Wright, N. (2005) 'Credibility Gap: A Values Crisis Explored', Organisations & People', Association for Management Education & Development, February, Volume 12, Number 1,pp15-21.
Last time I wrote on the subject of values in an organisational context (O&P, Feb 2000), I was taken aback by the strength of feeling of some readers who responded directly by email. The overriding sense was the persistent gap between espoused and outworked values in organisations is so pervasive that the very notion of values itself is now met with deep cynicism. Paradoxically, this response also reveals that values still matter very much to people in organisations and, hence, their frustration and resentment when not outworked in practice.
I encountered one organisation that had two core values: ‘a commitment to learning’ and ‘a commitment to teamwork’. These values had been agreed by the top team on the basis that they sounded both admirable and commonsensical. In practice, however, staff had not been consulted on what values they aspired to and so treated them with more distain than enthusiasm. ‘In spite of its corporate values statement pinned on the walls everywhere, the leadership evidently doesn’t want to learn from us or work with us – isn’t that a little ironic?’ Worse still, the organisation inadvertently continued to reward staff on the basis of competitive performance which actually militated against sharing of knowledge and collaborative working.
On the face of it, the central issue may be how simply to ensure a greater degree of organisational congruence, i.e. consistency between words and practice. If matters were that straightforward, however, I doubt the whole area of corporate values would be a subject for continuing controversy. After all, a commitment to ‘walking the talk’ is one that almost all organisations would aspire to as an implicit core value in itself. Why is it, therefore, that organisations find it so difficult to match words and intentions with positive action? Why is the embedding of values so problematic? This will be the subject matter of this article in which I will try to identify some key influencing factors and their impacts on leadership and organisational development.
I will propose three areas for exploration that I believe have particular significance to this debate:
I write as a Christian, freelance consultant and learning & development manager for an international development and relief organisation. These foundational commitments inevitably reflect and influence my own beliefs and values but I trust what I share will resonate with others grappling with similar issues. I’d like to say I’ve found some definitive answers to resolve the credibility gap but the truth is, I’m searching my own way through hazy territory too. Nevertheless, I hope that what I write may inspire, evoke and inform.
Values itself is one of those curious words, frequently used but often lacking clarity of meaning. I tend to think of values as something like ‘governing principles that promote and safeguard those things we hold most dear’. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to those things for which we “have a high or specified opinion”. In practice, values tend to be derived from different sources, whether that be something akin to divine inspiration (which, implicitly, many leaders border on claiming) or, in more down to earth terms, as circumstances dictate.
Religious traditions holding an idealist/ethical view may posit that fundamental beliefs about the nature of God and humanity determine what values are socially appropriate. The Bible, for instance, places considerable emphasis on ethical lifestyle that reflects the revealed character of God himself. God’s values (e.g. integrity, compassion, justice) are considered absolute and unchanging. Other faith communities share similar theological-social imperatives. In the organisation for which I work in learning and development, core values are derived from Biblical principles and reapplied specifically to the organisational context.
Sociologists of a functionalist tradition have described values in terms of ‘social cement’, i.e. the basic ground rules that enable human societies, including organisations, to survive and grow. According to this perspective, values inevitably change according to the needs of the social context. All values are culturally and circumstantially relative; i.e. necessarily situational or ‘particular’. This essentially pragmatic approach contrasts with an idealist/ethical one since the latter holds that values have intrinsic moral qualities that should be adhered to because it is inherently right to do so.
The distinction portrayed here demonstrates that values can be described at least in terms of (a) what is right and (b) what they do. We will see below how the foundation on which values are based has a profound impact at global, national, organisational and personal levels and that these respective impacts are intertwined. Organisations do not, after all, exist in social-cultural isolation and prevailing trends affect things such as who we employ, how we organise ourselves and the products/services we are able to sell. For example, the growth in concern about environmental degradation in the UK has influenced customer preferences and thereby significantly affected agricultural and retail policy, e.g. vis a vis organic produce.
I believe the wider values debate in the West has intensified in recent years owing to three phenomena in particular: (a) growth in globalisation and resulting cultural interaction, (b) a rise in Islamic militancy as a response to perceived western cultural imperialism and (c) disillusionment with scientific-rationalism as the dominant western worldview. Against this backdrop, postmodern social constructivists are on a direct collision course with modernists and adherents to faith-based beliefs. The forthcoming political, economic and social consequences are difficult to predict but any hitherto assumed social consensus on ideal/ethical values is likely to disintegrate.
By way of illustration, I was interested in a recent TV debate between an Islamic theologian, Christian leader and secular humanist on global cultural evolution. The secular humanist presented an articulate case for religious traditions to abandon their conservative values and to “catch up” with secular society’s progress in areas such as technology and medical ethics. The faith adherents responded that the secular argument presupposed the nature of progress from a secular humanistic framework and that they had alternative beliefs about the appropriate goals and ethics of human society. Secularism was exposed as simply one among many possible constructs. The postmodern phenomenon, which challenges all such constructs, will add fresh fuel to this debate.
