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.