To Resolve Value Conflicts, Adopt a Relational Approach

Employees who experience value conflicts with your organization do not intend to be difficult when they speak up. The misalignment of their values with those of the organization profoundly affects them, and that misalignment feels unsustainable. 

When the rules or culture of the organization go against the core beliefs or identities of individuals, it leads to a conflict of values. These value conflicts compel people to speak up. If it is not safe for them to speak up, they will likely choose to disengage from the workplace culture. 

These conflicts are not typically personality-driven, nor are they about status or a specific project. Value conflicts go to the very core of an individual's sense of belonging. Because of the weightiness of value conflicts, they can be difficult to resolve and adversely affect the individual, team, and entire workplace environment.

Why are value conflicts so difficult to navigate?

Your values are your judgments of what is important in life. These personal judgments are based on an individual's ethical, political, and religious beliefs. Organizations also have a shared set of values. Organizational values may be explicit or implicit, but they exist regardless of whether they are clearly identified and acknowledged.

Today, many companies have established an onboarding process that introduces employees to the company's values and policies. Ongoing training on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), self-care, mental health, and professional development fosters a sense of belonging and creates a positive workplace culture. Regular discussions about company values give everyone in the company an opportunity to raise value conflicts and allow leaders to reexamine the company's values. 

Even the most engaging and people-centered organizations face value conflicts. For example:

  • Business partners disagree about whether a long-term client crossed an ethical line and, if a line was crossed, how to address it.
  • A staff member reports discrimination by a manager who they believe treats them differently than the rest of the team. 
  • An employee experiences extreme anxiety, stress, and overwhelm due to recent firings that tripled their workload. 

When an employee's values are not aligned with the values of the organization, the individual may feel like they are being taken advantage of or disrespected. They often don't feel like a valued member of the organization.

You might think their reaction is more severe than necessary, but when someone's core values are violated, they feel threatened -- as if their very safety is at risk. If conversations around value conflicts are not navigated thoughtfully, both parties will experience increased stress and resentment, and your employee will likely disengage from work.  

Your role as a leader involves understanding potential value conflicts in your organization and the impact of those conflicts on your team. When a team member raises concerns about a value conflict, understand that they are taking a risk and are likely afraid that you won't understand their concerns or that you might see them as disagreeable or problematic. It's also important to note that value conflicts may not be raised directly but might present as a heated exchange or an uncompromising negotiation. 

By addressing the situation constructively, you will not only learn about the conflict and how it impacts your team and the organization but also whether you can resolve the conflict.  

Seven steps to resolve value conflicts

When values come into the mix, you must adopt a relational approach. In other words, you must try to put yourself in the other person's shoes to learn about their experience. And since this could be a sensitive topic to discuss, be thoughtful and sincere. Consider planning for the conversation by reviewing these seven steps:

  1. Know your deal breakers. Every organization should have standards of conduct that indicate what is acceptable. Some standards are hard-and-fast rules; others may evolve over time. Understand which is which before engaging in a value conflict discussion.
  2. Reach out and connect directly with your employee. Begin by letting them know you want to talk with them to better understand what is taking place and how it affects them.
  3. Tell your employee they matter. Let your team member know they are important to you and the organization. Don't assume they know how you feel. 
  4. Be curious. Ask questions from a place of curiosity to better understand your employee's perspective. Ask them about the facts of what is going on and the impact of the value conflict on them, their family, and the organization. Give them time to answer your questions, and listen without interrupting them. 
  5. Remind yourself not to get defensive or upset. Stay focused on understanding your employee's values, even if they do not align with yours or those of the organization. Remain calm and respectful. 
  6. Express your appreciation. Let your team member know that you appreciate them for taking the time to engage in this important conversion. Offer compassion for their situation and gratitude for helping you understand the situation and its impact.  
  7. Don't immediately decide how to proceed. Think through the value conflict, consult with others in the company, and seek legal advice if necessary.

Not every value conflict can be resolved.

When I was growing up, my father was a successful salesman in the lighting industry. Arnold Roberts took pride in his work and valued his relationships with his long-time customers and fellow salespeople. He believed relationships should be built on trust. 

He worked for the same company for years, steadily building his career. When a large corporation acquired that company, he was promoted to national sales manager. 

Initially, he was excited to be promoted to a leadership position. But it didn't last. 

My father was told to "crack the whip" with his sales team and informed that "no one's job is safe." The new leadership told him to stop being friends with his customers and sales team. The new management was focused entirely on the bottom line, with no regard for the relationships and trust my father had fostered over the years. Instead, they directed him to make sure no customer left the showroom floor until they signed a new deal. 

My father refused. 

His sales team was performing well, and their numbers consistently increased. He knew it was better to encourage and support his team than to pressure them and create a hostile work environment that would diminish performance. He also knew it was better to partner with his customers to solve their problems and not see them as nothing more than walking wallets.  

He was fired less than one year after his promotion. 

My father valued relationships; the company valued sales quotas. My father believed that relationships should be built on trust; the company believed in taking whatever action was necessary to make the deal. My father's approach was relational; the company's approach was transactional. There was no room for compromise.

My father took great pride in his work and was devastated by the loss of his job. But he never regretted his decision to speak up against the company's decision to prioritize profit over people. And he never regretted his decision not to compromise his values. 

Regardless of your role in the company, it's essential to address all conflicts respectfully. When it comes to value conflicts, you must be sensitive to the situation and open to listening without judgment. Only then can you determine whether there's room for compromise or if separation is the only sustainable path forward.


©Copyright 2022 Debra Roberts, LCSW All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without permission from the publisher.

 A version of this article was initially published on as: 7 Key Steps Resolve Value Conflicts