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The Second of Three Fatal Flaws of Shared Values – Cultism

Stephen Billing, May 31, 2009

In the previous post (here) I said that the first fatal flaw of shared values was anthropomorphism. I argued that shared values means attributing human characteristics to things that are not human. Shared values means attributing the human characteristic of having a sense of purpose and values to something that is not human, i.e. an organisation.

The second fatal flaw is that shared values are a step towards turning the organisation into a cult. While this is a strong claim, let me explain.

Values projects focus on these values as things of meaning in themselves, in their own right. In other words, such values as respect, flexibility or openness are considered as having meaning and importance in their own right, regardless of the situation.
This means that they are presented as if they were context-free, without considering the context of individual specific circumstances.

This is important because cults are maintained by the leader presenting a picture of the future as an ideal state, in which all barriers and obstacles are removed. The actions of the members are driven by the values of the cult, and the application of the cult values is much more important than consideration of the intricacies of the individual situation to which those values are being applied. For example, perhaps the name of the leader must always be praised and never criticised. Most of us would recognise the cultishness of such a value. All values are cult values in this sense, and hence wars are fought over the values of some religions. The cult value of "thou shalt not kill" is overridden, in these cases, by "if you are not for our god, you are an enemy of god" or similar.

While these examples might sound extreme, they are nevertheless relevant to values in today’s organisations.

If these values are seen as overriding universal norms for those in the organisation, then continuing membership of the organisation is dependent on direct application of these values. In other words, if these values are universal norms, then you cannot remain a member of the group if you do not conform to the values. This is the normal definition of a cult – an idealised group that has values to which individuals must conform. If you criticise the leader (or if you resist certain sexual advances) you are expelled from the group.

If an individual should question the values then they will be ostracised as being selfish and they will be excluded from the group. This is very painful for all involved.

George Herbert Mead called these values cult values to remind us of the dangers of the collective idealism of these values.
In other words, shared values are a step towards turning the organisation into a cult. But this is not acknowledged in the glossy corporate literature.

The focus on the shared values diverts people’s attention from the ethics of their daily actions. In fact the enlarged personality experienced by people often justifies the terrible actions people take, such as polluting the local environment, Enron-style false accounting or what Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil in Eichmann’s bureaucratic approach to implementing genocide.

This is the case, by the way, whether the values seem inherently good, or not. For example, the golden rule, “do unto other as you would have them do unto you" is an extremely valuable, useful and wise maxim. But what about if the other person does not want to be treated the way you do?

Then you are into conflict. Which is the third fatal flaw. Covered in the next post.


The First of Three Fatal Flaws of Shared Values – Anthropomorphism

Stephen Billing, May 29, 2009


OK, here’s the guts on corporate values. I draw on George Herbert Mead’s Mind, Self and Society and Ralph Stacey’s Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics (p397) in explaining why I am so critical of corporate "shared values." These three flaws are showstoppers.

The first fatal flaw of shared values is anthropomorphism, the second is that values are cult values and third is that values are always in conflict.

This post addresses the problem of anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism means attributing the characteristics of a person to an object or animal.

We treat the organisation as if it were a person when we say it has values. Organisations are not people, they do not have consciousness and they do not have values.

Mead pointed out that humans have a tendency to individualise a collective and treat it as if it had its own overriding motives or values.

So we tend to talk about our organisations as though they are objects or things. Further, we tend to think of them as though they were human things. Then we attribute to our organisations human characteristics such as a sense of purpose and values.

Shared values projects attempt to identify these overriding motives or values of the organisation. As I have alluded to above, there is no such thing as a set of overriding values of the organisation – they do not actually exist. The humans involved in the organisation might each have their own overriding values or motives, but the organisation itself does not.

Values are attractive because they give a feeling of an enlarged personality in which individuals participate and from which they derive their value as persons. No doubt there is also the appeal to managers that they might be able to use these overriding values in service of their own managerial objectives and goals.

