How Should Leaders Address Workplace Values Conflicts?

2017’s employee engagement scores are in, and they’re depressing. Only 31% of the U.S. workforce is engaged, says Gallup’s daily engagement report. Gallup finds that global engagement is much worse – only 13% of global workers are actively engaged. These figures mirror those of Aon Hewitt’s research, which found that people are disengaging because they’re anxious about recent global events.


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My research and experience indicates that people’s anxiety runs deeper than mere politics: We’re seeing a clash of core values in several key areas of organizational culture around the globe. People simply aren’t aligned in their fundamental approaches to work. In part, the conflict stems from Millennial’s and Gen Z’s entrance into the workforce.

But it’s not just tech-savviness (or the lack thereof) that creates division. Differing beliefs around tradition, wisdom, and mobility are causing people to question one another’s core values, and that questioning is getting less and less civil. As civility declines, so does engagement.

Leaders can dial down values-driven conflicts, invite reengagement, and reinvigorate their cultures. To do so, they must root out and alleviate the most damaging values-driven conflicts, each of which we’ll take a closer look at here.

Technology vs. Tradition

This conflict plays out where some employees embrace new systems, processes, and tools while others resist them. A division forms between early adopters and laggards. Communication between the groups dries up, constraining teamwork instead of facilitating it.

This values-clash isn’t really about comfort levels with technology; it’s about how people find meaning in their work. Some do that through engaging the cutting-edge. Other people find meaning through more hands-on, face-to-face workflows. Neither is inherently wrong – just different.

Alleviate this conflict by first leveling the playing field. Both ‘sides’ have something to learn from the other. Cross-train employees so they’re equally adept at communicating and collaborating via technology and face-to-face (or via phone). Make collaboration channels a matter of preference, not skill.

Second, co-create ground rules for the work that can be managed using tech, and the communication that needs traditional channels to retain meaning and enhance collaboration. Do this, and you’ll pinpoint how fast technology-driven solutions can shift customs and norms in your organization without unraveling your culture.

Knowledge vs. Wisdom

This conflict appears when you’ve got a problem to solve, and half of your management team goes after the newest research, the freshest data, and the latest best practices. The other half falls back on proven templates, wisdom, perspective, and common sense. A subtle barrier emerges in your team, as people wind up devaluing ideas and solutions based on their source instead of their merits. As mutual respect declines, so does engagement.

This conflict boils down to differences in experience. In general, the more experience people have, the more likely they are to value that experience. The less experience they have, the more likely they are to go searching for it. Your job as a leader is to help both groups value all insight that’s brought to the table – both intuitive and data-driven.

How to accomplish that? Structure meetings to intentionally seek out both forms of input: wisdom and knowledge. Help people feel their contributions are valued, and they will more easily value one another’s differences.

Mobility vs. Loyalty

According to the latest figures, over the course of a lifetime, the average person changes jobs 10-15 times. Some turnover is reinvigorating to a culture. Too much turnover drains your people’s focus and energy, as those who stay are not only doing more work, they’re tasked with constantly training replacements of those who left.

Loyalty isn’t dead. People simply have different ideas about what it means. For some, loyalty is serving with intensity until they can make a deeper immediate impact elsewhere. In leaving a company, they aren’t being disloyal; they’re simply being loyal to something bigger (to them) than their current company.

Meanwhile, other people value longer-term service, with the understanding that their immediate impact will ebb and flow. They’re in it for the long haul. Neither side is wrong in what they value, and both offer unique contributions to your organization.

To alleviate this conflict, hire for values and manage your ratios. Consider which roles would benefit from a regular infusion of fresh talent, and which roles need to remain stable to “keep the home fires burning.” Map this insight as you develop it, and then hire and cultivate toward it, transparently.

Turnover erodes engagement and cultural health because it’s unpredictable. Do your best to remove the unpredictability. Invite your employees to forge mutual respect for the roles they play in your culture’s evolution.

Doing Nothing Is Not an Option

Most leaders don’t know what to do with values conflicts. They’ve never been asked to manage them. The problem with ignoring these conflicts is the cost to the business – in the form of drama, lower productivity, and poor service.

Leaders be in tune with which values-driven conflicts are impacting your workplace cultures the most. Engage both sides in resolving the conflict and merging both viewpoints to formulate a better solution.

The key to working through values conflicts among your employees and management team is to find the sweet spot where people can understand and respect why others hold certain values, even if they don’t agree with them. Then, you can create a work environment that leverages the values you do share, such as integrity, honesty, and civility.

S Chris EdmondsChris Edmonds is a speaker, author, and executive consultant who is the founder of The Purposeful Culture Group. He’s one of Inc. Magazine’s 100 Great Leadership Speakers and was a featured presenter at SXSW 2015.

Edmonds is the author of the Amazon best seller The Culture Engine and five other books. His blog, podcasts, and videos are at Driving Results Through Culture. He tweets on organizational culture, servant leadership, and workplace inspiration at @scedmonds.

Edmonds’ short, rich Culture Leadership Charge video episodes can be found on YouTube and Vimeo.