Making decisions from core values

Somewhere in my evolution as a woman in STEM, things got too complicated. During Post-doc and early group-leader phases, I felt I was managing competing demands --family, research, management and leadership. But by about 5-years in, it became clear I really wasn’t. The thing that cracked me was leadership. With hindsight, it’s clear I didn’t do a good job of setting or managing expectations, but at the time it felt like it was my staff/student’s fault that my work-life was unravelling (1).

I love and am world-class at the ‘quick chats’ between meetings, seminars, commute etc... And it was only 2020, when they evaporated, that I realised how much they contribute to my loving the job! [And, as a funny side note, it turns out that ‘management by walking around’ is a thing real thing in the corporate world.] Anyway, in 2016, a chance chat about the challenges of running a lab (a recurrent theme), changed my life. In response to leadership issues, my friend’s departmental chair had organised and paid for coaching. He said it helped him see things more clearly.

Emboldened, and not to be outdone by a guy, I asked for and received coaching with Lisa Curtis-Wendlandt (PhD). I loved all of it. Lisa was awesome, and I learned so much from our conversations. We did the standard things like the DISC profile; but then also more interesting work about the Jungian archetypes at play in female leadership (she has a PhD in psychology after all). But the part I wanted to share here was about identifying and using your core values (drivers) as a filter for making decisions.

Lisa’s approach to finding the core values/drivers was based in her interest in ‘conversational intelligence’ and is beyond what I could do justice to here. But the simple version is to take a core values list and highlight the 5-10 that resonate most intimately. Eliminate any that are sort of redundant (eg home and family), and rank the remaining values. The 2 to 3 at the top are it. You have to do it based on where you are now, not around any aspirational values you might like to embody in the future (eg courage & self-discipline would be nice, but they are not a flow-state for me now). The theory is that when we are at our best; motivated, and work feels effortless, we’re operating in alignment with our core values. My core values are curiosity and joy.

This is Brené Brown’s list from her excellent book ‘Dare to Lead’ where she describes how to find your values in detail. I highly recommend all her work. (

I know, I know, I know! Most talk about values sucks. Together with mission statements, they usually end up as a meaningless string of words used by individuals and organisation to make others feel uncomfortable.

The reason to spend some time thinking about our core values is to use them as filters for decision making. From the most mundane tasks, like setting your weekly calendar to deciding who you collaborate with, using this filter saves a whole lot of misery. For me, it means that when I set my calendar (8 am every Monday !) I first schedule all the fun things that will satisfy a daily dose of JOY, next I schedule at least one 2-hour block each day to indulge my CURIOSITY (eg digging in data to understand something new). This approach makes necessary, but not completely aligned tasks, more bearable. I also find it useful to ask myself what aspect of this totally boring task could I be curious about? Or, what would I need to think to make me enjoy doing it? (eg put the timer on to see how fast I can get it done?). Through the values-lens most decisions are pretty clear. I privately delight in thinking ‘does it spark joy?’ every time I'm about to say no.

Another, and possibly more serious reason to know what your values are, is to know when they're crossed. For example, I don’t always do well with people for whom TRADITION or RECOGNITION are drivers. I can respect it, but I don’t love working with them. Equally, some people will not do well in my lab because our values are at odds. To avoid this, it’s worthwhile having a set of values or guiding principles for the lab too. Mine is ‘we are motivated by curiosity and fun in a safe place to grow’. With that articulated, I can frame the conversation around how we do curiosity-driven research, how I expect everyone to love their work, and to feel safe making all the mistakes. The values can be used to promote the behaviours I want to see in my team, and as a framework to discuss why some are not OK.

Women in stem receive a lot of seemingly helpful advice, feedback and mentoring. But as often as not, it ends up making us feel worse. Over the years, I've spent so many hours (days and weeks) spinning when what was said was not really relevant to my circumstances. I’ve felt buffeted by conflicting opinions; caught between wanting to do ‘the right thing' by those giving the advice when a shaky inner voice was telling me the advice was wrong for me.

Much of the coaching I’ve received, and am now in-training for, revolves around drawing on that inner wisdom to make decisions. Receiving advice is great but knowing when to ignore it is important too. Knowing our core values helps with that. I now have a daily yoga practice (Amy Carmody Yoga) focused on a strong physical core. The daily coaching practice builds the emotional core. Having both is giving me inner confidence I didn't know was possible for me.


1 Its never the staff or student’s fault. A dead giveaway that you’re not taking ownership of your team is if the words like ‘you’d think they’d know this by now…’ come out of your mouth when it’s perfectly obvious that ‘they don’t’. It sucks, but the leader is always responsible.

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