Expand Thinking to Resolve Values Conflicts

by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., © 2000
Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services, Nelson New Zealand, August, 2000

A respected basketball coach gets an offer to coach where he grew up, his "dream" job. On one hand, he is loyal to the players he has recruited. On the other hand, he has hoped for this opportunity all of his life.

On the surface he had to choose between loyalty to his players and his school and respect for the place where he once worked and where he and his family grew up.

The coach I'm referring to is Roy Williams, the basketball coach at Kansas University in the United States. The fact that he is coaching at Kansas, the birthplace of basketball and the fact that he is the winningest coach in men's college basketball during the 1990's (in the U.S.) meant that the whole process was played out in the television, radio and print media, locally and nationally.

At the end of June, 2000 he got the job offer of a lifetime, the chance to be the head coach at his Alma Mater, the University of North Carolina, where he had once coached under Dean Smith for eight years as an assistant.

He said he would decide within a week.

Roy is a good example of a values-based leader. He is effective as a coach. He is more than a coach to his players though, he is a mentor, a father-figure, a friend, and more. He is respected thought the world of college basketball in the United States. When he came back from his visit to North Carolina to announce his decision he looked worn out and tired.

He said, "I'm staying".

The 16,300 students waiting for the news in the football stadium shrieked their approval. An equal number throughout North Carolina slumped with disappointment. Many others on both sides of Roy's decision felt good or bad as the case may be.

Roy is almost universally respected by friend and foe alike. And the process he used to make this decision and to announce his decision was vintage Roy. It is no accident that he has earned such great respect and admiration, of such intensity, from so many people. He is an intelligent leader who understands values - his and those of others too.

As he described his decision at the press conference, it became clear that he REALLY thought it through. He considered many points of view, and had many conflicting values within himself. It was also clear from his sad and weary demeanor that the process was agonising and he said as much. He talked of crying with his family, of feeling pain, of being the luckiest coach in the world to have two such fine schools to choose from. (He could coach in the NBA and make millions every year, but apparently people are more important than untold millions of dollars to him.) He apologised to Dean Smith and others whom he turned down.

He talked about keeping commitments to players he had recruited. And in the end he said that he was true to the lessons of life that his mentor, Coach Dean Smith, had taught him - be loyal to your players.

What is so respectable, so trustworthy, indeed, so lovable, about Coach Williams is his willingness to struggle with his values - what I define as the feelings of what is important to a person.

In his last sentence at his press conference he said, "If this is a good moment for Kansas basketball, I wanted the fans and everybody to be able to enjoy it." The fact the he said, "If . . . " indicates he didn't presume his decision to stay at Kansas was good for people at Kansas, even further endearing him to the people in the Midwest who so enjoy him and his teams.

I think many of us encounter decisions where there are values conflicts within us. The less sophisticated approach is to pick whatever value is initially more important than the others, choose that as the criteria to use to go forward, and make a decision. The more sophisticated, more complex, more intelligent approach for dealing with values conflicts is to explore them all, especially those two sided values that seem at first like separate conflicting values.

In the case of Roy Williams, the values that seemed separate were loyalty - to Kansas and his existing players on one side and respect - for North Carolina, the land of his birth and for his North Carolina mentor, Dean Smith.

In Roy's case, didn't decide at first. He struggled instead. He talked with people at both places, coaches, athletic directors and players. Mostly, he searched within himself. And it wasn't easy. That was easy to see on his face and hear in his voice at the press conference, where his demeanor was, in fact, somewhat sad.

He finally made the decision on the day of the press conference after talking with his current players. When he did, he had obviously expanded his thinking to become aware of a transcendent value that united loyalty and respect. He revealed it in his TV statement when he said, "The love I have for the North Carolina basketball family will never die. I hope those in that family will understand."

Thinking About Values

If we picture two values joined by a line, we can see a dichotomy, as in the top part of the picture. Below that, the triangle illustrates how the struggle to resolve the conflict between the values is resolved by a value that unites them both, in this case, Coach Williams called it love.

I think that Roy has earned the respect, admiration and love of people over a long period of time through this kind of sophisticated thinking and his considerable leadership skills, inner and outer.

Had he chosen to leave Kansas and go to the University of North Carolina, he would have still gotten a load of letters to the editor that were positive from those he left here in Kansas. I know that he got them from those whose offer he refused. A week later, UNC went on and hired Matt Doherty, a Roy Williams assistant for many years.

For you, the reader, I wrote about Roy Williams and his way of dealing with his inner conflict and those affected by it for this reason: it illustrates that values are often in conflict, that the process of dealing with these conflicts within one's self are often painful if not agonising, yet ultimately fulfilling.

What I believe is important to realise about values is that most values are at least two-sided or dichotomous. When they are in conflict we can do the unsophisticated, simple thing and pick one side while letting the other simmer and suffer.

Alternatively, we can engage in the sophisticated, complex, sometimes agonising process of finding a way to resolve the conflict between two values, seemingly opposed to one another. This can happen within a person, as I've been discussing, or between people, like the Camp David negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. (I hope they find a resolution to Israeli Security and Palestinian self-determination.)

Psychological, architectural and anthropological investigators have approached this issue in recent decades.

Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow said that self-actualized people demonstrated "a rare capacity to resolve value dichotomies".

Buckminister Fuller, noted architect, often talked of the synergy that resulted from whole systems whose strength, like metal alloys, are unpredicted by their parts. I think the mind is like that.

Anthropologist and poet, Ruth Benedict introduced the idea of synergy into social science. She noted that, "Societies where non-aggression is conspicuous have social orders in which the individuals by the same act and at the same time serves their own advantage and that of the group . . . not because people are unselfish and put social obligations above personal desires, but when social arrangements make these identical."

When people and their organisational cultures are sophisticated and complex enough, they will resolve conflicts between apparent conflicts. The conflict between the head and the heart can be resolved by considering the whole body, and others, and time. The conflict between selfishness and unselfishness can be resolved.

Like the Roy Williams story illustrates, the conflict between loyalty to one community and respect for another community can be resolved. And so it is for other seemingly intractable conflicts such as concreteness/abstractness, self/society, mystic/realistic, masculine/feminine, individual/organisation and a host of others.

In organisational life, especially in health care, there are inevitable apparent conflicts between medical and management, service quality and budget loyalty; between commitment to one's team and commitment to the whole organisation; between dedication to the organisation and dedication to the country as a whole. It is important for individuals and teams to engage in serious/humorous discussions to find the process to resolve apparent values conflicts.

I equate Ruth Benedict's "non-aggressive" cultures with corporate and organisational cultures that are "values-fulfilling" rather than "values-violating".

I don't think this process is easy. The other VBL skills will sure help, when applied.

Like the case of Roy Williams, I can't promise that the process won't be painful or difficult, only that an outcome with resolution, cooperation and even synergy is, in the long run, preferable to conflict, and more healthy and fulfilling. Be sophisticated, complex and creative in your thinking - resolve apparent values conflicts so everyone can win.

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