How to act with sincerity: match values and behaviour

Father and young son sitting next to each other sharing a joke

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Mission statements touted by big organisations often don’t bear much resemblance to reality. They may describe lofty values like caring for employees or customers. But in fact, staff can endure bullying, poor conditions and low pay. So much for companies acting with sincerity, or matching values and behaviour.

Do values and behaviour match?

Huge gaps between values and behaviour can cause distrust and resentment. This is true for individuals as well as in business.

Often people say they believe in one thing, and yet they behave in the opposite manner.

You may know someone who says they value friendship, but they refuse social invitations. Their behaviour doesn’t match what they say. Perhaps they’re introverted and find socialising tiring. Or maybe they value personal development over friendship.

Either way, they need to decide what their priorities are. If they value friendship, they need to show this by socialising more. If not, they need to explain the situation to avoid giving a false impression. Then their actions would match what they say they believe in.

Straying from acting with sincerity

Most people try to act according to their values most of the time. They like to think they’ve done the “right thing” with a clear conscience.

However, sometimes you may not live up to your own expectations. Somehow you forget or ignore your values. Or perhaps a friend persuades you to do something you know is wrong. Peer group pressure can make it much harder to act with sincerity.

Let’s look at how two teens navigated these issues.

Ben and Angas

Ben and Angus are best mates. They’re both 16 and have known each other since first grade. Recently they’ve become friendly with Todd and his gang.

Todd’s friends all act tough in class, and don’t seem to care about grades. Both Ben and Angus know their parents would dislike Todd’s attitude. And to tell the truth, Ben regrets this new friendship. At some level, he knows that doing what Todd wants will make it impossible to act with sincerity. He won’t be able to match his values and behaviour.  

1 Straying from their values

Now Todd has told them they each need to shoplift an item from the local electronics store. Otherwise they won’t be accepted into the gang.

Neither boy has ever stolen before. For a week they try to work out what to do.

Ben indirectly asks his dad John for help by pretending a “mate” is in trouble. But his dad brushes him off with a flippant remark. Now Ben feels let down and alone. He can’t even talk to Angas about his worries of getting caught stealing. All Angas seems to care about is his new-found status as part of Todd’s gang. 

2 The slippery slope

In the end, both boys carry out their task. Ben sweats for days afterward, expecting to be arrested at any moment.

Then a couple of days later, Todd orders them to steal more items. Both Angas and Ben know this is only the beginning. Eventually they’ll have to break into houses – or worse.

Angas downplays their first crime. He tells Ben the store won’t even notice missing items. Anyway, they’ve got insurance.

To start with, Ben listens to Angas. Sure, what does it matter so long as they don’t get caught? And they can be the lookouts if Todd and his gang go housebreaking.

No big deal.

But as time goes on, Ben feels nauseous and can hardly get out of bed in the morning. He avoids everyone at school as much as possible. On the day he and Angas are supposed to steal again, he fakes a gastro attack.

3 Angas slides further down the slope

Angas goes ahead with the plan. In fact, a few days later he steals even more stuff. Now Ben feels under even more pressure. If he chickens out, he’ll be humiliated by Todd and his underlings.

But if he steals, how can he live with himself?

4 Ben takes a stand

Finally, Ben tells Angas he can’t let his parents down. More importantly, he can’t let himself down. He doesn’t want to lose his ability to act with sincerity and live up to his values. 

Both boys know their friendship is now doomed.

For the next few weeks, Ben feigns illness. His grades drop. He’s moody and snaps at everyone, particularly his father.

Luckily he can escape Todd and his group through the long holidays. Ben cuts off his social media accounts, ignores his phone, and holes up in his room playing computer games to keep his anxiety down.

Finally he realises Todd’s couldn’t care less about him. Angas is Todd’s favourite now.

He and Ben don’t talk any more.

Different values, different paths

Ben and Angas were faced with the same decision. Each faced a similar internal conflict. And yet, only one of them was able to keep acting in ways that matched his original values of honesty and integrity? What made them react so differently?

a) Angas

Sadly, Angas gradually changed his values to match his new behaviours.

Firstly, he persuaded himself that what he was doing wasn’t really so dishonest. By using a little self-deception, he managed to lower how worried he was feeling. This in turn let him go ahead with his plans to continue stealing minor items. 

