It’s normal to feel pulled in different directions. Whether making a high-level career decision as part of a long-term career plan or just deciding how to use the next few hours, your various options might make you feel paralyzed.
That’s where guiding principles come in. When in doubt or during decision fatigue, you can use your guiding principles to choose the best way forward. Helping others, prioritizing self-care, working as a team — these are all examples of principles you can use to guide personal and professional decisions.
What are guiding principles?
A principle is a general rule that describes an underlying pattern. In science, principles capture what’s known about a particular phenomenon. Evolution is a principle of biology, and the law of gravitation is a physics principle.
Principles have two main jobs:
- They explain the present (evolution explains the forms of the plants and animals we see today, gravity explains why most things fall when dropped)
- They predict the future (any future changes to plants and animals will follow the principle of evolution, most things will continue to fall when dropped)
Business principles have the same two functions. For example, the principle “support diversity” reflects an organization’s belief that diversity is a positive force. It also guides (predicts) future decision-making by managers regarding things like hiring and team-building activities.
Are principles and values the same thing?
While principles and personal values are related, values (like compassion and justice) have an emotional component: you feel positive about them and prioritize them over other things. It’s only after you turn these values into actionable statements that they become principles (“Practice compassion” or “Fight for justice”). Following your principles is the path to fulfilling your values.
While your core work values probably won’t change all that much throughout your career, your guiding principles can, and should, adapt to different roles and organizations. If one of your professional principles is “Collaborate whenever possible,” this might evolve into “Encourage collaboration whenever possible” when you’re promoted to a management position.
Examples of guiding principles at work
Most organizations use guiding principles when making decisions, even if they don’t know it or make them explicit to employees. Here are some examples of general business principles that often lead to positive outcomes.
Reward good performance
There’s evidence that financial rewards for good performance can improve job satisfaction and trust in management. But organizations can also reward good performance in more subtle ways. Praise has a powerful effect on employee motivation, and even automatic electronic feedback can have powerful results.
Teamwork improves organizational performance, promotes innovation, and strengthens one’s decision-making capabilities. Organizations can foster employee collaboration by offering team-building activities, clarifying roles and responsibilities within teams, and giving teams more autonomy.
Adapt proactively to changing situations
Businesses that don’t adapt to change don’t survive long. Leaders can encourage future-oriented thinking and quick adaptation by improving how they formulate and execute their strategic plan and training leaders in adaptive leadership.
Prioritize diversity and inclusion
Diverse teams are more profitable than homogeneous teams, perhaps because they’re more objective, thoughtful, and innovative. Businesses can support diversity and inclusion through diversity training, implementing a diversity recruitment strategy, and promoting managers who practice inclusive leadership.
Continuous improvement keeps customers happy and unites employees in the service of common goals that benefit the organization. Businesses can encourage continuous improvement on an individual level via coaching or professional development support and on an organization-wide level through strategic leadership.
Follow a plan
Long-term strategic planning can improve business performance, though strategic thinking does need to include some element of flexibility since customer preferences and technological capabilities constantly change. Businesses can implement strategic planning at the organizational, team, and individual level.
Micromanagement can lead to low morale, increased turnover, and less productive and creative employees. Businesses can stamp out micromanagement and promote employee autonomy by hiring competent people, supporting employees to improve their skills, and creating a culture of trust.
Train future-minded leaders
Future-minded leaders are both optimistic and realistic, with the ability to imagine multiple futures and guide people toward the best one. And businesses that train and promote future-minded leaders have teams that are more agile, more engaged, and higher performing.
10 guiding principles for work and life
You can apply principles in any area of your life. For example, a guiding principle in your personal life might be the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated.
Your personal values will inevitably spill over into your work life. That’s good — it shows authenticity and means you’re bringing your whole self to work.
Here are 10 principles you could use to guide your life. Select the ones that resonate most and create a set of principles that captures exactly who you are and what you want to achieve.
1. Pursue excellence
Pursuing excellence means being detail-oriented and maintaining extremely high standards. If your guiding principle is the pursuit of excellence, you’ll invest time and effort in self-improvement, play to your strengths, and set “Big Hairy Audacious Goals”: exciting long-term targets that encourage you to tap into your best self.
2. Keep your eyes on the horizon
Future-oriented employees and leaders keep big-picture objectives in mind without letting present obstacles sidetrack them. To express this principle at work, you’ll create thoughtful plans to achieve your desired outcomes and tackle systemic problems using a comprehensive long-term strategy rather than band-aid solutions.
3. Value other perspectives
Valuing other perspectives means seeking information and advice from various sources, practicing active listening to retain others’ thoughts and ideas, and respecting those you disagree with. People who value other perspectives learn to consciously let go of unconscious biases and seek consensus rather than believing they have all the right answers.
4. Look after people
If looking after people is your guiding principle, you’ll make a point to help others. This involves making sure everyone on the team takes workplace occupational health and safety rules seriously and creating an atmosphere of psychological safety for everyone around you.
5. Care for the environment
With the effects of climate change becoming increasingly obvious, future-minded people are doing their best to mitigate human activities’ adverse impacts and protect the planet.
If your guiding principle is caring for the environment, you might create and implement effective workplace sustainability programs, partner with organizations that prioritize the environment, and scrutinize your supply chain to see if you can source components more sustainably.
6. Follow the data
People who follow the data are analytical decision-makers who like to have all the facts before choosing a path forward. They know that data-driven decision-making improves productivity and strive for objectivity and fairness.
If this principle guides you, you’ll keep abreast of industry developments, actively seek out accurate metrics, and welcome counterintuitive but data-supported conclusions.
7. Leave a legacy
Creating a legacy is about leaving the world better than you found it. While legacies are more likely to be top of mind for people in senior leadership positions, employees at any level can teach what they know to others.
If the principle of leaving a legacy guides you, you’ll look for opportunities to teach colleagues and participate in mentorship programs. You’ll probably also want to become a transformational leader.
8. Connect with customers
Customer satisfaction is at the core of every successful business model. But if the principle of connecting with customers guides you, decent metrics and a few testimonials won’t satisfy you — you’ll go above and beyond to connect with customers, finding out what they need and developing products and features you know will delight them.
Connecting deeply with customers requires empathy and may lead you to take some calculated risks to keep them happy, but this care can drive company growth, create a powerful competitive advantage, and substantially increase profit margins.
9. Champion innovation
Thinking outside the box is fun and invigorating — and it’s also good for business. If your guiding principle is innovation, you’ll constantly look for ways to apply different types of innovation to come up with surprising and effective outcomes and seek to create an innovative work culture by supporting the creativity of others.
10. Be honest
Honesty is non-negotiable when building trusting relationships. And if you’re a leader, your level of honesty sets the standard for every person in the organization.
If honesty is your guiding principle, modeling it in your own words and actions isn’t enough — you also need to encourage honesty in others. If you dish out direct, honest feedback but feel defensive when you’re on the receiving end, you’re not truly guided by the principle of honesty. Honesty starts with being honest with yourself.
Follow your principles
To come up with your own guiding principles, consider the examples of principles above and pick 3–4 you feel best reflect your true nature. Then let these principles guide you when making decisions and watch how your whole life shifts to reflect your core values.
Instead of making random and unguided choices, you’ll move forward in your personal and professional life with intention and integrity. And as time passes, it’ll become easier and easier to reflect these principles in your actions as you set a positive example for those around you.