We Need to Talk About…How We Talk About…Values Collisions in the Workplace

So, if you’ve been on a very long summer vacation—perhaps blissfully floating on a cruise ship, in the middle of an ocean, without access to the Internet, for weeks—you may have missed “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the manifesto heard around the world.

The jury is still out deliberating the question of whether that memo was merely one man’s career-limiting maneuver, or whether someday years from now, we will look back on the Google Diversity Memo as the beginning of a vastly different era for America’s workforce—and its employers.

At any rate. Between that day and now, we must still go to work.work leadership problem

And for most of us, going to work means we will eventually share space, or team accountability, or a project assignment, or some other unavoidable ongoing opportunity for significant contact, with somebody who holds a few opinions and beliefs and values that are very, very different from our own.

At which point, due to the enormous kerfuffle raised by the Google Diversity Memo, we should definitely consider:

Now what?

Workplace Values Collisions: The Options

So, you’ve got a Values Collision in the workplace. To refresh your memory, a values collision is a conflict in which the values of two parties clash, but there is no tangible effect. (If there are tangible effects—if somebody is openly engaging in behaviors that are costing time, money, or energy—then we are no longer in the land of Values Collisions. That’s a legitimate conflict, my friend, and it needs to be solved. May I suggest using the No-Lose Method?)

Sometimes the stakes are low in values collisions—a colleague smokes, or chews tobacco, or even giant wads of gum, and you can’t stand seeing or smelling the habit. Or you’re a neatnik and others in your work area are sloppy. But sometimes…the values collisions run deep.

Like right now, for example; a time when some folks seem to feel it’s OK to haul out beliefs that have been in deep storage and on ice for a long, long time and bring them to work. One HR professional, quoted in an article about a perceived increase in workplace bullying since the 2016 election, said “ “We’ve had to do a lot more . . . talking to employees about the fact that the U.S. government and current administration in Washington, D.C. does not set the standard for professional behavior in the workplace.” Depressing. (Or not—if, according to your values, “political correctness” is a scourge on free expression or the ability to live without having to think about being sensitive to others.)

These discussions can be difficult to manage, but managed they must be, and there are several ways to do so, with descending levels of risk to the relationship. Taking MemoGate as an example:

  • Using Power: Google’s Code of Conduct is unambiguous. It requires Googlers to commit to “do their utmost to create a workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias, and unlawful discrimination,” and furthermore, “prohibits discrimination, harassment and bullying in any form…” On that basis, it’s difficult to argue that Google did the wrong thing when it chose to part ways with the author of the 3,300-word anti-diversity memo. But. As it almost always does, the use of coercive power causes backlash. Which it has done, in droves. Power nearly always damages relationships or might even end them. There were other options. As of this writing, the ex-Googler who wrote and distributed the memo is considering his legal options, although some legal observers believe he may have a difficult time making a case that his dismissal was unlawful.
  • False Acceptance: The second-riskiest approach is, literally, gritting teeth, sticking heads in the sand and pretending everything is FINE, just fine, OK? While it may seem like the simplest course of action (why make waves?), pretending to accept behavior and values that are in direct and deep conflict creates resentments that can damage relationships; it also removes any possibility that the person or people who aren’t privy to your true feelings may, if they had the opportunity to hear them out, might consider them and change…something.
  • Problem-Solving Behavior without Changing Values: “I know it’s your life, and you’re entitled to your own beliefs, but I honestly just get upset and worried and frustrated when I hear you say another Civil War is just around the corner, Jim. Would you be willing to problem-solve ways that I don’t have to hear that at work?”
  • Consulting: Advice-giving can be tricky business. In general, Leader Effectiveness Training advises against it, except under special circumstances. This is one special circumstance. Your “client,” the person with whom you have a values collision, must “hire” you based on his or her belief in your expertise in the field, which you “sell.” And you, as the advice-giver, must present a case based on facts, presented as dispassionately and persuasively as possible. Then—this is key—you leave the decision about what to do up to the client.
  • Confronting and Listening: Using confrontive I-Messages and Active Listening could  have opened the door to a discussion that offered the chance for deeper reflection and clarification of the memo author’s values. This discussion would have offered him the opportunity either to make peace with corporate diversity and inclusiveness values that did not match his own or to leave of his own free will.
  • Preventive Teaching and Modeling: What’s the phrase? “Be the change you want to see in the world?” Before a predictable values collision is happening—not during (that would turn teaching into a “using logic” Roadblock), you can always attempt to use this low-risk option to share your own values, experiences, wisdom, and preferences—then back it up by walking the walk. Long-term, lived, operational consistency between a leader’s words and deeds will be more powerful than any Code of Conduct.
  • Changing Self: In lower-stakes values collisions (like tolerance for messy workstations, or the use of “colorful language” in the office, or determining what’s acceptable workplace attire, or whether the dress code should allow visible tattoos, and so on), it’s possible that leaders may find they become more accepting of another’s values after learning more about them, trying to understand them more deeply, and examining where their own values came from. It happens!
  • Accepting Differences: Finally, when there are no other options, we are left with the final option: Following the ageless wisdom contained within a familiar Reinhold Neibuhr composition:

Grant me the Serenity to accept

The things I cannot change;

The Courage to change the things I can;

And the Wisdom to know the difference.


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