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‘All very well,’ you might say, ‘but after all this, how do I know that I’ve really

got at my interviewee’s personal values? How do I know that s/he’s telling me

what s/he really believes rather than what s/he would like me to believe?’

And you would be right to ask this. If you have a formal background in

psychology, sociology, or behavioural studies, you will know about the social

desirability effect. And if you are a supervisor, trainer, or manager, while you

may not call it by that term, you will have come across it. You will be aware of

people’s tendency to express their attitudes and opinions, never mind their

beliefs and values, in a socially acceptable manner.

In some circumstances, this might be a simple matter of shading expression,

that is, finding a socially acceptable name for a belief. Calling a spade ‘a

personal digging device’ rather than ‘a bloody shovel’, as it were. But in

others, it may be a case of misinformation, a reluctance to admit that one holds

an unpopular belief, or even a simple case of blatant lying about some

personal value which is dear to one’s own soul but to nobody else’s. How

might you deal with this situation? How can we be certain that the personal

values we have identified are, indeed, those held by the interviewee?

The short answer is that we can’t. If the interviewee doesn’t wish to share his

or her actual belief system with you, s/he won’t. (And of course there may be

no ‘actual belief system’, in the sense of a well-established underpinning

structure. It may be that, for this topic in particular, existing core constructs are

irrelevant, and your interviewee is just making things up as s/he goes along,

feeling their way.) There is no guarantee of accuracy with the laddering

technique, just as there is no guarantee of accuracy with any technique used in

social research.

There are two main ways used by social researchers in which the social

desirability effect can be handled, however, and construct laddering has its

own version of both.

Firstly, one can minimise, as far as possible, interviewees’ reasons for not

reporting their actual beliefs and values. Conducting one’s research and

consultancy work with careful attention to ethical considerations (e.g., Russ-

Eft et al., 1999), including the guarantee of such issues as confidentiality and

anonymity; negotiating support for outcomes from management; and the

development of a general sense of trust, and of good rapport in the face-to-face

encounter are all included here. And it is surely obvious by now that all of the

repertory grid technique, with its legitimation of individual perspectives and

its respect for the individual’s own way of construing the issues being

researched, is at least as effective as, and will often be more so than, other

social research methods in removing the reasons for socially desirable


Secondly, one seeks to identify the extent to which some statements made by the

interviewee are more, and less, affected by social desirability. In effect, one

accepts the fact of social desirability, and works with it. Perhaps the most

common approach is to identify the relative social desirability of different

options, and then to ask respondents to express their preferences between

options of roughly equal social desirability (Cronbach, 1964; Cook, 1998). By

providing a sequence of comparisons in which the choices made within a set

of such option pairs are aggregated, it is possible, in most cases, to identify a

respondent’s preference ordering over the whole set of alternatives,

independent of their social desirability.

Exactly the same approach is used in the identification of personal values,

especially in identifying the priorities which an interviewee gives to his or her

values. It is accepted that some reported values will be less central than others,

personally salient, or tied up with one’s core being; and it is possible to

identify this preference ordering in such a way that tends to remove the need

for the individual to engage in social desirability-biased responding.

How is this done? Recall for a moment that core constructs are relatively

resistant to change. The more central a belief, and the more genuinely

personally value-laden a construct, the more personally important it is to see

the world in that way, and the less likely an individual is to change their mind

about it. And so, in order to find out which personal values are more

important, and which less, one asks the interviewee to choose between values

presented in such a way as to focus attention on their relative desirability.

Some choices will be easy to make because the desirability, to our interviewee, of

one option over another is clearly evident. Others will be more difficult, since

the desirability of each alternative is very similar, so far as the interviewee is

concerned. The interviewee will be prepared to compromise on some choices

(indicating less-central constructs, which are more open to change), but won’t

on others (indicating the bedrock values: those constructs which are highly

resistant to change).

The resistance-to-change technique, the procedure for identifying which

personal values are more central, and which less so, and thereby describing an

individual’s hierarchy of personal values, is carried out in 10 steps. Let’s work

with an example taken from Table 8.3. A transcript of the interview procedure

is given in Appendix 5. Return to it when you’ve read all 10 steps.