Then he slipped into more and more questionable behaviours. As he did, his former values of integrity and honesty were gradually eroded. Any uneasiness he still had, he stifled with dubious self-justifications.

He started to say things like: “These big companies need to know they can’t take advantage of the little guy,” or “Anyone living in a mansion deserves to be ripped off the same way they ripped off everyone else.”

He gradually started to believe that he had the right to steal to make up for the unfair way in which society treated many people.

b) Ben

Ben chose to stand true to his principles. He couldn’t step any further over the line, even though he thought Todd might attack him in some way.

His initial lapse jolted him into thinking about the kind of a life he wanted to live. At some level he sensed how hard it would be once he strayed from acting with honesty and integrity.

He wanted to be able to think of himself as honest. A person who did what he said he believed in and acted with sincerity.

Two possible outcomes

Originally both Ben and Angus held positive values. They had little or no internal conflict as their behaviours and values matched.

However, stealing the first item led to a mismatch between values and behaviour. And they’d strayed into being insincere and untruthful. At that point they had two choices.

Either to keep their original values and bring their behaviour back in line with them, so that they continued to act honestly. Or to shift their values, so they matched more closely their new behaviour of being dishonest.

Both choices would reduce the gap between their values and their behaviour, although they each led in different directions. Either way, they would have felt less anxiety and guilt. So which path would you have taken?

A. The path of acting with sincerity

If you follow the first path and keep your original values, you’ll be more likely to live up to your ideals.

You’ll admit to yourself you’ve made a mistake. You accept your lapse is unhelpful, and you choose to make amends for what you’ve done. Then you commit to doing better, bit by bit.

At the end of each day, you review your behaviour to see if you’ve met your expectations. In other words, to see if your sincerity is intact, and your values and behaviour match.

If you’ve been successful, give yourself a little praise. If you’ve slipped, work out why. Then work out how to stop yourself slipping again.

Of course, ingrained habits that conflict with your values may take a long time to be erased. But being mindful makes it easier to remember where you’re headed.

B. The path of settling for less

The second path that Angus took will lead to a drift away from your ideals. Gradually your behaviour slips further from your initial intentions.

Soon the gap is too great to ignore.

So you persuade yourself your previous values were stupid. In this way, you accept a lesser standard to live by. Your values are changing in a negative direction to match your behaviour.

And you sacrifice acting with sincerity.

So you justify this change by telling yourself things like:

Being honest is for losers.

I should be able to do whatever I want.

Soon you’re acting in total agreement with your new values. By this stage, you’re a different person to the one you wanted to be.

What if you regret earlier choices? 

Sometimes you realise your original values were negative. Looking back, you can see they led to you doing things that you deeply regret. Now you’re feeling guilty, ashamed or disappointed at the way you acted back then. And you want to follow more positive values and act with more integrity from now on. 

The solution?

1 Don’t give in to self-hatred

When you’ve done something you’re not proud of, the natural tendency is to be ashamed or angry at yourself.

Certainly you need to accept the reality of what you’ve done. However it’s not helpful to punish yourself repeatedly, or to obsess over your actions.

Both these will make you feel terrible about yourself. And that will stop you seeing any way forward. You won’t be able to take effective action to fix the problem.

The best attitude is to accept your wrong-doing, and vow to put it right. Make amends for what you’ve done if you need to.

Accept you have flaws, and that you’re working to improve them. Commit to changing your behaviour. Reduce the gap between your actions and beliefs.

2 You can change

Anyone can change their behaviour, no matter what. If you’ve deviated from the person you’d like to be, you can change.

It takes courage and willingness to accept what you don’t like about yourself. And it takes courage to commit to change. After all, it’s far easier to give up and tell yourself it’s hopeless.

But you can decide to change, even if everyone round you is behaving badly. You can decide to change, even if your circumstances are difficult.

No-one can control what you think. No-one can control what you believe. It’s never too late.

3 Start with one small thing

Pick one tiny thing you want to change, and work on that. When you’ve improved in that area, pick another tiny thing. And another and another.

Our work of becoming that ideal self is never done. No-one ever gets there.

But we can all keep trying to live up to our values. So notice whenever your values and behaviour don’t match. Take immediate steps to make sure you live up to your values.

To rediscover how to act with sincerity: Match values and behaviour.

Read on to learn how Ben’s father realised he was in danger of being a hypocrite.

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