Many companies strive to create an intentional culture. Top leaders of the company identify the core values of the organization and create policies and procedures which reflect those values. Employees then have a clear understanding of what to expect and how to function in their jobs. In many ways, we as individuals benefit greatly from creating our own intentional cultures. We identify the fundamental values defining who we are, and we put those values into action by the way we live our lives. Our individual culture allows us to make daily decisions, worry less about what other people think, and remain true to ourselves despite the ever-changing world around us.
Several months ago, my family and I attended a sporting event, and witnessed a parent making a decision based on individual culture. A few spots down our row, papers were taped to the seats informing those seat holders that they had won a special promotion. We noticed the papers, as did the dad and young boy sitting between us and the winning seats. As the game began and the seats remained empty, I overheard the child near us ask his dad if they could take the papers and claim the prizes, since the other attendees had not arrived yet. This parent gently, yet firmly, explained to his son that they would not do that, as the prizes did not belong to them. He added that it would not be honest or fair, and if the rightful owners did not come to the game, the arena staff would decide how to distribute those prizes. This dad had identified a core value of honesty and fairness, and despite the temptation to try and receive free merchandise for his child, made a decision according to his individual culture.
Adhering to our own individual cultures becomes more challenging as we worry more about what other people think of us. These concerns become increasingly prominent in elementary school and often peak in middle and high school. When one of my sons was in preschool, I added a packet of fruit candies to his lunch; unfortunately, I never thought about one of his buddies teasing him because the candy shapes were based on a girl cartoon character, quite popular on television at the time. It seems that even this early in life, opinions are formed and expressed, and children learn how easily we can become recipients of others’ scrutiny. This also underscores how important it becomes to continually think about what kind of people we want to be. It is often well into adulthood and beyond that we let go of some of our concerns about what other people think, and resolve to place adherence to our own values above worrying about others’ perceptions.
The world has plenty to say about what things should be most important, and placing our own value systems above all else is sometimes a challenging task. I think of a friend of mine who identifies honest and direct communication as one of her core values. Simply put, she will not engage in gossip about others or talk about someone when they are not present. If she has a concern with someone, she makes it a point to talk directly to that person, and if negative talk arises about someone who is not there, she gently, but firmly, steers the conversation in another direction. I admire this person and strive to be more like her; I also recognize that even as an adult it is “easier” to join in group gossip than hold true to a core value and risk being the one talked about by others.
Sometimes life experiences help define our core values and clarify our priorities. This happened for one of my family members who faced an unexpected job loss and subsequent six month search for employment. He often felt frustrated during the job search and interview process, when waiting for a response from contacts or potential employers added more stress and uncertainty to an already difficult situation. Sometimes, responses came later than the time frame he had been given and sometimes, they never came at all. As a result, my family member recommitted to a core value of responsiveness to others, particularly those coping with job transitions. In his daily life today, he tries to give a realistic timeline when asked for help and no matter how much help he has to offer, he makes it a priority to follow through with a response in the expected time frame.
Each day we see friends, family members, and co-workers who positively impact the world through a commitment to living out personal values. They bring their individual cultures to the larger world and find ways to inspire others to be better people. On a special event such as a birthday, I might send a message to someone letting them know that in their honor, I will try and incorporate one or two of their core values into my approach that day. These values might be generosity, kindness, healthy communication, sense of humor, acceptance, wisdom; the list goes on and on. Most of us do not need to accumulate more stuff, but the recognition that our values are noticed and emulated by someone else can be a truly powerful gift.
In the midst of an ever-changing and often challenging world, it is more important than ever to identify our core values and live them out daily. While we may feel frustrated and limited in our ability to address all the problems around us, we can remember that change is possible if we define our individual culture and remain true to ourselves. Sharing our individual cultures with the world can inspire others, help those in need, and give us a sense of daily purpose. Many other things in life may be temporary and out of our control, but no one can take away our commitment to identifying our core values and living them out through everyday actions.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.