Conflicting Values and Competing Priorities: the Evolving Conundrum

By Michael H. McGivern, Ph. D. and Kathleen D. Spector, Ph. D. IAMB 16th Conference (Nov 2013). George Washington University & CIBER Center for International Business Education and Research, Washington, DC.


“You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”–Abraham Lincoln

With the increased challenges in today’s global business arena, it is getting increasingly difficult for managers and employees to meet everyone’s needs. On one hand, we have the corporate shareholders pushing for increased shareholder value; government regulators and vested interest groups creating more demands. On the other hand, we have customers and employees requesting more value to enlarge their pieces of the pie.

This creates a conundrum for managers and individuals who are caught in the middle trying to please everyone. In a perfect world, they would find a win-win situation and please everyone. However, this is a lot easier said than done. The manager and employee are in the middle of the competing priority syndrome where they need to make decisions that may or may not be popular among all groups.

It is very hard to make short-term decisions to please everyone today while simultaneously meeting the challenging needs for the long-term. One of the major difficulties with competing priorities is making the correct short-term decision that will also support and sustain the long-term growth of the organization while honoring organizational values. This alignment between the short term decisions and long-term decisions grounded in a culture of values-based decision making is necessary for high-performance organization’s to be successful. A few examples of the challenges are as follows:

  • Speed to market vs. quality-driven products and services

  • Cost focused vs. innovative or rationale decision making

  • External stakeholder value vs. employee engagement and satisfaction

  • Dollar-driven vs. value-driven decisions

Managers and employees need an “anchor point” to measure their decisions against (Collins, 2001) and a process to analyze the competing priorities to align the short-term and long-term needs of the organization. The anchor point would be the values that can be utilized to drive the correct cultural behaviors within the organization so that the best or correct decisions can be made under times of compromise or stress.

For this to happen, it would entail two steps:

  1. Managers and employees need to understand the concepts of an organization being an open system based on a value driven culture.
  2. Managers and employees need to understand the competing values framework and how it can assist to make the correct decision during times of competing priorities, potentially jeopardizing a values-driven culture.

Why Value Driven Cultures?

In three research studies of Fortune 500 companies (based on success criteria and indicators of success), one common theme of the successful firms throughout was the core ideology (Collins & Porras, 1994; Collins, 2001; Collins, 2009). The core ideology was defined by Collins and Porras (1994) as the (organization’s) core values plus the organization’s purpose.  This can be broken down further into the firm’s core values defined as: “…the organization’s essential and enduring tenets, not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency (Collins & Porras, 1994, p. 73)” or “…nonnegotiable tenets against which we measure the worthiness of our choices (Pottruck & Pearce, 2000)”.

   Benchmarking research from Collins and Porras (1994) identified degrees of visionary companies; eighteen of  which were identified as “Built to Last” and noted the following financial success:

  • $1 invested in the general market stock fund in 1926 would equal $415 in 1990

  • $1 invested in one of the comparison groups in 1926 would equal $955 in 1990

  • $1 invested in one of the visionary companies in 1926 would equal $6,356 in 1990 (Collins & Porras, 1994, p 4)

Collins’ subsequent (2001) research identified eleven vision-driven organizations identified as “Good-to-Great” organizations; noting the following financial success:

  • $1 invested in the general market stock fund in 1965 would equal $56 in 2000

  • $1 invested in the Good to Great firm’s mutual fund in 1965 would equal $471 in 2000 (Collins, 2001, p 3)

Of the populations studied in the research conducted in 1994 and 2001, only one firm (Philip Morris) remained on the list. Further study by Collins (2009) suggested that no firm can remain a visionary company forever because of the challenges and compromises of today’s fast-paced world. Superior products only last for certain periods of time, and all firms will experience a decline. Collins (2009, p 43) recommended a challenge to the old business paradigm – “the rhetoric of success (“We’re successful because we do these specific things”) replaces understanding and insight (“We’re successful because we understand why we do the specific things and under what conditions they would no longer work”).

The previously mentioned research studies (Collins & Porras, 1994; Collins, 2001; Collins, 2009) did not find a panacea for predicting long-term growth and sustainability for organizations. What they did identify is the importance of values to drive cultural behaviors to build and sustain high-performance organizations.

Collins, J. C. & Porras, J. I.  (1994). Built to last:  Successful habits of  visionary companies.  New York:  Harper Business.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: Harper Business.
Collins, J. (2009). How the might fall and why some companies never win. Harper Collins Publishers Inc.
Pottruck, D. S. & Pearce, T. (2000). Clicks and mortar. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 
MHM pic 08-10-2010(1)
Dr Michael McGivern is an Adjunct Instructor of Business and Leadership programs
at Albertus Magnus College. When not teaching classes, Michael is an organizational
change management specialist consulting on Organizational Development/Redesign, Operations Management and Human Resource issues. Michael’s main focus is to work with organizations to develop and implement strategies to measure the effectiveness of change and continuous processes by linking organizational capabilities with bottom-line business objectives. Michael has also presented numerous times at conferences including IAMB, ACBSP, QAIC, Industry Week’s America’s Best Plants, Clemson University Teams, University of North Texas Teams Conference, ASTD, SHRM and the American Society for Quality. He also contributes articles to a variety of professional journals, including Management Decisions, American Management Association International, Journal of High-Performance Teams and Futurics. Conference and presentation topics include leadership, organizational change, teams, lean manufacturing, and measurements for organizational success.

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