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STRATEGY: It's a Matter of Values

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In my Quality Customer Service training, I ask participants to complete a simple exercise where they answer some quick questions: (1) how old should a piece of pie be that is served in a restaurant? (2) what time should a 16 year old be home on a Saturday night? (3) how do you know if a waiter or waitress should get a tip? and (4) when should you fill up your gas tank?  Interestingly, most everyone can complete this exercise pretty quickly. I purposefully ask them to do it alone at first and then share their answers with others.

Not surprisingly, some people have very different answers and often, get into a fierce discussion about who is right and who is wrong. I’m always amazed at how quickly those differences emerge and conflict occurs. Now, none of these issues relate to the work environment and impact anyone else but the individuals involved in the discussion. In fact, no “real” situation exists at all. And yet, some feel compelled to convince others at the table to agree with their decision, or feel the need to defend their position. What are we seeing?
These differences hit at a deeper level – they are questioning values. For some of us, values are very important and trigger a quick emotional response.  They explain what we stand for, what we believe in and what guides our behavior and decisions. Values reflect our assumptions and define how we interact with others. They serve as a decision making guide. Values are an energy source and rallying point. They help us muddle though vague and confusing situations. Values are very personal!

That’s where we run into trouble. In that same training, I ask participants to identify their top 5 personal values and their organization’s values. Some struggle to identify their personal values, while others find difficulty in narrowing the list.  Try it yourself; I find it very valuable to step back and reconnect with what is really important to me and also see how my values change over time.

Looking at organizational values also proved interesting.  In one session, we couldn’t find them. We searched the website content, looked at promotional pieces and finally decided that each person would have to create his/her own list. What we found is that people based their lists on the actions they saw the organization take on a day-to-day basis, causing the accuracy of their lists to be seriously questionable.  While the lists may have been a good reflection of the true values seen in the organization, they did not necessarily represent the values the organization wanted to promote.

Next, we looked at values at a departmental level.  Without these clearly written, often times, you end up with a list based on each manager’s personal values – a list that differs from one department to another, even between managers in the same department. Without clarity, employees will revert to their own personal values to guide their actions and decisions. Furthermore, early in the life cycle of employees, they may even ignore the values given to them and base their actions on their own values anyway. The reality: managers, employees, generations, sexes, etc. can all have very different values.

“The reality: managers, employees, generations, sexes, etc. can all have very different values.”

As leaders, what can we do to address this basic platform of differences in values?

1. Review and discuss the organizational values with employees. If organizational values don’t exist, drive the case or offer to spearhead a team to develop them. Speak to the benefits of having clear values to drive behavior and avoid confusion and mistakes. Examine and surface the level of congruence between the actions of the organization and its values. I had a participant in training that left an organization when she realized that the organization’s values were in such conflict with her own that she would never be successful in that environment.  That was a good choice for her and the organization.

2. Bring the organizational values to the department level. Develop typical customer and employee scenarios and discuss how each should be handled based on the departmental values. Link clear action and acceptable performance to values. Set standards of behavior based on these departmental values, not personal ones.

3. Talk about how personal value differences affect conflicts in work relationships. Not unlike different styles of communication, develop options for handling these basic differing viewpoints. Teach employees to respect each others’ values and seek to understand first. On a personal level, agree to disagree and work out a plan to work with each other effectively.

4. Reinforce organizational and departmental values in corrective action discussions. Coach employees whose first reaction may not be what the organization is expecting of them. Help them to use agreed-upon values to make better choices.

5. See value differences as bringing another perspective to problem solution and process improvement.


How have you seen value differences play out in your own organization and department? How have you handled situations when your own values are very different from others?

  • Could it be that the conflict to find personal values for your participants be from the reality none of us are born with values and they are learned as a product of our environment and the difficulty telling the difference from personality and values?

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