervent your desire, it will be almost impossible to achieve transformational change without understanding and appreciating your core values, and those of the people around you. Values help to explain your life – because they were seeded in us as children, nurtured during adolescence, and nourished and cross-pollenated throughout adulthood. 

Importantly, beliefs divide, but values can unite. For example, dispute is often rooted in a clash of beliefs, but values can foster tolerance, encourage understanding and promote inclusion – leading to a happier, more successful and fulfilling life.

Building values within our organisations

While writing The Values Compass, as well as speaking to national leaders and influencers, I spoke to business visionaries who shared with me how values influence everything from corporate strategy to product innovation and development, and from employee engagement to organisational design. 

Defining your core set of values is fundamental for leaders, employees and organisations because values provide a shared cultural foundation. For example, my research found that a company with a clear purpose and strong values is more likely to attract and retain loyal employees – and loyal customers.

An example is Mastercard’s former executive chairman Ajay Banga, who focuses on the base of the pyramid; financial inclusion and growth for all. This is demonstrated through the areas Mastercard chooses to focus time, energy and resource on – creating a virtuous circle. 

Then there’s Levi Strauss’ CEO Chip Bergh, whose personal values of empathy, integrity, courage and originality align with the values that Levi Strauss & Co has followed since it was founded in 1873. Bergh has spoken many times about the compatibility of values – and about the need for companies that are “committed to a moral compass and to doing the right thing.”

Whenever there are organisations with core values such as these, the people who are attracted – whether they are leaders, colleagues or customers – feel part of something bigger. And whatever tomorrow an uncertain future brings, when we lead value-able lives, transformational change happens – at every level. 

How do I identify my values?

So, how can you move from arbitrary decision-making to a place where your personal values underpin and inform your decisions, relationships and priorities? Here are four easy steps to achieve this shift:

1. Make a list of 15-20 values that you believe are important to you. Start by writing these on small cards. A guide to some of these can be found in my book the Values Compass, which discusses the values of 101 countries around the world. This could be a helpful tool to identify the values which best resonate. 

2. Whittle the list down.Group similar values/themes together to identify key themes. Pare your list down to around five core values, which are intrinsic to you – beliefs you cannot live without. You may wish to use the following questions to help identify your core values – but make sure you ask them of yourself in the correct setting and answer honestly.

  • When were you truly happy in your life or career? What was present at that moment? What needs were being met and how? It’s likely that a core value was being acknowledged.
  • When did you feel truly aggrieved in your life or career? Why did you feel that way? It’s likely that a core value was being threatened. 
  • What would you want included in your eulogy? Is this reflected in how you spend your time? If not, you need to better incorporate this value into your life.

If it helps, you could also take guidance from the people who are closest to you – family, friends, colleagues.

3. Scrutinise the values again.Think painstakingly about each value, considering how you’d feel if it were compromised. Ultimately your core values should be the ones you’d fight to maintain under any circumstances.

Naturally, these defined values will begin to shape your purpose for the coming year (and possibly for the rest of your life), for values build your mission and inform your actions. They allow you to stand in your power and trust in your decision-making, providing consistency and continuity to your organisation, teams and followers.

4. Rank your values in order of priority for 2023. Right now, with a new year stretching out in front of you, which of these values is helping to identify your priorities? Which value is most relevant for where you are right now? This will bring focus and power. 

You’ll need to repeat this exercise at regular intervals throughout your life – I recommend once each year – and during times of change and disruption. If you’ve chosen well, it’s unlikely that your core values will change, but the priorities you set against them almost certainly will. And different values will have different meanings at various points in your life.

Once you have your values clearly defined, the hard thinking is done – there’s no excuse to say you don’t know what you want this year – or in life – or how to make difficult decisions.

Organisations can define values too

This process for defining core values can be done at an organisational level as well as at an individual level. Indeed, many of the world’s leading organisations go through a similar process to define who they are and what they stand for. For example, global management consultancy McKinsey puts aside one day every year to reflect as a group about what their values mean to their work and lives, updating then in small ways to reflect changing times. 

London Business School itself is a values-driven organisation that aims to “have a profound impact on the way the world does business.” Through campaigns such as Forever forward – which is based around the four pillars of scholarships, research, innovation and learning environment – LBS aims to innovate and generate ideas that can positively influence and help leaders support each other in an ever-changing landscape. 

At an organisational level, getting down to a handful of core values is like discovering the DNA of the institution. And when you build on that foundation, you create an ecosystem that shapes an organisation, with consistent behaviours, language, ways of working, reward and recognition metrics, and organisational design. 

One approach you might wish to take in your own organisation is to survey your employees about their five core values, grouping similar themes. Five values – rather than only one – will encourage diversity, while ensuring clarity and focus. It can be extremely powerful to decide as a company, with consensus, what you choose to stand for in the new year – whether it be originality, empathy, teamwork, integrity or innovation. And when you are aligned around a set of core values, your employees and your customers will see it – and your organisation will flourish. 

This year, my hope is that you choose to make 2023 a truly transformative year – one in which you identify and operate from your core values. This will encourage positive and lasting change across your organisation, draw your employees and customers closer, and be your legacy.

Equality – Denmark

'Denmark is one of the only places in the world where I have never felt objectified, patronised, or threatened. You can walk down the street, speak up in the workplace, and let your hair down without having to worry. I believe this is rooted in a fundamental Danish value, that of equality.