(1) Take the first two personal values identified by the laddering technique

described in Section 8.1.1. Call the first personal value ‘A versus contrast-A’,

and the second ‘B versus contrast-B’. Suppose, for example, your two values

are as follows:

A contrast-A B contrast-B

life and


– hopelessness

and despair




– criminal


(2) Present your interviewee with a choice between ‘A at the cost of contrast-

B’, or ‘B at the cost of contrast-A’. Using the above example,

A contrast-B B contrast-A

life and


at the

cost of



personal moral


at the

cost of


and despair

Which option, ‘A at the cost of contrast-B’, or ‘B at the cost of contrast-A’, does

your interviewee prefer? The choice requires the interviewee to make up their

mind about how strongly they feel about each personal value. There are costs

involved in each option, and so, which option has the greatest reward with the

least pain?

It is helpful to present the choice as a fundamental, existential one. For

example, ‘I want you to imagine you are going to live out the rest of your days

on an island, somewhere far away: say, in the South Pacific! I shall take you

there and leave you there for ever. It’s a place where you can live to the full:

‘life and hope’ are there! – but at the cost of a lifestyle in which people show

utterly ‘no responsibility’ for their actions. They’re ‘criminally irresponsible’,

and you may get sucked into it! Or, alternatively, I can take you to a different

island: one where people live a life of admirable ‘moral responsibility’ – but at

the cost of an all-pervading feeling of hopelessness and despair. You have to

choose one or the other: which will it be?’

(3) Record the personal value which was preferred.

(4) Now compare personal value A with the next value, C, and repeat steps 2

and 3.

A contrast-C C contrast-A

life and


at the

cost of

stagnation progress at the

cost of


and despair

(5) Repeat step 4, comparing value A with each of the remaining values, D,

E, and so on.

(6) Now compare personal value B with the next value, C, recording the

personal value which was preferred.

B contrast-C C contrast-B




at the

cost of

stagnation progress at the

cost of



(7) Repeat step 6, comparing value B with each of the remaining values, D, E,

and so on.

(8) Repeat step 7, comparing each of the remaining values with each other: C

with the remainder, D with the remainder, etc.

(9) Count the number of times that each personal value was preferred over


(10) Record the outcome as a hierarchy of personal values.

Table 8.4 provides you with an example of the whole procedure, working with

the list of six personal values shown in Table 8.3. Notice how the personal

values are expressed as each choice is presented. Each of the two options begins

with a preferred end of the personal value in question, coupled with a non-preferred

end of the second personal value with which it is compared. You’re presenting the

interviewee with a thought-provoking and, at times, rather difficult choice.

There will be moments when s/he feels the choice is an impossible one! Your

task here is to encourage the interviewee, to help him or her to think the choice

through by imagining the circumstances involved, and the consequences of

living with the compromise which has been adopted.

Table 8.4 Identifying the values hierarchy – the successive comparison, each with each, of the personal values shown as Table 8.3

Step Either at the cost of chosen? Or at the cost of chosen?

1 A and conB Life and hope Criminal


Yes B and conA Personal moral


Hopelessness and


4 A and conC Life and hope Stagnation C and conA Progress Hopelessness and



5 A and conD Life and hope Pain and suffering Yes D and conA Pleasure and


Hopelessness and


5 A and conE Life and hope Chaos Yes E and conA Order Hopelessness and


5 A and conF Life and hope Alienation from


F and conA Sensibility and


Hopelessness and



6 B and conC Personal moral


Stagnation Yes C and conB Progress Criminal


7 B and conD Personal moral


Pain and


Yes D and conB Pleasure and




7 B and conE Personal moral


Chaos Yes E and conB Order Criminal


7 B and conF Personal moral


Alienation from


Yes F and conB Sensibility and




8 C and conD Progress Pain and suffering D and conC Pleasure and


Stagnation Yes

8 C and conE Progress Chaos Yes E and conC Order Stagnation

8 C and conF Progress Alienation from


F and conC Sensibility and


Stagnation Yes

8 D and conE Pleasure and


Chaos Yes E and conD Order Pain and suffering

8 D and conF Pleasure and


Alienation from


F and conD Sensibility and


Pain and suffering Yes

8 E and conF Order Alienation from


F and conE Sensibility and


Chaos Yes

You should look at Appendix 5 now.

This records extracts from the transcript of the resistance-to-change interview

which resulted in Tables 8.4 and 8.5. There are two things to remember about

this process:

. The interviewees have to make a choice. Help them to think it through as

much as you can, but insist, sensitively but firmly, that they choose.

