How to Manage When Values Clash

Working Together Despite Different Beliefs

How we behave and how we think, how we solve problems and how we negotiate, how we work and how we play – all of these are influenced by our beliefs and our values.

We don't often think hard about the values that matter most to us, but this doesn't mean that they aren't hugely important in our lives.

Consider what your most important values are. Honesty, integrity, fairness, authenticity, and professionalism, for example?

Certainly, these are the qualities that we might assume most people would prioritize. But, dig a little deeper and you'll likely discover that not everyone shares the same set of values that you do. It might surprise you to learn that the values that matter most to you might barely register with your colleagues. You may even be perplexed by the things that they are passionate about.

Use these six steps to keep the peace when values clash.

For example, if one person cares about hitting sales numbers, and another cares passionately about the quality of delivery, then there can be a real values clash if there are quality problems in the production process.

As a manager, you'll likely have to contend with values clashes in the workplace from time to time. They might happen between team members, between an individual and the organization, between a team member and a supplier or customer, or even between you and the work that you're given. Conflicts like these could become problematic, particularly if they're ignored.

This article shows you how to manage values clashes in the workplace, and how to find solutions that suit all parties.

What Are Values?

Values are the beliefs and principles that underpin your day-to-day life. They represent what you consider to be important and insignificant, good and bad, right and wrong.

They are often informed by the environment and culture that you've grown up in. So whether you base your beliefs on national, generational, religious, organizational, or professional ideologies, together they frame the way that you view the world.

Your values govern the way that you live, and shape the way that you behave, guiding your judgments and decisions. They also have a major influence on how you approach your work, and how you relate to your colleagues and your organization.

An organization will also have its own set of values. They shape its culture, support its core mission and vision, and inform its and its employees' actions and conduct.

Our values tend to stay the same throughout our lives, but this doesn't mean that they are "absolutes." People might adapt their beliefs because they have new information, or because they have been influenced by another person's point of view.

When Values Clash

Researchers have found that modern workplaces are becoming increasingly "values diverse." And in the same way that diversity of age, ethnicity and gender can benefit organizations, values-based diversity can also be an advantage. Being open to different values can create more diverse team roles, which leads to a more balanced organization and can help to avoid Groupthink.

At the same time, however, people have become much less inclined to forsake their principles to fit in with the values of their employer or their colleagues. This means clashes between workers with different values have become more common.

Here are some scenarios that you might come across when values clash at work:

  • An accountant who considers honesty to be his most important value is offered a new job but he has heard from a friend, who works there, that the company isn't always straightforward with its clients.
  • A new CEO wants to shake things up at a very traditional company by introducing a new mission that focuses on "modernity" and "technology," making the organization's workforce uneasy.
  • A company that values producing high-quality goods clashes with a supplier that values flexibility and fast delivery.
  • A salesperson who places a high value on teamwork is frustrated because her boss, who values results, pushes her to compete with her colleagues.

Clashes like these can be complicated and long-lasting, because our values are so deeply tied to our sense of identity. People are more likely to "make a stand" if they feel that their values are being called into question, and this can sometimes make it more difficult to communicate and reach a compromise. When both sides hold fast to their values and lecture the other on why they are right, or withdraw from one another, neither side can move forward.

Alternatively, people may suppress their values for the "greater good," but doing this can make them feel weak, compliant and unhappy. This suppression can undermine the qualities that make them successful, and might even make them disillusioned with their job.

How to Manage a Values Clash

The following nine tips can help you to manage the complicated process of resolving a clash of values at work:

1. Be Alert to a Values Clash

When there is a clash between co-workers, you might not immediately recognize differing values as its cause.

Perhaps you're having difficulty understanding why a project didn't go as well as you'd hoped. Or maybe a conflict has erupted between two colleagues over an apparently minor matter. You can't see any tangible reason for the conflict, but look deeper and you might find that differing values are the root cause.

Consider a values clash as a potential cause of friction, alongside more common workplace issues such as lack of communication or poor listening skills, when you are trying to solve a problem.

2. Identify People's Values

Identify your team members' values. When you know what lies behind the clash, you can quickly get to the heart of the problem, and help the two parties to resolve it.

Warning:

A clash of values could be down to different attitudes toward religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. If this is the case, be mindful of your local anti-discrimination laws. Refer to your company's diversity policy for further advice on what internal procedures should be followed if you feel that a clash needs to be dealt with more formally.