However, organisations are not individual humans, they are collectives made up of patterns of human interaction that constitute individual and collective identities. While organisations have a legal identity they are not actually sentient beings and they cannot hold values in the way an individual human being can.

So, it is a logical non-sense to say that organisations can have shared values. If that is not enough reason to be critical of the idea of shared values, there is another one coming up in the next post – the cult aspects of shared values.


Corporate Values Exercises are Pointless – But What Actually Are Values Anyway?

Stephen Billing, May 27, 2009

 What is my problem with shared values? It is not just the futility of corporate values exercises, it is to do with the nature of values themselves.

In the debate about shared values on this site, David Gurteen and John Tropea have both tweeted about this to the "twitterverse" which has led quite a few people to comment here.

To summarise, I have said that it is a waste of time for organisations to try and define shared values. Many of the comments have agreed, for the reason that most shared values exercises are pretty pathetic. But most of those commenting still think that you can’t do without shared values because they are what bring the organisation together, otherwise those in the organisation would have nothing in common. Some have suggested going the way of having shared objectives or shared goals instead of shared values. What are your thoughts about this?

In my previous post I pointed to Karl Weick’s critique of the word "shared," saying that it is a problem word that seems to be suggesting a process of sharing, but actually describes an outcome – that of shared values. 

However, my critique of shared values is not really so much related to problems with the word "shared," nor problems relating to the processes used in organisations when they come up with the shared values that are written on the posters.

The problem I have with shared values stems from the imaginative, intense nature of human values.

Writing values on a poster assumes that the values of a group of people can be prescribed rationally by working them out. Either the coalition of the powerful or the involvement of a wider group of people are thought to lead to the rational prescription of the values of the organisation.

However, it makes no sense to come up with a set of rationally conceived values. By definition, values are not rational.

Values come from a deep sense of what it is right to do. They have an attractive, uplifting, unrestrictive sense of the ideal. There is something compelling about the values that we hold, and yet it is entirely voluntary that we commit to these values. Value commitments arise from key intense experiences that we have and give life meaning and purpose. So there is a sense of voluntary compulsion about the values that we hold. You cannot decree a sense of purpose in life.

Values are the highest expression of our free will, and are intensely personal. They are an intense idealisation of an imaginative turn on how life would be if there were no restrictions. Efforts to work out a group or organisation’s values cut right across the imaginative and experiential nature of values. This is why I say that you cannot work out the organisation’s values through a rational process in a workshop. 


Shared Values: The Hidden Problem with “Sharing” Values

Stephen Billing, May 25, 2009

In which it is pointed out that the term "shared" refers to an outcome rather than a process of developing shared values. It is a danger word that appears to clarify, but instead hides, a process.

A recent comment in this site’s debate about shared values (here, see comment number 13 by Thabo) sent me back to Karl Weick’s book Sensemaking in Organizations. While Weick is relatively silent on the subject of values, he does suggest an intriguing problem with the term "shared."

Weick is talking about collective sensemaking and says that it is not the same as shared values. He points out that shared can mean either to divide and distribute something, or to hold something in common. Two quite different meanings.

He also points out that shared values can result from processes of domination (think "ethnic cleansing") as well as processes of codetermination, so although it appears to be a clear term, it is actually ambiguous.

Weick goes on to describe sharing as a nettlesome "achievement" verb that seems to describe a process but in fact describes an outcome. Further, it merely describes the very outcome that it purports to be attempting to explain.

The word "shared" presumes, but does not name the actions that take place that result in these "shared values" (Sandelands & Drazin, 1989 subscription only, unfortunately). Using the term shared values makes it seem like some process of sharing goes on but does not give much clue as to what this process is.  The term shared values seems to refer to some kind of activity but it does not. It refers instead to consequences that unspecified processes might have.

With the process by which these values come to be shared so cloudy (e.g. the corporate values could be derived from a collaborative process or from a dominating process), it is no wonder so many of the comments in the debate are critical of some of the corporate exercises through which these shared values are derived.


