Responsibility at work: using it to solve value incongruence

Lady liberty
Querbeet/iStock
Chia-Huei Wu
Assistant Professor of Management
London School of Economics Department of Management
Share this content

There's so much rich insight coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know. At Academics' Corner we feature the best HR researchers that tell you what they’ve found and what you need to do differently on the back of the research. Get connected to the academic sector through Academics’ Corner and make sure you never miss another piece of key research again. If you’re an academic with a relevant story, please get in touch on [email protected].

Are your workforce happy in their job roles? Are they dedicated? Giving the maximum amount of effort to their day-to-day responsibilities? The chances are – even if they’re your longest serving team members – they’re actually not very satisfied at all.

Value incongruence is a term which is used to describe instances where an employee’s values stand at odds with those of the organisation they work for.

It’s a worryingly common circumstance which, if left unchecked, can result in employees developing increasingly negative attitudes towards their role, their organisation and, ultimately, themselves.

Value incongruence can be triggered as early on in a career as the initial recruitment process, if either an applicant or an employer does not use the opportunity to clearly communicate their own core values – perhaps, incorrectly, assuming that such information is unimportant if it does not directly relate to the applicant’s job role.

It’s also common for both job applicants and employers to deliberately claim, and overplay, certain values in order to make a favourable impression.

For example, a candidate may say they are deeply customer-driven when actually monetary rewards provide them with far greater motivation, or a company may boast a deep commitment to CSR and green policies when in reality their activities extend as far as donating to charities and installing a recycling box next to the printer.

Value incongruence is a term which is used to describe instances where an employee’s values stand at odds with those of the organisation they work for.

Value incongruence can also be caused by changes to an organisation’s structure, focus or leadership – particularly if these changes deviate from the values the company previously held.

In both instances employees can expend so much energy supressing their own values or amplifying values they do not hold in an attempt to fit in that they ultimately succumb to fatigue, burnout, and become increasingly disconnected to the workforce.

The impact upon the bottom line

Kate Headley, Director of Consulting at HR & diversity consultancy, The Clear Company, is all too familiar with the challenges that this can create:

“Retention of star talent is a perpetual challenge for many businesses and value incongruence can be a barrier to both favourable attrition rates and productivity. The large multi-nationals that we support are perhaps most at risk of suffering some disconnect between their own brand values and those of their employees, not only due to the sheer volume of employees they have to have to engage with, but also because more robust corporate structures can impose a ceiling on opportunities for individuals to demonstrate freedom and creativity in the way they work.” 

The problem is particularly concerning for organisations – aside of the effect this has on productivity and performance.

My research into the cause, effect and resolution of value incongruence (conducted through mass surveying of employees at a multinational healthcare company in Asia) has revealed a link between value incongruence and staff ego depletion, which often impacts upon performance, particularly in employees who were happy in general in their roles, as any negative feeling has greater influence.

People’s attitudes, and to some extent their personalities, are shaped by their life experiences – both inside and outside the office.

It also impacts innovation, as disengaged employees typically do not participate in activities that fall beyond their job parameters, limiting their organisation’s capability to innovate and grow.

Money doesn’t fix everything

Upon hearing the rumblings of dissatisfied staff in the corridors, the most common method used by managers to quell negativity and encourage greater commitment is through financial incentives such as bonuses and productivity targets.

This practice holds its roots in positive reinforcement – assuming that desired behaviours can be encouraged when a clear reward is offered. Whilst it’s true such actions can increase employee performance in the short-term, they ultimately fail to instil any long-term commitment, as they fail to help develop enjoyment, or interest, in the job or the organisation itself.

The missing element is a means of providing employees with the feeling that their contribution to the organisation is valued.

Kate Headley agrees: “While it has historically been assumed that remuneration is the primary motivation for employees, our research suggests that retention levels, staff absence and productivity can be positively impacted by addressing the specific needs of individual employees.”   

So what can managers do to provoke greater engagement? Conversely, the answer lies in providing staff with greater levels of responsibility.

Putting more weight on employees’ shoulders

My research, a four-year study of the Australian labour market finds that appealing to an employee’s sense of agency is a far more effective means of motivating a workforce.

Logically, the idea makes a great deal of sense. People’s attitudes, and to some extent their personalities, are shaped by their life experiences – both inside and outside the office.

With most of the western workforce abiding by a typical Monday to Friday, nine to five working week, it is no surprise that their work environment in particular can have a significant impact on an individual’s mind-set.

The key is in communication. Employers need to place greater trust in their staff, stating clearly what their aims and agendas are, and encouraging employees to speak their minds.

Kate says:

“HR teams have a responsibility to communicate an authentic employer brand to both potential and existing employees through every available channel, while candidates and members of staff must have access to suitable platforms to voice their ambitions and wider needs.”

By taking the time to become familiar with their employees’ values and desires, employers can work with them to better tailor the parameters of their jobs roles in a way that effectively meets both personal and organisational satisfaction.

As employees feel better connected to their organisations they become encouraged to contribute on a wider scale; implementing new ideas, improving procedures and identifying potential problems. In turn, this reinforces their sense of agency, creating a positive loop.

This is by no means a new approach, but it’s one that’s often overlooked as it is wrongly assumed that paying this level of attention to staff takes too much time and expense.

However, by embedding an autonomous approach in employees’ daily duties, employers can consistently reinforce those desired values and beliefs with little additional cost.

Employers need to place greater trust in their staff, stating clearly what their aims and agendas are, and encouraging employees to speak their minds.

“By offering employees a voice, even the largest organisation can take a personalised approach to identifying, and addressing, their employees’ needs,” explains Kate. “Investment in existing employees pays dividends”.

There are other positive outcomes, such as employees generally being healthier, happier and become more confident to explore new ideas, both in their personal and professional lives. Becoming an employer that fosters and supports such explorations can help an organisation to not only develop, but retain top talent.

But there are risks...

Employees who lack the confidence or the capability to master their work, can flounder under increased levels of responsibility and freedom.

Managers should pay particular attention to such staff and provide opportunities for training and upskilling as a first step.

To avoid value incongruence from the offset, transparency is essential. Employers should clearly communicate their values and state how individual job roles feed into the company’s aspirations, and regularly assess this throughout their careers.

Opportunities for candidates to meet with existing staff may help mutual understanding in the recruitment process, ensuring everyone within your organisation is working towards the same goal.

About Dr Chia-Huei Wu

About Dr Chia-Huei Wu

Dr Chia-Huei Wu joined the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2013 as an Assistant Professor of Management. His research in organisational behaviour focuses on proactive behaviour, personality development, work design and employees' subjective well-being. Dr. Wu obtained his PhD in organisational behaviour from the University of Western Australia, M.Phil. in work psychology from the University of Sheffield, and MSc. and BSc. in psychology from the National Taiwan University.

Replies

Please login or register to join the discussion.

28th Dec 2016 16:56

Very good article. Particularly apposite in the charitable sector too.

Thanks (0)