. Discourage the interviewee from trying to be ‘consistent’ with respect to

earlier choices in the procedure. The relative centrality of the personal values

with respect to each other will come out in the final analysis at steps 9 and

10, when you count the preferences made. The task is difficult enough

without seeking to keep track of the overall order while the comparisons are

being made, and so the recommendation is that each comparison is done

separately from the others.

Table 8.4, finally, shows you the outcome of steps 9 and 10 for the example of

Table 8.3. The two ‘chosen?’ columns show whether the first or the second

option of each choice was preferred. So, for example, we see that this

interviewee preferred

A contrast-B

life and hope at the cost of criminal irresponsibility

rather than

B contrast-A

personal moral


at the cost of hopelessness and despair

that is, expressed a preference for personal value A over B. This is indicated by

the ‘yes’ in the column next to the ‘life and hope at the cost of criminal

irresponsibility’ option in the first row of Table 8.4. Counting up the number of

times each particular personal value is preferred (Table 8.5) shows the overall

personal values hierarchy in Table 8.6.

For this interviewee, the fundamental personal issue is ‘sensibility and

affiliation versus alienation from others’. So important is the preference that he

will always tend to choose sensibility and affiliation no matter what the cost

might be; and so intolerable is the thought of being ‘alienated from others’ that

he will always try to avoid a situation in which this might happen. It will be

very difficult, if not impossible, to persuade him that the other issues are more

important. This personal value is highly resistant to change. Similarly,

subordinate constructs (those lower down in the overall construct system) that

draw on this value, or are particularly representative of this value, will tend to

be similarly resistant to change.

‘Order versus chaos’ is, in contrast, more malleable. Order was never chosen

in preference to one of the other values; and the interviewee was prepared to

put up with chaos in existence rather than compromising any of the other

personal values. Note, this is still a personal value. Order is still preferred to

chaos. It resulted from the choices made, and personal reasons given, in the

original laddering exercise. But the issue carries less personal weight, and

consequently, the individual may well be more open to change on matters

connected with this issue.

At this point, I should point out the importance of this matter of ‘resistance to change’.

It’s a term used very often in discussions of personal and organisational change and,

typically, it is seen as something undesirable.

When the organisation has to face a complex and threatening environment, its

employees are expected to be flexible and adaptable, welcoming changes in how

Table 8.5 Number of times each personal value is chosen in Table 8.4 (count up the

‘yes’ responses against each personal value)

Personal value Times chosen

A 4

B 3

C 1

D 2

E 0

F 5

Table 8.6 The values hierarchy based on Tables 8.4 and 8.5

Personal value The issue is Times chosen

F Sensibility and affiliation – alienation from others 5

A Life and hope – hopelessness and despair 4

B Personal moral responsibility – criminal



D Pleasure and enjoyment – pain and suffering 2

C Progress – stagnation 1

E Order – chaos 0

Not all values hierarchies are as regularly ordered as this one. It’s common to find two or more

personal values chosen an equal number of times: you’d just write them down side by side, rather

than one above the other, in the hierarchy.

things are done in order to cope. Employees who are reluctant to do this are seen as

‘resisting change’, behaviour which is greatly disapproved since it is detrimental to

organisational recovery. They are thereby placed at a moral disadvantage. The

change agent, in contrast (the manager or trainer whois trying to encourage themto

change), is always seen as on the side of the angels, engaged in a battle with fear,

reluctance, and obscurantism. S/he is advised on how best to‘overcome’ resistance

to change. Any basic text on organisational behaviour will supply an example (e.g.,

Hellriegel et al.,1995).

Yet the reasons why the individual employee might wish to‘resist’change, the possibility

that theymight bewellinformedandentirely legitimate ^ the consequencebeing

that to do things differently or to think differently might be to challenge deeply held

personalvaluesbuilt up overalifetime of personalexperiencewithinthis organisation

and others ^ all of this is frequently not considered as a possibility.There ismore on

this in Jankowicz (1996).

When weidentify a person’s values hierarchy, we areworking directly with resistance

to change, without any of thesemoral assumptions.

That completes the basic outline of the resistance-to-change technique: a

procedure which helps you to identify personal values with substantial

precision, and which lessens the possibility of bias due to social desirability

responding. Before leaving this section, you might want to look over

Appendix 5 again, to see what was involved in using the technique.

Then work through Exercises 8.2 and 8.3.