On the Value of Values
I recently started a new job where I get to be a line manager for a number of people. No problem — I’ve been a line manager for years with Plenty of ExperienceTM of different types of people — I’ve got this. There are a couple of problems that I’ve run into almost immediately, the most significant of which is that I think I may have under estimated quite how much I had benefited from ‘legacy’ in my previous role — I had been with the company and in the job longer than pretty much everyone I was managing, and arguably knew the job better than anyone else would (not a criticism of anyone, just something that comes with being in the same place for a long time). Now though, I am working with Test Engineers that are considerably more talented testers than I am, who know their domain and products better than I can even imagine, and I don’t have that legacy knowledge to fall back on. It’s a new and exciting challenge, but its one that changes the dynamic of the relationship and is taking a little bit of getting used to.
After a bit of introspection (and a brief panic that I’m not as good as I thought I was), I decided to try a different approach — I was going to focus on using my people and coaching skills as a line manager, and to use my skills as a tester to try and learn about the domain (and my craft) as I go. I then remembered something I’d done with a previous manager that had been very useful to me at the time in terms of building relationships with colleagues and strengthening our bond as a team, and decided that this would be a good opportunity to try it out.
The exercise involves a set of cards with different personal values written on them, and helps you to identify your Core Values — those values that shape you as a person and what you value in yourself, in others, and in the world around you. I bought this packet from Amazon but there are many varieties of the same thing which work just as well. I’ll list out the steps for doing the exercise, but be warned — it does involve sharing things about yourself!
You will each need to work through the pack of cards and make two piles — one of values that are more important to you, and one of values that are less important. This is harder than it initially sounds as they are all good positive values, so it can be difficult not to feel you’re going to be judged for saying a particular value (Generosity for example) is less important to you. To combat this, I have two rules — firstly, try not to overthink it too much and just go on your gut instinct and secondly, anyone else doing the exercise shouldn’t be watching you go through the cards. That way you as the individual don’t have to worry about anyone seeing that you’ve not picked Helpfulness and end up putting it in the wrong pile so you don’t look bad. Once you’ve sorted through, get rid of the less important pile - we’re not going to need those anymore today.
Using the pile of cards that were ‘more important’, go through the pile again and pick out five cards which, above all the others, are the most important to you. You don’t need to put them in any order, you don’t need to rank them against each other; just come up with the five cards which you value in yourself and in others most of all. This obviously requires a much more introspective approach and can take as long (if not a bit longer) than splitting the cards in two, and often results in a fair bit of chopping and changing as you arrive at the final five. Again, make sure that you give yourself and the other person doing time and space to do this; you want them to be honest with themselves and to get it right. They may find that they pick out two or three cards with a similar sounding value before picking one in particular, and this in itself is interesting to explore as the way that particular value is worded is important to the context of why they picked it.
Share with each other (as long as you’re both comfortable) the reasons for picking your values. My personal preference is to go first, as I feel like this both puts the other person at ease knowing that they can share how they feel about things, and also provides a bit of guidance on what level they should be pitching it at. I’ve done this exercise a number of times recently in my new role so I’ve got to a point where my explanations are fairly well practiced, but I remember that its a quite intimidating thing to share if you’ve never done it before. I would encourage you to think about what it is that makes this value so important to you, and to think about how its presence or absence in someone or situation impacts you and the way you feel about it.
What I’ve found by doing this exercise fairly early on when I start working with someone new is that it helps to build the start of a bond between us — it immediately breaks the implied hierarchical manager/line report relationship before it even starts, and helps you to think of each other as two separate human beings with loves and flaws and frustrations who go off and live complex and colourful lives outside of your 1–2–1’s together. It helps to give context on what might be important to each other, and to how you each may respond to particular situations. It’s not for everyone — there are plenty of people who don’t want an empathetic relationship with their line manager and come to work to get on with their work. That’s ok. As with anything to do with line management or coaching or mentoring, there isn’t a hard and fast rule to rule them all — you do what works with that individual. Hopefully you can drop this in your toolbox and one day it will help you.