3. Get the Parties Talking

When values clash, be mindful that people's viewpoints aren't necessarily right or wrong – just different. Someone else's values might seem illogical, mean or even outrageous to you, but remember to reserve your own judgment and to use effective communication and dialogue to resolve the conflict.

When both parties are talking and listening actively to one another calmly and respectfully, they will more likely understand and accept one another's viewpoint. You never know, what began as a conflict could turn into an opportunity for achieving a deeper understanding and respect between your team members.

Tip:

The Johari Window is a powerful tool for improving openness, trust and communication within a team. It might also be worth brushing up on your conflict resolution skills to help you to manage these types of clashes effectively.

4. Find Common Ground

Try to identify areas where the parties' values might overlap, rather than where they conflict. This can help them to find common ground.

Try to negotiate a win-win solution that accommodates both sets of values and gets the best from them. Not only will this help to encourage communication and collaboration within your team, but it also means that both parties can stay true to their principles, protect their self-esteem, and avoid feeling resentful or guilty.

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Tip:

Use reframing to bring a fresh perspective to a clash of values. This can help your team members to shift their focus away from internal concerns to shared, mutually beneficial team goals.

5. Choose Between Values

Values sometimes run so deep that compromise is impossible. If, after talking it through, both sides are still no closer to finding a solution, you may have to step in and decide which set of values to prioritize.

Imagine that you lead a team that has great potential, but a couple of members are openly hostile to change. You value team cohesion and harmony, but you also value progress. You will need to make a difficult decision. Do you do nothing and go nowhere? Or do you make a strategic choice and pick the value that matters most to the team, with the aim of moving forward?

If the conflict is between one of your team members and your organization, you may need to remind him of his obligations to do the work that you've hired him to do, and to represent the company according to its mission and values.

This type of conflict will need to be handled with extreme care, as you don't want to alienate your colleague, risk losing his trust, or even risk losing him as a co-worker. You might think that he is making a fuss over nothing, but remember that – to him – the issue is serious.

Tip:

If you are having trouble deciding which set of values to choose, look at your organization's and team's mission, and use that as a starting point for your deliberation.

6. Move the Person

If it's impossible to find common ground between the two parties, but you don't want to risk losing one of them by making a decision that goes against her, try moving her to a different role that doesn't require her to compromise her values.

Consider, for example, a pacifist who discovers that his employer is supplying parts to a weapons manufacturer. He is unlikely to forsake his strong values about this matter, but perhaps he could move to a new position in a unit that makes components for the auto industry, instead.

7. Consider Letting People Go

The risk in choosing one value over another is that your decision will likely be unpalatable to some people in your team.

Your choice may force them to decide how strong their principles are, and whether they want to keep working on a project that they don't believe in or with people who they can't relate to. If they feel that the clash is too severe, then they may have to make a tough decision about whether they want to stay or be let go.

Before getting to this point, however, make sure that you've discussed the situation thoroughly with your manager and other key stakeholders. You need to ensure that the values you're supporting are the right ones – otherwise, it may be you who is pushed out.

8. Recruit for Compatible Values

If you do lose a team member because she can't compromise or accept your decision, then you'll likely need to start recruiting to fill her position.

Make sure that you avoid a repeat of the situation by building values into your person specification. Recruit people who embody the same values as your organization does, or whose values are compatible with yours and the rest of your team's.

You may still be managing people with diverse values, so make it a priority to create a team that is built on a foundation of trust, emotional intelligence, and positive communication. Encourage mutual acceptance, reaffirm team values, and work to create a shared team identity.

9. Escalate the Problem

You might find that a values clash has occurred because a colleague defied your company's code of conduct. He might have behaved inappropriately, unethically or even illegally.

If this is the case, or if the clash is due to a conflict with your organization's values (an unwritten expectation that people work extra, unpaid hours, for example), then get advice from your manager or HR department. But be aware that you'll need to act with extra caution if you raise an issue regarding someone senior to you.

Key Points

Your values are the beliefs and principles that guide you throughout your life and career.

Being principled and holding strong values has become increasingly important to people in recent years, and they are less likely to compromise their values for the sake of work. This means that having the skills necessary to work through and resolve values clashes has become essential for managers.

When these kinds of clashes happen, take great care to listen to the concerns of all the parties involved, and to find a solution that accommodates as many of their values as possible.

If this proves too difficult, you'll need to employ strong decision-making skills to choose which set of values matters the most to your team and your organization. Remember that values are often an emotional issue for people, so you need to be prepared for your decision to have consequences.