What is an Organisation? – A Great Definition

Stephen Billing, May 23, 2009


Here is the best definition I have yet come across for what an organisation actually is. It comes from Ralph Stacey’s article Learning as an Activity of Interdependent People (unfortunately only available on subscription).

Ralph says that "an organisation is the thematically patterned activities of interdependent people, which constitute their closely interconnected individual and collective identities."

I think this says it elegantly and comprehensively.

First of all let’s take the idea of the patterned activities of interdependent people. So a person alone is not an organisation, it takes a number of people to make an organisation. The people are interdependent, which means that they rely on each other. They cannot achieve their own ends, nor can they achieve the ends of their group or organisation, without each other.

The activities of the interdependent people are interactions between them i.e. human interactions. These activities or interactions of interdependent people have thematic patterns. These patterns are the coherent population-wide evolving patterns that emerge from many interactions amongst people, without any overall blueprint or plan. By the way, this emergent process of patterning is what is known as self-organisation.

The themes of these patterns emerging from human interaction are the closely related themes of power relating, ideology and identity. Power relating is caused by something already mentioned – the fact that interdependent people have need of each other. Differences in distribution of power occur as a result of the different amount of need one person has for the other at a given time. In other words, if I need you more, for example if I want you to give me a job when there are dozens of other candidates, then the power balance will be tilted towards you. On the other hand if there are no other strong candidates then the power balance tilts towards me.

Now we round off the definition. Ideologies are our social beliefs that we gain through our experience of the world and our imagined or experienced view of what others think of us and our actions. Our ideologies or social beliefs are therefore influenced by our collective identities, that is to say the groups that we feel we belong to. Our collective identities also influence and are influenced by our individual identities.

Ralph’s explanation of what an organisation is points to the collective and individual identities that people have – we belong to groups and identify with them, while at the same time having a sense of being an individual self. The interaction between these interdependent people with individual and collective identities results in identifiable population-wide patterns. These patterns are themed in terms of shifting collective and individual identities, power relating, and ideology or social beliefs. 

Voila, brilliant. Thanks Ralph.


Three Questions for Opening Up Possibility

Stephen Billing, May 21, 2009

How do you get away from the deficit way of thinking?

In my last post I suggested that the quest for the ideal future diverts people’s attention from what is going on around them in the present moment. Always paying attention to the deficit between where they are now and the ideal where they would like to be, they miss the possibilities of the present.

Again drawing on Patricia Benner’s The Primacy of Caring, here are three questions she suggests that can open up possibility:

  • "What can be done now, in the meantime (before the ideal can be realised)?"
  • "Is there another way to achive the same end?"
  • "Is the end in sight the most worthy?"

In looking for the possibility inherent in the current situation there is still the notion of desire or some good to be achieved.

Benner suggests that decreasing your reliance on a preconceived end or means of getting there can offer a new point of departure for new possibilities that were not previously available. To me, this applies as much to individuals in their personal lives as much as it does to people in organisations.


A Deficit View of the World

Stephen Billing, May 19, 2009

The gap analysis perspective can divert your attention from noticing what is going on around you at this very moment.

It is common for many people to see the world as an ideal contrasted with a reality. People are measured against an ideal standard and are diagnosed in relation to that standard. The gap analysis is the classic example – where do you want to be compared to where you are now. There is a deficit and the solution is to work out a plan to close the gap.

Patricia Benner in The Primacy of Caring points out that this orientation towards some future ideal state has some cost. The price people pay for having this mindset is that they become blinded to the possibilities in their current situation. Because their focus is on the future and the gap, it is not on what is going on around them at the present moment.

This reminds me of the acres of diamonds story – I think I heard it from Brian Tracy and it may well be apocryphal. It concerns a farmer who sold up his farm and went off to another country to hunt for diamonds. Years later, he died, penniless and alone. In the meantime, on his farm that he had sold years earlier, guess what they found? Some very very large diamonds.

I think that the focus on an ideal future and the deficit compared to the current state stops people in organisations from seeing the possibilities in what is going on around them. It stops them from seeing the acres of diamonds that are present right now.

