Why talking about values matters

By Carolyn Hardin and Christian Lundberg

Implementing and managing organizational change is crucial for the success of any organization. But how can leaders produce the change that they desire in contexts where tendencies towards group-think and inertia make it difficult for new ideas to get off the ground? Paying attention to the stories that your employees tell themselves about the character and values of your organization is a crucial first step to figuring out how to create meaningful and durable change. Those stories, and the values that they contain  define the members of your organization’s relationship to leadership, to one another, and to your organization–in other words, they are the glue of what social psychologists and communication experts call “social cohesion.” Paying attention to the dynamics of social cohesion in your organization can dramatically improve results when you want to drive organizational change.

But why does this matter for communication within an organization? We often think that what persuades people is the facts–that if we make the case for why one choice is superior to another that people will automatically fall in line. Much of the time organization communication virtually presumes this pattern: make the case for a change on the merits, and people will see the value. But research tells us that this way of approaching communication puts the cart before the horse. People typically do not decide on the rational value of a case first: rather, if they believe in the underlying values that a case for change embodies, they will likely accept the facts behind the case.

If you unearth the values that motivate commitment to the organization and frame your case for change in the context of those values, agreement on the facts will follow. If you make a case on the basis of facts without an accompanying value frame, you will likely encounter resistance.

Why? Researchers have known for some time that when people are presented with facts that contradict their strongly held beliefs, it often reinforces, rather than challenges, those beliefs (Skurnik, Ian. “How Warnings About False Claims Become Recommendations.” Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 31, March 2005, pp. 713-724.). But the reason for this phenomenon points to better ways to communicate with people on contentious issues (such as performance review or changing strategies). Pascal Boyer, professor of sociocultural anthropology and psychology at Washington University, St. Louis explains that shared knowledge is a strong determinant of social support, meaning that what we believe is intimately related to the social inclusion we experience and the social support we depend on.

It isn’t difficult to imagine how this plays out in the workplace. A group of employees has a set way of approaching their tasks; they have built up a level of agreement and justification—through past experience and social habit—about why their way works. If one member of the group tries to buck convention, they might get an icy response from everyone else or even be openly challenged or excluded from the group.

The social context of work isn’t inconsequential. Social cohesion impacts the effectiveness of all employees, not just those who are on the outs. This presents a significant organizational problem when managers or other “outsiders” ask people to think differently or approach a task in a new way. Because humans are social creatures, and values are the common bond that ties us with others,  instituting changes in an organization will almost always meet with resistance if not done in a way that preserves or strengthens social cohesion by drawing on or affirming the values that motivate them to work for the organization in the first place. This approach requires tying proposed changes to the shared knowledge and values that already serve as the foundation of the social system in the organization.

“Buy-in” for new strategies doesn’t mean getting people to change their long held, socially determined opinions about how to do things, but instead means finding ways to persuade people that their values will be better served by doing things in a different way–the challenge is to convince your stakeholders that by adopting a change they are not giving up on the values that tie them together, but that in making a change they are becoming a better version of what they already were. Taking the time to excavate those values, relate changes to them, and nurture social cohesion in the process can dramatically improve organizational climate and the results of organizational change.