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The majority of us have done this at one point or another because following the advice of individuals who have authority over us, real or perceived, is a default way of thinking. The ideal way we make decisions about the direction of our lives, or our ultimate happiness, comes from an understanding of our personal value system. What is most important to you? What are your guiding principles? When we know the answers to these questions, we can make values-based decisions for our future. This can include whether we take a promotion or not, whether we change careers or whether we move to another state. When we let our values guide our decision-making process, we can find alignment between who we are and where we are going. But this is hard work. It requires us to reflect on our experiences, identify our principles and beliefs, and answer some deep questions about ourselves, our goals and our vision for the future.
When we are missing clarity around our personal values and a deep understanding of what is most important to us, we find ourselves making decisions in accordance with rules-based thinking. This is the default because it doesn’t require us to invest in the deep work required to make values-based decisions. Rules-based decisions are compliance-oriented; they are like an easy button giving us an answer without requiring any type of reflection or analysis of consequence. It also shifts the responsibility off our shoulders in preparation for our dissatisfaction with the potential outcome.
The study of psychology tells us knowing our values optimizes our ability to make values-based decisions. Yet, the hard work required to discover our values precludes many of us from that deep level of self-discovery, opening a pathway to easily allow the advice and “rules” of others to invade our decision-making space.
As leaders, many times we hold a position of authority over the individuals who ask for our advice. The second we offer our opinion, we introduce a powerful form of rules-based thinking to our teammates. We think we are helping them by sharing our advice, but in reality, we are tainting their ability to make a values-based decision. Even those who can’t fully articulate their values have some sense of innerconnection to their guiding principles. However, when leaders give advice on life decisions, it provides an internal conflict and a constant cognitive cue that says, “But my boss thinks I should choose differently.”
As an alternative to giving advice, I recommend offering mentorship around helping others identify their values and clarify their beliefs. This allows them to activate their own personal values-based decision-making process, especially around big life decisions.
There are three ways you can make this shift from giving advice to offering mentorship. The next time someone asks for advice, refrain from exerting your opinion and instead help them find their own answers through the following values-based thinking process:
- Ask the right questions. How do you define success? What do you value? Where do you find purpose?
- Listen. Challenge them to reflect deeply on their answers. Remind them to take into consideration their life goals, career aspirations and family situation. Possibly encourage them to explore these questions with their spouse.
- Guide them. Assess and reevaluate as necessary, especially as life changes.
True leadership is when we mentor more than direct, using the Socratic method of communication and learning—to ask more, listen more and guide.