In your organisation where are the areas in which you are talking about what should be in the future at the expense of noticing what is going on around you at this very moment?


More About Why Shared Values are Futile

Stephen Billing, May 17, 2009

In which my views on shared values are challenged.

A previous post entitled Three Reasons Not To Aim for Shared Values attracted a lot of comments. In particular, thanks to CV Harquail of the Authentic Organisations blog for challenging me with the following post. I reply below.

I’m not quite sure what it is about shared values that you are against (in this post)… Is it
- having any sharing at all?
- the idea that “shared values” are often but not always imposed by top mgmt?
- the idea that “words on the wall” are not actually ’shared’ values?
- the belief that sharing values means subordinating one’s personal self? You’ve got a lot going on here… worth teasing out.

Shared values, as I see them, (just as a start) are
(1) an integral, critical,
(2) ground-up, cohering element in an organization.
(3) Every organization has shared values of some kind — otherwise there would be no grounds for collective action.
(4) Values that are actually shared are not always the same as those denoted by mgmt as “shared values”.
(5) Sharing some values with your co-members doesn’t need to preclude being authentic and retaining your own values.
How do these claims about values fit with what you want to challenge?

Here is my response.

First of all, let me summarise the argument of my previous post:

  • The very act of setting out to establish shared values assumes they are necessary to make the organisation a better place to work
  • Shared values are often part of an initiative to bring about the desired organisation that the top people want 
  • The organisation will be more harmonious if it has shared values. This assumes in a taken-for-granted way that the absence of conflict is good for the organisation and so is the absence of diversity of values
  • I take the stance that conflict is a part of all human relating and conflict cannot be legistlated away through prescribing shared values, no matter how much involvement there is from representatives of the troops
  • Shared values takes the focus off what is going on right now.

By the way, if you have read this far, the potential conflict between my point of view and CV’s is no doubt a part of the attraction. As I say, conflict is a part of all human relating!

  1. Are shared values integral and critical? To say they are integral and critical implies that without shared values there will not be a good organisation. How do you know the values are shared? Inevitably through a process of working them out and creating artifacts such as posters that remind people of the values. Values, though, are in conflict with each other and are tested in the crucible of personal experience, as people face particular situations. For example, in a hospital, dealing with someone who has been waiting for 4 hours or a new person who will die if they are not attended to immediately is the kind of situation that those working in hospitals often face.This sort of dilemma and conflict is a far cry from the exercises of shared values.
  2. Far from being ground up activities, most shared values exercises are top down with the involvement of people that amounts to a manipulation of those with less power – involve them and we can influence them to our way of thinking. Cohering can be seen as a pattern of relating. Such cohesion is an emergent property of self-organising human interation, it does not come about as a result of an exercise in shared values.
  3. As I see it, the grounds for collective action are local human interaction and power relating. To say that shared values are a motive for collective action is saying that the cause of change is rational thought through articulating shared values that will then give rise to collective action. I think it is not rational thought through shared values that generates collective action, but rather the interaction itself between diverse human beings that gives rise to the potential for transformative change and collective action. The values that have been previously agreed play a part as the intentions of an individual, but collective action is dependent on the interplay of intentions between all the people involved, not just the coalition of the most powerful.
  4. I agree that the values decreed by management are not always the actual shared values of those in the organisation. This is part of the reason we should not bother with posters. But what values are actually shared?  I think we share our collective identities from those groups we identify with, and these form our ideologies or social beliefs.
  5. Your comment about not losing your own identity highlights that we all have collective and individual identities. Individual selves are formed from the silent conversations we have with ourselves, influenced by and inluencing our collective identities, which are formed from our views about what those we identify with think about us.

To summarise:

As human beings in organisations, we are interacting with each other based on their own intentions, values, ideologies, experiences of the past and expectations for the future. The organisational and individual reality that occurs for people emerges from this interweaving of multiple aspects of human and organisational experience.

