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  • Tamar Balkin

Between A Rock And A Hard Place - What Do You Do When Your Values Clash At Work ?

Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about values clashing in the workplace and  have been uncertain how to write this blog. Fortunately, an interesting headline appeared in my inbox and it reminded me that in every job and profession there are potential clashes of  values:

  • Can a lawyer defend a client they think is guilty?

  • Does the primary responder paramedic treat the victim or perpetrators first in a violent attack?

  • Do the ‘Chinese walls’ or information barriers inside organisations really work?

  •  Is ‘cross selling’ good business or manipulative?

  • Can a mortgage broker  or financial planner be truly objective if they don’t have an independent licences?

All professionals have codes of ethics, policies and procedures, modes of practice and in Australia we have regulators that sit above/ alongside the codes of ethics. The complexity of life, work, our values and their impact on our behaviour goes way beyond what can always be articulated in a document.

Let’s take my client who places a high value on financial security, he prefers to avoid risk and uncertainty, wants assurances about what the future will bring. In addition, he places a high value on earning money and finding business opportunities. He currently works for a private equity fund that invests in start-ups’, there are times when these value conflicts make him feel particularly uncomfortable and he is at risk of behaving in a manner that is misaligned with his belief that people should be treated with respect.  

What happens in the world of coaching?

Perhaps because I am an Organisational Psychologist I am occasionally referred clients when there is conflict and incivility in the workplace. My role is never to determine the accuracy of the allegations, or to define the organisational policies and procedures. But rather when deemed appropriate to provide coaching to one or other of the involved parties, never both.

So what is the conundrum for me?

There are the values that guide my coaching that in this context seem to be at odds:

  1. Work should be enjoyable, energising and interactions should be polite and respectful, even when there is workplace debate or disagreement.

  2. Lack of self-awareness, emotional intelligence and the dark side of our personality can cause inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.  

  3. Evidence based practice informs my approach to working with clients.

Or to put it in another way if I coach the alleged perpetrators or recipients of inappropriate behaviour am I condoning inappropriate behaviour or taking sides?

So how do I resolve this?

For me the third value, “evidence-based practice” actually encompasses the preceding two values and thereby negates the contradiction.

Thus, when coaching the recipients of alleged incivility, I will draw on years of research into human behaviour in the workplace that has demonstrated that there are many organisational and individual factors that impact behaviour and will help my client identify what is actually within their control.

For example:

  • Increasingly internal stakeholder communications around deliverables and time lines

  • Focusing on the positive feedback provided by internal stakeholdersImproving recruitment processes to ensure better fit between people and jobs

  • Reviewing the remuneration structure to ensure jobs are documented and sized properlyLine of sight between work and the “customer”

  • The purpose and importance of the work and of work

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Our reaction to the support and feedback from colleagues encouraging culture of internal collaboration

  • Managing allocation of time during the work day to ensure strategic work could be completed regularly

  • Self-awareness of our values, personalities and derailers

  • Tolerance for inappropriate behaviour in terms of duration, and content

  • Career goals and aspirationsIndividual differences in perception of and responses to conflict

  • Our perception of what we can and what we cannot control/ influenceHow we manage our personal wellbeing

  • Guarding minds at work 13 elements of a psychologically safe and healthy workplace.

Where does wellbeing fit in and why is it so crucial in these stations? Stress and discomfort can arise when we perceive that we are forced to make decisions quickly in a situation when our values clash or there is incivility or life just gets messy. When we are stressed we feel almost like we have gone on autopilot, as our amygdala hijacks our responses.

Wellbeing enables us to pause our fight, flight or freeze reactions. By pausing we let the rational side of our brain take over.  

When we insert this pause we enable our brains to make informed decisions ie:

  • clearly identify the areas of choice and control

  • identify options available 

  • evaluate options according to our ethics, training, regulations, experience and most importantly our key values 

Making decisions rationally helps to ensure that we behave in a manner that is in accordance with what matters to us.

Finally, knowing what our values are and being able to behave in life and at work in a manner that is aligned with your values, not only enhances your general wellbeing but makes it much easier to sleep at night.

Thank you to my colleagues, Loren, Michelle and Genevieve for their input in writing this blog and to the clients whom I have had the privilege  of working with.  -----------------------------------


Please contact me for references. 

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