Your Values or Mine?


Yesterday, my friend asked me a question: Can you lead someone with very different values than you? After all, personal values help define who we are and are at the core of what motivates us. How do we reconcile working with someone who wants different things than we do?

First I would argue that mutual respect is a must.¬† If there isn’t, if one person believes that the other’s person values don’t matter, you can’t have a mutually beneficial relationship. If there’s no mutual respect, then you have to decide who’s values take priority and how do you do that? No one person is fundamentally better than another. At some point there has to be an agreement to disagree or the person who drew the line in the sand ends up walking away.

Secondly, though your values drive your actions, as a leader, you are more interested in what drives your subordinates actions. All values are great, they just mean that people have different priorities than you do. From my perspective, a leader needs to know what motivates their followers and do their best to give them what they need in order to be successful, thus driving the mission forward. If family is the number one priority of one of your workers, then if you want that worker to provide their best to the company, you have to do what you can to help them meet their needs. Working from home, or flexible hours during difficult family times. At the same time, if you know that family is important, you can try to provide that kind of atmosphere at work to motivate them.

If you value independence and your co-worker values teamwork, I can see how there would be friction, but as a leader, you need to still be able to give your follower what they need, if you want them to be successful. To force them to prioritize your values isn’t going to work.

But what happens when people in your team have different and possibly conflicting values? That’s where it gets difficult. In all cases, the cost of being together as a partnership, a team, or a firm has to be lower than the cost of working separately. If it is too difficult to make someone productive, if it harms the team and lowers their productivity, then the firm would be foolish not to get rid of this person or move them elsewhere, which has its own costs. This explains why recruiters place a lot of emphasis on cultural fit when hiring. It’s easier to work as team when you’re all stuck in the same mud together.

So what can you do when you see conflict in your team arising from conflicting values? There are no magic answers here in this small blog, but I think one of the most important things that can be done is to acknowledge the differences openly. Rather than hokey “team building” activities that involve making a bridge out of Popsicle sticks, individual and ¬†group discovery sessions that identify individual and shared values can be a great way of identifying areas of compatibility as well as ¬†potential minefields. From there, you can decide how to mitigate potential problems (if possible or necessary) or whether you can just focus on the strengths of the group to crowd them out.

by Veronica Ciolfi