Making teams work: How to manage diversity in values

Diversity in values is the hardest factor to manage in teams. Dr Margaret Ormiston illustrates why and explains what to do about it.


Teams gain strength from diversity – in particular from having people with different knowledge, skills and experiences. But when team members have different values it can cause problems and this story helps show why.

There are five characters – Abby, Gregory, Ivan, Sharon and Tony – and none of them are perfect. Have a read and decide which character’s behaviour you would judge as the most offensive…

Insider dealing and blackmail

Abby works for the government and manages applications for contracts. Her friend Gregory is a contractor and submits a bid. Abby knows Gregory is in financial difficulties so when she sees that his bid is a bit high compared with the competition, she feels bad for him and tips him off to reduce his price. Gregory puts in a new bid and, sure enough, gets the job.

Tony also works for the government. He finds out what Abby has done and blackmails her for money. Abby is horrified and goes to see her good friend and colleague, Ivan, saying: “You can’t tell anyone but I helped Gregory by giving him inside information that got him the government contract. Tony has found out and now he’s blackmailing me, what should I do?”

Betrayal and revenge

Ivan tells Abby her secret is safe with him, he won’t tell anyone, but he doesn’t want to help her. But then, a month later, during a “Clean Up The Government” campaign, Ivan decides to report Abby because there is a financial reward for him to do so.

Poor Abby is fined $100,000. She goes to see Gregory and says: “Look, all this is happening because I helped you out as my friend. Can you please help me in paying this fine?” Gregory refuses to help as he is worried Abby won’t pay him back. So she is forced to sell her house to raise the $100,000.

When Abby’s really good friend Sharon finds out what’s happened she is so disgusted with Gregory that she goes to his site office and burns it down as revenge.

The question is, whose behaviour is the most offensive?

Ethical codes

This is actually a very tricky question for any of us to answer because there are different types of ethical violations taking place. The most serious violation of the law is Sharon because she has committed arson. The most coercive use of power is Tony who blackmailed Abby. While the worst example of taking advantage for personal gain is Ivan.

Our own personal values determine which we judge as the worst offence. Five people could each have a different perspective on this depending on what matters most to them. And the challenge with values is that you are not going to change someone’s perspective – I won’t be able to persuade you to put loyalty above the law, for example. In a team, debating different values like this just wastes time and doesn’t really lead to synergies.

Managing differences in values

So in teams it becomes important to manage differences in values in order to avoid the dangers of communication breakdown, decreased team cohesion and factionalism. And in the modern world of cross-cultural teams spread around the globe it becomes very important to think how we can do this.

Clearly it is important to find organisations that fit our values, but beyond this we need to be able to manage value diversity when it arises and there are four key ways to do this:

1. Develop awareness of personal biases

We all have personal biases but being aware of them and how they operate can help prevent problems in teams.

There is a four-stage process in which personal biases come into play:

  • First we categorise people into “in” groups of people who are like us and “out” groups of people who aren’t.
  • Then we tend to label people who “aren’t like us” with negative attributes.
  • This then starts to affect our behaviour and we start behaving negatively towards them.
  • And the final step is that these people actually start behaving in the way we always expected them to. 

This final stage was demonstrated in a famous experiment in the US in 1968 when teacher Jane Elliott separated children in her class into those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes to demonstrate the effects of racism. She told the children that all of those with blue eyes would be seen as superior while those with brown eyes were inferior.

During the course of the day the children started behaving in the manner they were assigned. The blue-eyed children became arrogant, bossy and unpleasant to their brown-eyed classmates. They also got better marks in their tests. While the “inferior” classmates became timid and subservient.

When the teacher changed the groups over – blue-eyed inferior, brown-eyed superior – the brown-eyed children took the opportunity to taunt their blue-eyed classmates, but generally to a lesser degree. By then they knew what it was like to be on the receiving end.

Clearly by being more sensitive to your own and others’ personal biases, you can make more of a step towards finding commonalities.

2. Manage culture

When you are starting a team (or going for a job) try to think about common values, if these are shared then it makes it easier to disagree on other things.

If there aren’t common values then it’s important to create a common identity – a sense of “we”. In business terms it might be around a shared drive for innovation or an emphasis on results. This can override the forces of “in groups” and “out groups” and help people recategorise themselves under the shared identity.

3. Build relationships… slowly

When starting a new team it’s important to slow down and make time for everyone to get to know each other, even though this can be difficult in today’s world of virtual teams spread across the globe.

As a manager it’s worth spending time with each member of the team to get to understand their background, who they are, their career goals, and their personal likes and dislikes.

And then it’s also worth getting the team together to build a common identity and find connections between people. This could be a full team-building exercise or simply encouraging a little time at the start of a meeting to talk about everyone’s weekends.

4. Manage conflict when it inevitably arises

There are three main causes of conflict in teams – around processes, tasks and relationships.

Conflicts over processes – or how to carry out projects – are not necessarily a problem if they happen early on, they are harder to handle if they happen later. So when starting a new team it’s important to establish early on how things are going to be done. Conflicts over tasks are also healthy up to a point.

Beyond these sorts of conflict is relationship conflict and this is the one that can really spiral out of control. It largely stems from differences in values, although conflicts over tasks can also lead to relationship conflict if people take matters personally. Research done at London Business School shows that building trust is a really important way of preventing task conflict from escalating into relationship conflict.

So how to minimise relationship conflict?

It’s not a bad idea to ignore small amounts of relationship conflict but when it starts becoming a consistent pattern it’s important to intervene swiftly. Make sure your response focuses on the behaviour not the person. Get those involved to be specific in describing what they think is actually happening. What went wrong in the meeting? What held up the task? Really listen to each person’s complaints then clarify with them what they said and what they think the problem is. This will encourage them to take responsibility for their actions. At the same time it’s important to remind everyone of their larger goal as a team rather than getting buried in the minutiae of personal factors.

Real life issues

Of course, these are all processes that apply not just to work teams but to your relationships at home, with your partner, your family, and in the wider world.

So diversity can bring big rewards but we need to be very careful with diversity in values. If conflicts arise it is worth planning how to manage them. It is all about having awareness, being sensitive to the issues and acting early, in order to get the best out of your teams.

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