When Your Values Clash With Your Company's

Harvard Business Review

Authenticity is rightly praised as a virtue. Like all virtues, however, it can get you into trouble, especially if your authentic expression of your values sets you on a collision path with the culture of your workplace.

In an ideal world, of course, you wouldn't be working in a job that clashed with your values, but leaving a job out of principle is a rare luxury that you can seldom afford. Instead, you have to find a way to bridge the gaps you find between your values and the culture you work in.

This may well involve a certain amount of what one could politely call creativity and it may even feel manipulative. But the truth is that effective management invariably involves a certain amount of manipulation. You do not always get your way by being direct. As the Italian writer Daniele Varè once put it: "Diplomacy is the art of letting other people have your way."

To illustrate, let me once more share a story from my own experience. As a student, I always worked during summer breaks. One company I worked in while studying for an MBA at Harvard was an electric appliance wholesaler managed by its founder, Mr. Vito Porto, autocratically and whimsically. Whenever an employee dared to have even a slightly different opinion to Mr. Porto's, his standard reply was: "I have spoken" and that was the end of the matter.

The one and only criterion he applied when rewarding salesmen was sales volume. Consequently, making a sale at any cost was deeply embedded in the company's culture, with the inevitable result that a certain amount of mis-selling had become standard practice. Mr Porto was even quite explicit about it — he would constantly repeat this mantra: "Sales Now No Matter How."

As a supposedly "smart MBA kid" I was appointed by Mr. Porto as the sales supervisor of the highly competitive and tough Bronx district. Now, you must understand that the sales culture at Mr. Porto's company did not sit easily with me as fairness has always been the cornerstone of my value system. So although I was selling aggressively, I was always emphasizing "honest" sales and not sales obtained under false pretenses. Telling a customer that our vacuum cleaner was the "fastest in the market" when it was not was a lie that I actively discouraged, even if it cost us a sale or two.

Inevitably, the salesmen ignored my urging and continued expanding on the completely fictional advantages of our products. Eventually, I decided to force the issue and called a meeting at which explicitly forbade them from lying to our customers on the grounds that the lies would inevitably backfire and do more harm than good. You could have cut the tension with a knife. People were deeply conflicted about the issue. On the one hand they wanted their commissions and they knew what Mr. Porto wanted. On the other hand, they were afraid that their fairytales would catch up with them. And in many cases, they shared my ethical reservations.

I had to lance the boil. I knew that ignoring my values was not a solution I could live with. Furthermore, it would certainly backfire. At some point, I seriously considered leaving the company. This, however, felt like giving in and did not sit well with me either.

Finally, after a great deal of thought and preparation I decided to raise the issue with Mr. Porto himself. I asked for a meeting to discuss what I described as a "serious problem". At the meeting I told him a baldfaced lie. One of our biggest customers, I said, had called me to protest that he had been lied to by one of our salesmen about the features of one of our products. In light of this, I continued, my advice to Mr. Porto was that he needed to revisit his motto. "Sales Now No Matter How" should be "slightly amended", as I put it, by simply adding the word "honest" at the beginning: "Honest Sales Now No Matter How."

I told him that I was afraid that the company, by losing its greatest asset, the trust of its customers, risked a collapse in sales unless strict orders were given to salesmen not to lie to customers. I sensed that I had managed to scare him. He looked at me straight in the eye and replied: "OK, I will do this. And thank you. You are just here for the summer and yet you cared enough for my company to warn me."

What have I learned about my values from this story? The big takeaway was that some of my values are more important to me than others. In order to ensure that my colleagues and I were fair to our customers — a focal value for me I was prepared to violate a less important value for me, namely my respect for the truth, and consciously deceive my boss. It was a major insight for me at the time and it showed me that balancing the tensions between adhering to one's values and being effective may well demand uncomfortable compromises.

Bottom line: It's easy enough to be an authentic person. Being an authentic manager is a different challenge entirely, because a manager, unlike the individual, needs to be effective and therefore flexible.

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