In Denmark, equality means something more than fair treatment regardless of your sex, race, or religion. It is about something more fundamental—an idea that people should aspire to be more similar than they are different. Where in many countries equality is treated by governments and corporations as an obligatory action, in Denmark it is a deeply ingrained instinct.

According to the European Union, Denmark ranks near the top in the bloc for gender equality, while its income inequity is the lowest among the 34 countries in the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. These impressive figures are underpinned by a social model that is designed to enshrine equality between men and women, rich and poor. Childcare is affordable so that both parents can go to work without losing most of their salary. High rates of income and inheritance tax balance out wealth inequality. And college is free to all, with Denmark’s higher education ranking as the third best in the world.

The government mandates generous entitlements, and often companies go further. A Danish CEO told me that his company offers three months of fully paid leave to both parents, and encourages fathers to take six months off after their children are born. This, he said, is simply what people expect; similar policies exist at famous Danish companies including LEGO. Ensuring equality is seen not as a burden, but a facet of competitive advantage in the talent market. The same is true for employees: those who work excessively long hours are not praised, but instead seen as a person without balance or a well-rounded life.

Though its record on equality is prouder than most, Denmark is still no utopia. At 15% the gender pay gap is higher than in 16 of the other EU countries. While, despite the generous maternity leave allowance, research shows women are still losing income over the long term as a result of having children. The perception that Denmark may have lost some of its momentum on gender equality has led to new developments. A feminist political party, F!, has started to gather support and a nationwide profile, campaigning for pay equality and a 50-50 split on parental leave.

Denmark not only epitomises the value of equality, but also demonstrates the advantages it creates. As such an equal country by global standards, Denmark is also often ranked as the world’s happiest. It’s an important reminder of the real prise of equality, which is to remove the barriers that women and minorities face in the vast majority of countries, industries, and careers. So much effort is currently expended on trying to overcome structural inequality: time, ingenuity, and emotional energy that we will be able to use in so many other ways once those very necessary goals have been achieved.

Denmark offers a glimpse of what that future looks like and what may eventually be achieved by removing (or at least lowering) these barriers. It shows that the real importance of equality is not as an end in itself but what it enables: for people to achieve, whoever and wherever they are.'

Respect – Japan

'From the moment you arrive in Japan, before you have even gotten off the plane, you encounter respect. A hot hand towel is provided so you can wipe your hands, refreshing you and protecting everyone else against any germs you might be carrying. This is the foundation of Japanese respect: improving the “me” because you are mindful of the “we.”

The more you travel around the country, meet people, and witness Japanese culture, the more you see respect all around you. You see it in the immaculately clean streets and public spaces, in the design of everything from newspapers (neatly foldable) to public toilets (with thermostatically

controlled seats), and in how people move in what feels almost like a choreographed dance. Tokyo is the world’s most populous city, but it is one of the easiest places to get around. There is no pushing past people, blocking the road, or dawdling. People walk on the right-hand side and they wait for traffic lights. Only tourists jaywalk.

People are deeply respectful to each other; objects and spaces are both designed and treated respectfully; the famously healthy diet is one that respects the needs of the body; and there is a deep respect, even reverence, for age and experience. There is a respect for time, shown in

the faultless punctuality of everything from public transport to people’s attendance at meetings. And there is even respect in things that, to the visitor’s eye, do not necessarily seem respectful: when people crowd close to you on a train, it is not because they are invading your personal

space, but to respect others’ need to get on and make their journey.

We are so used to living busy lives where everything is done in a rush. Respect goes out of the window and it is easy to get consumed by your own needs to the exclusion of all else. In Japan it is different. Respect and consideration for other people direct everything you do. You pause to think about how your actions will affect other people. And you reciprocate the respect that is given both to you and the spaces you live in and move through. I found myself thinking more, listening more, and appreciating more the value of taking time to do things properly, rather than just seeking to do them quickly. It is an approach to life that is both more mindful of the world around you, and more beneficial to personal growth and wellbeing.

And in Japanese society, the positive effects are clear to see. Japan has the highest life expectancy of any major country in the world, which is often put down to the very healthful diet—heavy in fish, grains, and vegetables and low on fats, dairy, and processed foods—but which I think also reflects the honoured place that age holds in Japanese society. Crime rates are also extremely low and, wherever you go and whatever time of day, you feel safe.

That is not to say that the Japanese culture does not have its controversies and drawbacks, for instance when respect for authority can become blind obedience. There are well-established social and economic problems, from high rates of poverty among single mothers, to low levels of consumer spending and a lack of confidence and social interaction among Japanese millennials.

But Japan still has a huge amount to teach us, especially those who come from more individualistic cultures. When you spend time in a place that genuinely cares about its people, and where the prevailing focus is on “we” not “me,” you start to both think and behave differently. You take a more holistic view of the world around you, and your place in it. You are more considered, and considerate, in your decision making. By thinking more about your impact on the people and places you interact with, you get to know yourself better, unlocking the ability for significant self-improvement.

Respect costs you nothing except a little time and conscious thought; but by choosing to be respectful, you open the way to a whole world of personal development and growth.'

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Dr Mandeep Rai is a global authority on values, who works with organisations and individuals around the world. She began her career in private banking at JPMorgan, and later worked for the United Nations, the European Commission, and grassroots NGOs before setting up the UAE’s first media venture capital fund. Her international bestseller The Values Compass: What 101 Countries Teach Us About Purpose, Life and Leadership was highly commended in the Diversity, Equality and Inclusion category at The Business Book Awards 2021, and Thinkers50 named her as a Top Thinker to Watch. She has an Executive MBA (Dubai) from LBS.