Competing Cultures, Conflicting Values

Rob McNamara

Rob McNamara

One of the perennial challenges facing leaders is competing cultures, because competing cultures inevitably fuel conflicting value systems.

Competing value systems are critical for leaders to pay attention to because these are “hot spots” where conflicts often swiftly obscure creative and collaborative opportunities. Where people could collaborate, they now fight. Where there might have been agreement, we find resentment. Coherence is traded in for conflict. When this happens we demonstrate our shortcomings. Larger possibilities are forfeited for all-too-common expressions of our weaknesses as a species. We feel threatened by cultures not familiar to us. Differences bring out hostility. We become destructive instead of constructive.

The issue for many leaders today is that when faced with these consequences, it often appears like the best approach is to retreat from difference, diversity and tension.

When we retreat from difference and tension, we choose to stay inside our familiar cultures. We prefer not to compete. We easily can fall into the trap of avoiding confrontation. We opt to keep our value structures in place, unchallenged. While on the surface this strategy may appear to be better, it pushes off a challenge that must be engaged into the future. For an organization this may press off a conflict between the sales team and marketing team. A country might ward off conflict for a generation or two. But, reality appears to have one simple challenge for us as it pertains to difference. It asks, can we adapt?

It’s simple: we adapt or we expose ourselves to tremendous risks, most of which remain unseen.

Here’s why you should pay close attention to diversity differently than you are likely doing right now.

Different cultures and their competing values are here to elicit more adaptive forms of human life. If we respond to this challenge we can become more capable human beings. When we don’t, we are unknowingly pressing ourselves into a crisis of the most dangerous form. It is stable, comfortable, and it feels safe. We get stubborn. Instead of demonstrating our highly adaptive skills, we express our propensity to fixate ourselves into narrow ranges of behavior and constrained possibility.

Unfortunately, many of our contemporary sensibilities espouse the preservation of diversity and difference without actually engaging these differences directly. Instead of working with the diversity, we tolerate and preserve it. This stance unknowingly creates a homeostasis between cultures and value systems. When our energy is locked in preserving difference, we aren’t actually engaged in learning from it.

“Our values should stay like this, and theirs can also be like that,” we reason to keep us over here and them over there. Sameness in opposition with difference is a pattern that structures our identities and institutions. While we may respect each other, we have yet to grasp the purpose of life’s essential architecture.

But difference is here to yield something else. The universe did not expend a mysterious force over the course of 14 billion years for you and I to do the same things today as we will tomorrow. The essential opportunity we are being tasked with when we are challenged by diversity is to adapt, change and develop. Diversity is here to change us, all of us.

Comfort has a cost.
Creativity has built in fees.
Innovation is at the heart of the human being.

Today, as you encounter diversity and difference, take a moment to notice it more clearly.

It may be in a meeting with a direct report, your boss, or perhaps a room full of stakeholders. Avoid the temptation to press pass it without addressing and confronting the differences explicitly and directly. Feel into these diversity dynamics. Notice differences. Taste diversity’s textures. And most importantly, open yourself to becoming something else that is capable of doing more in the world. As you engage with others and yourself, exercise your ability to hold yourself and others in tension. Can you facilitate a creative response, or perhaps move and participate with a creative response that has us?

Become attuned to how diversity may be asking you to become a more adaptive human being. You might just discover you are a powerful facilitative force serving much larger aims than we often presume. Let’s forfeit our comfort and pick up innovation’s strongest currents to see what we’re capable of and who we are able to become. The longer we fail, the more we press this challenge into the hands of our future generations, born and unborn.

Rob McNamara
Harvard University Teaching Fellow, Leadership Coach, Author of The Elegant Self
Ten Directions, Integral Facilitator Faculty

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Smiling – and YES – Let’s DO so 😉 thank you for putting the new paradigm of Leadership out there. My mission is to make arenas for Leaders to “taste” their becoming in the midst of their beeing.
Alanja Forsberg


When you write “sameness in opposition to difference”, are you referring to the pattern of “letting sleeping-dogs lie” or letting bygones be bygones? Families with different views avoid entire issues in order to stay in relationship …. supposedly. What is sacrificed, of course, is intimacy. And yet many are afraid of the risks involved. It’s a skill for the perceived trouble-maker in the family to broach new subjects, new territory, in a way that does not entirely alienate.

Brooke Gessay

This is FANTASTIC. Thank you.


You highlight an interesting cultural dimension I often refer to as “pathological conflict avoidance.” We know about differences. We see differences, study them , can name them, aspire to behave differently, and as a society we do not have the individual skills or interpersonal trust or context support or contemporary leadership examples from which to learn how to constructively engage across differences.

Continuing to bring this subject into the light, may make a difference. Thank you.

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