Business Psychology

Article No. 373
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Matching Values

Research discovers a new solution to the problem of employee misfits.

Employers can be forgiven for feeling frustrated when they attend high school graduation ceremonies and listen to motivational speakers tell graduates to follow their dreams and refuse to compromise their values. "Rubbish," employers mutter as they gaze at graduates that include both current and future employees. "How will these folks find satisfaction working in my business?" they ask rhetorically. No easy answers come to mind as they file out to their cars.

Experiences like this reveal a common problem for business owners. The problem is mismatched people. Employees often find themselves to be misfits in their jobs. A highly prized value such as freedom of choice can not find expression in an employment setting which demands compliance with company rules.

Employers want and need their employees to buy in to the values of the company. Misfits are going to set them back and confuse the mission of the business. Self-centered employees, for example, are going to frustrate the firm's mission to focus attention on the customer's experience.

The solution, implied by the problem, occurs with the hiring decision: match values. First, know your own values, and second, identify the values of prospective employees and hire people whose values match your own. In theory, this leads to a homogeneous assembly of people marching lock step with shared values into the future. It sounds attractive, and many businesses devote ample resources to realize it, but critics aren't convinced. "Isn't matching homogeneous values and lock stepping into the future what lemmings do when they march into the sea?" they ask.

Ryan Vogel from Pennsylvania State University recently revisited the question and explored an alternate choice. If we recognize that many employees find themselves to be misfits in their jobs, isn't it reasonable to imagine that many of them have found ways to adjust? What if employees have found ways to be misfits and yet also be highly contributing, valuable members of the firms that employ them? Vogel believed he could find them and learn how they accomplish it. He was right. He did find them and he did learn what they do.

Vogel studied 193 middle-aged adults who were employed in a variety of settings: finance, banking, information technology, education, and health care. He also asked questions of their supervisors. He found that mismatched employees used two strategies in the workplace and one outside their jobs. First, in the workplace, misfits adjusted their jobs in modest ways. For example, they modified the work procedures they followed to improve efficiency in their assigned tasks, or they added accessories to their standard work attire. Such modifications gave them a sense of ownership of their jobs and enabled outstanding performance to be an act of self-expression. They also modified the social environment on the job. They found ways to maximize time with people they liked. Outside the job, leisure time activities rose in importance giving them a way to find meaning outside their jobs.

These activities worked for misfits who used them, and their supervisors reported higher performance ratings for those who employed them. Even though they were mismatched, yet they were highly productive, valued, and apparently satisfied employees.

We employers should relax our insistence that new employees mirror the values of our businesses. We can manage diversity. Indeed, a range of values among our people will enrich our repertoire of responses to the wild swings of consumer preference that our markets throw at us. Our mismatched people will find ways to adjust. They will benefit, and so will we, and it will not take much effort for us to notice, allow, and perhaps even encourage these adjustments when we see them. They are contributing to the success of our businesses.

Reference: Vogel, Ryan M., Jessica Rodell, and John Lynch (2016) Engaged and Productive Misfits: How Job Crafting and Leisure Activity Mitigate the Negative Effects of Value Incongruence. Academy of Management Journal, 59(5), 1561-1584.

© Management Resources

Keywords: values, hiring practices
Consult Subject Index for related research.

Back to home page