Values are only one aspect of the interplay and whether or not these values are shared with others is not that relevant. Values are generalisations based on what we think others believe. They are abstract ideals only and come into reality when negotiated in particular organisational situations. The conflict of values is commonly glossed over or forgotten in most discussions about shared values. For example, the conflict that occurs when acting in your organisation’s interest seems to run against your own interest.

The reality is that we are all dealing with situations where the outcome is unknown. Our values help us to resolve a specific situation but the conflict doesn’t go away. It has to be resolved again next time there is a patient who has been waiting nearly four hours. The circumstances will be a little different and judgement will still be required.

I think that the conflict and uncertainty of negotiating organisational situations is not acknowledged, in fact it is hidden by calls for shared values. 


Change as the Patterning of Human Relating – Not Change as a Journey

Stephen Billing, May 15, 2009

In which I claim change is not a journey but rather is a shifting in the patterning of human relating.

I have been hearing recently the common reference to change as a journey. I have written elsewhere about this, but organisational change is not a movement from a current state to a predetermined future state. If it were it might be more legitimate to talk about change as a journey.

Think about what organisational change actually is. It is change in the patterning of the human relating of those who constitute the organisation. From this perspective it makes no sense to talk about change as a journey.

The metaphor of organisational change as a journey is implies that the organisation can be moved by the coalition of the powerful from the current point to a predetermined future destination, B. When you understand organisations as the patterning of human relationships it makes no sense to think of these patterns as on a journey. They are shifting and changing as the relating between human beings changes, in response to aspects such as ideology, power, gossip, intentions and social expectations.

When people refer to the journey of change, they are often contrasting this with the destination, "where we want to be," or the where we are now, the current situation. Where we are now is not a point in time separating the past and the future, but is a story of the present moment, informed by our stories about the past and our expectations for the future.

The metaphor of the journey of change is referring to the processes of change. These processes are processes of human interaction. Processes of human interaction can hardly be said to be on a journey. I think it is relevant to talk about processes of change, but the metaphor of change as a journey is strictly limited and not at all accurate.



Is it Both Individuals and Groups Who Learn?

Stephen Billing, May 11, 2009

I have said in previous posts that organisations can’t learn and that it doesn’t make sense to talk of learning organisations. It t is unsatisfactory to think only of individuals learning without considering the impact of the social nature of organisations and groups.

In my last post I claimed, following Ralph Stacey’s article Learning as an Activity of Interdependent People, (subscription required, unfortunately) that organisations cannot learn because they are nothing more than the patterns of interaction between human beings. They do not have a body, they do not have consciousness and so they cannot be said to learn. In other words it does not make much sense to talk about a learning organisation.

I also stated, together with Ralph, that to say that it is individuals who learn in organisations is also not satisfactory because it ignores the impact of social processes and the influence of others on us.

Ralph points out that one way around this issue is to say that it is both individuals and groups who learn. But saying that groups learn has the same problem as saying that organisations learn. A group, like an organisation, is the patterning of interaction amongst humans, and, as Ralph says, "patterns can neither think nor learn."   

Further, Ralph Stacey also makes the point that this amounts to saying that the group exists in a different place or on a different level from the people themselves. It is a separation of the group from the people, and, in the process, creates the notion of the group as a "thing" that exists outside the people and acts back on them at the same time as the group is made up of the people. It is like saying the group is a living organism, but, other than as a metaphor, a group does not have a living body – it does not have an existence of its own outside the interaction of the members of the group and a sense of belonging felt by the members of the group as a "we-identity."  This latter term is taken from the work of Norbert Elias.

To summarise, in my last post I said that it is unsatisfactory to say that individuals learn in groups or organisations, and that it is also unsatisfactory to say that organisations (or groups) can learn.

Now I am saying that it is also not satisfactory to say that both individuals and groups learn.

I want to propose an alternative based on Ralph Stacey’s work that does not create fanciful notions of organisations having bodies and being able to think and learn, while acknowledging the social nature of human experience in organisations and groups.

This alternative is the idea that learning is an activity of interdependent people. More to come.