Conflicting Values

Lesson 1: Topic 11 of 19

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In their book Decisive, brothers and bestselling authors Chip and Dan Heath bring up this very scenario. They discuss Interplast (now known as ReSurge International), a humanitarian nonprofit organization which provides life-changing cleft palate surgeries to impoverished children around the world. In developed countries, this is a small, quick, and inexpensive procedure, but in some places this surgery is simply beyond reach. Disfigured, mocked and rejected, considered a bad omen, deemed to be cursed, and in some cases starving to death because they are unable to eat, those afflicted with cleft palate suffer hellish lives. Surgeons recruited from developed countries donated their time, skills, and money to help, and the results were literally transformational. 

Interplast had great success and was doing wonderful work until they grew to a point that their two primary corporate values were in conflict. 

They wanted to “provide free reconstructive surgery for people in developing nations” (initially done exclusively by volunteer surgeons) while at the same time “assist host country medical colleagues toward medical independence” (which deemphasized the role of volunteer surgeons in favor of training and equipping local ones). After a few clashes, Interplast finally realized that both values could not simultaneously be equal. Ultimately they decided the second value had to be the most important one guiding their organization. They began to primarily focus on surgical training of local doctors.

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On the flip side, one example of having navigated this kind of conflict poorly was the grocery chain Whole Foods Market. Two of their corporate core values are ‘we satisfy and delight our customers,’ and ‘we create wealth through profits and growth.’ A number of past scandals demonstrated that although these two don’t have to be incompatible, Whole Foods clearly made them so by prioritizing the latter value over the former. Consumer advocacy groups and regulatory agencies went after Whole Foods for selling “low sugar” Greek yogurt that was actually extremely high in sugar, and for stocking products made by prison labor. Whole Foods also claimed their private label non-organic food items were “more responsibly grown” than organic counterparts, and on multiple occasions overcharged consumers by overstating weights on products sold by weight. Far from being ‘satisfied and delighted,’ a number of customers responded by filing lawsuits, and the company’s stock value took a beating in response. Adjustments were absolutely required!

Was this an example of the difficulty in attaining high standards, or hypocrisy of a business claiming to have a standard that they never really intended to follow?