Rebecca SchalmSo many leadership lessons lurk in the events that have plagued the political landscape in both Canada and the United States recently that it’s hard to know where to start.

Leadership lessons that emerge from crises are easy pickings; they’re so obvious and it’s so easy to be self-righteous.

A much tougher question is: What do you do when you’re on the other side of the equation, when you have a values clash with your boss?

I’ve certainly been in situations where I was expected to do something, go along with something or support something that I felt compromised my values and beliefs. It’s a horrible, uncomfortable place to be, and I suspect many of us have been in that situation in our professional lives.

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Typical advice reeks of platitudes: ‘‘Stand up for what you believe in!’’

Sometimes, that’s easy, such as when what’s being asked of you clearly violates the law, company policy or principles, or ethical codes.

But not everything is so black and white. And it’s not always so easy. I think that’s why we’re quick to recognize and applaud someone who dares to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of the consequences.

Here’s my best advice for approaching and resolving these sticky situations:

  • Pause and acknowledge that people hold different values, and it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people.

It’s essential to differentiate between what’s a law, rule, ethical principle or organizational value and what’s a personal value. Personal values are often hot-button issues, and values clashes are often an underlying reason for interpersonal conflict at work.

People hold different values. For a friend of mine, family always takes priority. When asked to do something that will result in breaking a commitment she has made to one of her kids, she will always say no. On the other hand, her husband is more likely to reorganize his family commitments to respond to other requests when he sees them as equally important. They have different values. Happily, they accept that about each other.

  • Express what’s making you uncomfortable in a values-neutral way.

There’s a difference between saying, “I believe what we’re doing is wrong and I refuse to participate,” and “I accept this is the decision; however, I don’t feel comfortable following through with it. Can we discuss how to handle this?”

The first response is obviously going to get someone’s back up and put you in an adversarial situation. The second communicates angst and solicits support.

The authoritarian do-this-or-else leadership style is thankfully pretty rare these days. When confronted by a team member who’s in distress, most managers will want to help. As a first step, you have to communicate in a way that makes others willing to understand your dilemma.

  • Avoid zero-sum games and look for alternative solutions.

In the same way that you wouldn’t want your boss to present you with an ultimatum, you should avoid presenting your ultimatums over values-based issues.

There are often alternative ways to resolve values clashes. Perhaps someone else completes a task or takes on a responsibility.

This is what recently happened to Jan, who was told to terminate someone after they made a costly mistake. Jan strongly believed the company wasn’t being fair, and the right thing to do was give the person a second chance. When he discussed with his boss how difficult it would be for him to follow through on something that was, for him, a real values disagreement, his boss was actually very sympathetic.

She knew Jan could fire someone; that wasn’t the issue. Instead of just saying, “Too bad, that’s your job,” she offered to be the one to deliver the news. The situation was resolved, Jan was relieved and his boss had the opportunity to display leadership and compassion.

The more diverse and inclusive our workplaces are, the more likely we’ll bump into disagreements along values lines. Recognizing them, acknowledging them and addressing them openly and respectfully will help us create healthy teams and organizations where we all feel welcome.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions. For interview requests, click here.


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