According to John Tropman in his book “Making Meetings Work, he claims that many traditional conflict-management approaches make assumptions that get in the way of possible solutions. One of those assumptions is that individuals are clear about their values. In other words, “they have a well-ordered set of value preferences, so that winning is clear to them.”
Now personally, I can remember many times when I’ve argued a certain point with conviction, only to realize a few minutes, hours, or days later that I could have just as easily taken the opposite view. Often this other view will have been attributed to another value I hold that might not have, at least in that moment, or within that particular context, carried the same weight in my mind as the value that inspired the argument.
Time is Money
This happens to all of us whether we’re conscious of it or not. Each individual has their own internal sets of values that are not always in harmony. For example, most everyone values freedom, right? And most would argue that some level of security is important. But we’ve experienced very clearly over the past few years that increasing levels of security require reduction of some of our freedoms. We value them both, but satisfying one “costs” some of the other. As another example, think “time” and “money.” Those of us who work for a living are intimately aware of this one. Work more and you have more money, but we all know what working more does to our time. Time is money. We value them both but usually have to trade one for the other. These examples could go on and on.
Dualist Values Theory
The dualistic theory of values holds the following premises:
- Most of us hold many values–not just one or two.
- The values we hold conflict with each other. Maximizing one value “costs” another.
- Values we learn come in juxtaposed pairs. Competition and cooperation are a good example. They are not opposites. One can be highly committed to both.
Recognizing that we have conflicting commitments within ourselves is a key to effective conflict resolution.
Key Conflicting Values in Organizational Culture
Tropman identifies the following nine value pairs that seem to show up continually as conflict themes throughout business cultures.
1. Multipurpose versus “unipurpose.” Unipurpose, such as “bottom line” is all that counts, conflicts with others views that there’s more to it. Things like integrity, customer satisfaction, retention, etc. A unipurpose focus can lead to premature action, while a multipurpose focus can lead to stalled action.
2. Pragmatism versus excellence. A pragmatic focus says “let’s just do it already!” While a focus on excellence wants to wait until it’s near perfect. As with the previous value set, premature or stalled action can result from embracing only one of these values.
3. Status versus class. This value pair reflects the issue of group versus individual gains. Class-oriented results benefit the group or organization as a whole, while status-oriented results benefit individuals on an independent or one-on-one basis.
4. Personal versus organizational purpose. A personal value focus asks the question, “What’s in it for me.” The organizational purpose focus asks, “What’s in it for the company?” These values also need to be balanced to some degree in any good decision.
5. Empirical versus qualitative decision-making bases. This value pair contrasts those who prefer to make decisions based on their “gut” (empirical) with those who “fly by the numbers” (qualitative). Numbers rarely tell the whole story but they do have validity and merit. An intuitive approach is hard to verify and harder to defend if it goes wrong. A blend of these two approaches is usually best.
6. Disposable labor versus intimate concern for labor. This pair contrasts the view that people are just cogs in the organizational machine with the view that employees are just as important as external customers and should be treated with equal respect.
7. Achievement versus equality. This pair is concerned with merit reward as opposed to equal treatment across the board. A simple metaphor might be the philosophies that underlay”capitalism” and “socialism.” Again, another rich source of conflict.
8. Results versus effort. This pair speaks to the challenge of balancing the relationship between results and effort. When results aren’t forthcoming, more effort is required. But how much is too much?
9. Results versus control. This pair speaks to the fact that all managers want results, but some find it difficult to give up the amount of control necessary for those results to occur.
The balancing and managing of these conflicting value pairs is the key to effective decision-making. Each situation will, of course, call for a different weighing of each value in the pair and finding the right balance is more an art than a science. Use the guidelines below to help you manage these value conflicts.
Managing Value Conflicts
Here are three techniques used to manage value conflicts:
Transcendence Recognition. A conflict is composed of at least two elements: 1) The “object” of the conflict, i.e. the external factors. In a conflict between a merit-based versus an across the board pay increase, the proposed merit system is the “object” of the conflict. 2) The “values” held form the “subjective” foundation of the conflict. This is often why trying to change individuals is so difficult, their values aren’t going to change during the course of the conflict. But recognizing and discussing the value pairs in question, and the fact that everyone values both sides to some degree, will take some of the charge out of the conflict and turn it into more of a dilemma faced by the group as a whole, instead of a conflict between the “righteous” and the “heretics.”
Value Finesse. It’s human nature to push back when pushed against. This approach appreciates this tendency by avoiding taking on other’s values head on. Because value commitments are not unitary, that is exclusively held by an individual, we can seek to find where a person has commitments to the subordinate value in a value pair in a given situation is still important to this person in some other area. For example, consider that a manager is dead set against a new policy that increases vacation time because she is a strong advocate of the “disposable labor” value. Finding a place in her life where might have intimate concern for labor might have her take a more balanced view of the situation. Perhaps her teenaged child was employed and taken advantage of by her employer.
In this situation, individuals are not being asked to give up anything but are asked instead to invoke something that is already present within them. They are being asked “in this instance” or “for this purpose” or “at this moment” to also recognize the alternate value in the value pair in question, a value to which they are most likely committed somewhere in their lives at sometime.
Validation. Most everyone has a strong need or at least a desire to “be right.” When it comes to values, this phrase applies to most of us, “We’d rather be right than win.” Put another way, being right is winning. So in the example above, where making a decision based on disposable labor might actually be the “right” decision from a scientific sense, but on this occasion, based on pressures on management to consider working conditions, a decision based on intimate concern must be made. This kind of discussion can lead to a sort of “double” win. Whereas those for the option decided upon wins by getting what they wanted, while the other side can celebrate a “values win” in that their view was validated even though they “lost” in this particular instance.
This approach concedes the complexity of elements present in any given situation and allows several people to win different elements of total picture. This in effect constitutes a win-win even though a decision was made that wasn’t acceptable to both parties. One party wins on value grounds while the other wins on implementation.
In summary, it’s useful to recognize that value conflicts occur “within” people as much as they do “between” people. Almost all values are valued by everyone at some time, in some context, in some situation. Helping people understand the value pairs in play in a given conflict and helping them to see where both of these values are important and need to be balanced in some way can reduce the emotional energy people exert toward one another. This energy can then be collectively applied to solving and implementing solutions based on a value balance appropriate to the given situation.
What was the last time you were in or witnessed a conflict based on one of the value pairs above? Knowing what you know now, how might you have proceeded differently? I’d love to hear from you. Please click on Add Your Comments to share your experiences, questions, or feedback.