Business Psychology

Article No. 362
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Keeping the Peace

Research reveals new ways to manage values conflicts among employees.

Imagine conducting a job interview and asking this question: "What led you to apply for a job with this company?" The standard, no-brainer reply would be that you had a job to offer and the applicant needed one, but that's not what you want to hear. You want to hear something about values such as: "Your company cares about and strives to meet these particular needs [names them], and I share these same values. Working for you will allow me to enact my values in this firm just by doing my work." With daycare centers, you're looking for people who love caring for children. A veterinary practice looks for dog and cat lovers. A restaurant wants foodies who get excited talking about delicious food, and so on. The result is a values match between employee and employer, and it leads employees to identify with their new employer and work their hearts out to help the business be successful. They highly value their jobs and the work they do because it allows them to enact and express their own identities.

Sounds perfect, but there's a problem.

It turns out that businesses have many values, and often they're incompatible. For example, the very capitalistic need to make money often interferes with more altruistic needs like caring for sick, abandoned pets. Businesses also employ people with differing values. Interactions between employees with contradictory values striving to enact diverse company values often lead to conflict, especially when the words or actions of one employee violates the cherished values of another. Even if everyone remains civil, there's a danger of people changing their minds about a match of their values with their employer's. Dis-identification then occurs. People begin to withhold effort, and they may leave altogether.

Marya Besharov from Cornell University is interested in this problem, and she recently went into the field to study a national food retailing company to see how they handled it. The company combined the profit motive with altruistic values of good nutrition, organic products, as well as societal values of environmental sustainability, health, and community welfare. The potential for values conflicts among employees was great. Besharov found that "pluralist" managers fared best. They fostered employee identification.

Pluralistic managers embrace not just single values within an organization's identity but all those values together. They foster identification by interpreting and enacting the firm's values in ways that confirm and expand employees' identities. They integrate divergent values while also maintaining their distinctions. They recognize the value of multiple perspectives on an issue, and they employ complex thinking to integrate these multiple perspectives into a coherent whole. Furthermore, they use three techniques to foster identification, keep the peace, and get the work done. They (1) create integrative solutions, (2) implement values, and (3) limit values discussions.

With integrative solutions, managers find solutions to problems that employ different values simultaneously. Employees observe their own cherished values being enacted, it confirms their identities, and they recognize that other values often support rather than conflict with their values. They develop greater appreciation for those values, and they may even incorporate them into their own identities.

Second, managers establish and express values within the firm's operational procedures. This ensures their implementation. Finally, pluralistic managers limit values discussions from day-to-day work. This allows people with divergent values to feel welcome within the organization, included in the group, and accepted. Implementing values while keeping quiet about doing so may seem odd. For Besharov, it's simply good manners. You're choosing not to annoy people who don't happen to share your values.

Taken together, these three practices carried out by a manager who strives to integrate divergent values into coherent practice serves to keep the peace and foster employee identification.


© Management Resources

Keywords: Pluralistic managers and employee identification
Consult Subject Index for related research.

Back to home page