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Tools for Navigating Values Conflicts: Staff Opt-Outs

Part of my work at Cohesion Strategy is to help organizations foster unlikely partnerships to expand what’s possible. In a recent article, I discuss the strategic importance of this approach and initial steps to achieve it. 

Expanding what’s possible is fun and exciting work, but it usually involves partnerships that push us outside our organizational and individual comfort zones. This may entail reevaluating or reprioritizing organizational values or make some staffers deeply uncomfortable.

There are ways to do this work without compromising principles or losing staff. Seems kinda miraculous, right? 

It isn't.

The key is twofold: 1) open internal conversations in which staff feel truly seen and heard, and 2) allowing staff to opt out of particular partnerships. 

I’ll give an example from my time at the Aspen Institute Religion & Society Program, where we regularly sought collaborations with religiously, racially, and ideologically diverse individual and organizational partners. 

At one point, during our work on dismantling a culture of faith-based hate crimes (which encompassed issues including but not limited to antisemitism, Islamophobia, and white Christian Nationalist racism), we considered a partnership with a university-based center on extremism.  

However, one of my staff members expressed strong reservations about this particular partner because of some other work they had done on anti-Hindu hate. My staffer believed this work to be unintentionally biased and likely to increase antagonism between Hindus and Muslims in India. It was a complex situation. India, like America, has socio-political religious nationalist movements that promote physical antagonism and hate crimes between members of different faiths in India and among Indian diaspora abroad. 

Further, this staffer also expressed a fear of being on this campus because of a resident large population of folks from the “other side” of this issue, making them feel vulnerable to hate crime. 

Yikes. It was sticky.

Although we ended up not working with that partner due to scheduling issues, we did come to an agreement with our staff member about how we would proceed. The staff member opted-out of attending this event, but agreed to contribute their much-needed and valued perspective to the whole project. Here was our three-step process:

1) We held open internal conversations in which the staff member felt seen and heard and their concerns were taken seriously. We also recognized the courage it took for them to come forward with their concerns. We also took care to come to mutual agreement about the importance of diverse partnerships in general and in the potential for positive impact with this one in particular, 

2) We provided opportunities for our staff member to engage in open discussion with our potential partner so we all better understood the complexity of the situation and so the staffer’s concerns were honestly conveyed to the partner. 

3) We worked to find alternative staffing solutions for the event itself so our staff member felt physically safe and protected. 

Here’s the thing - expanding what’s possible takes going beyond what’s possible now.

It means breaking ourselves open a little bit along the way, breaking down our assumptions and rethinking what we think of our erstwhile antagonists. It’s fun and exciting! It’s also often uncomfortable, especially where past experiences have rubbed us raw. 

I believe in this work, but I also believe you can’t force everyone into it all the time. It’s just too hard. It’s OK to take and to allow others to take breaks from certain situations. 

The final post in this series about navigating values conflict will be about setting external boundaries with unlikely partners. 

If you are interested in developing uncommon collaborations but are not sure how to navigate this work internally or externally, reach out for a consult. Cohesion Strategies specializes in depolarizing strategies to get out of the polarized political trenches and down to actual progress. 


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