The potential impacts on organisations are only starting to become clear. For example, fragmentation and polarisation of worldviews is likely to radically restructure the global marketplace. We have seen evidence of this already in post-9/11 US overseas economic policy. China’s rapidly expanding industrial base will present new challenges too. Competition for depleting resources will increase potential for instability, insecurity and conflict. Management of organisational diversity will become increasingly complex as new generations challenge those things (e.g. goals, policies, structures, leadership styles) hitherto held as self-evident and sacred. Finding shared agreement on core organisational values will be more difficult as incompatible worldviews of stakeholders are brought to bear on corporate decision-making.
The issue of ‘self-evidence’ is of particular interest to this debate because values tend to be based on what appear as self-evident presuppositions. The term itself is most often associated with the language of the court room or, perhaps, the US Declaration of Independence which opens with the confident assertion that, “We hold these truths to be self evident...” Appeals to self-evidence tend to be attempts to substantiate the truth of an argument by appealing to what is considered obvious or common-sense. The idea is that the argument will hold if the majority of the population, given the necessary information, opportunity to consider alternatives and ability to reach rational judgment, would agree with its conclusions.
The problem with self-evidence is, however, that different people (or the same people at different times or in different circumstances) hold different views about what is self-evident. So, for instance, the original writers of the United States Constitution agreed that the right to keep and bear arms was a foundational principle that ought to be included as universally applicable and for all time. The current anti-gun lobby would, however, disagree (dare I say, ‘violently’) with this view. In one sense, therefore, self-evidence might say more about the perspective of the claimant than the validity of the argument itself. In a postmodern climate, any assertion of this form is likely to be considered implicitly blinkered, dogmatic or arrogant.
Self-evident beliefs are essentially a specific form of definition, that is, in NLP terms, they reveal the cognitive ways or constructs through which we perceive, define and categorise our experience. The question of definition is particularly important organisationally since the way in which stakeholders define an experience (whether consciously, or not) will, to a significant degree, determine the way they think about, feel about and respond to organisational experience. Imagine, for instance, the different ways in which staff holding contrasting values may respond to the same organisational decision-making process. Those who believe ‘managers are paid to make decisions’ may resent being asked to provide input whereas those who believe ‘managers should lead by consensus’ would react in a different way.
This power of definition came home to me in quite stark terms recently when, on a visit to Beirut, I encountered a young supporter of Hezbollah who mentioned he was from South Lebanon. I asked him, somewhat naively, whether that was near the security zone. He responded, calmly, “No, but it is near the occupied territory of Lebanon.” Seeking to clarify this point, I asked whether the occupied territory he referred to was the same geographical area as that known as the security zone. “No”, he replied, “the security zone is Israel’s designation - a term that seeks to legitimise their occupation of our land. As far as we are concerned, the land belongs to Lebanon and is under foreign (i.e. Israeli) occupation.”
I was reminded forcefully that our definitions carry connotative as well as denotative meaning and that they sometimes reveal assumptions that are value-laden and/or ideologically-loaded. The way in which our definitions both reflect and reinforce our underlying assumptions confirms that definitions, like culture, are inherently dynamic and have a profound impact on values. If we listen carefully, this type of assumption surfaces in everyday language through statements such as: ‘obviously...’‘clearly...’ ‘of course...’ ‘it goes without saying that...’ ‘everyone knows that...’ ‘it’s just common sense.’ Such expressions can provide valuable windows of insight into the world and mental maps of the other.
An implicit assumption in most organisations is the legitimate authority of leaders to lead. Postmodern social constructionism with its scepticism about the nature and authority of truth leads naturally, however, to scepticism about authority per se since authority is always based on underlying assumptions about what is right and appropriate. Leadership authority is likely to be accepted, therefore, only when agreed collectively by consensus and, even then, only while such consensus remains. It is fluid and contingent on circumstances.
Employees of the not-too-distant future in the postmodern West may expect increased democratisation and autonomy in the workplace with, for instance, post-holders elected by popular vote, leaders working as corporate facilitators, policy and strategy determined by an elected staff body. Line structures may be replaced by organic matrixes. Supporting public legislation may be introduced by future governments as the general population grows in its postmodern outlook. There is already some evidence of this in certain secular European legislation, e.g. diversity in the workplace. Organisations that don’t transform accordingly may find it difficult to recruit and retain younger people.
This postmodern concept of democracy tends not so much to be driven by traditional egalitarian ideals but, rather, the desire to enable alternative worldviews, i.e. interpretations of reality, to coexist with minimal interference in an environment where people holding contrasting perspectives continually encounter one-another directly, through the media or in virtual hyperspace. Tolerance is, therefore, one of its key values. Ironically, social constructivism moves beyond previous liberal ideology (‘we see things differently but our views are equally valid’) to a new form of ideology (‘we see things differently and we’re both deluded’), paradoxically unable to tolerate alternative worldviews that don’t share its scepticism of reality and truth.
The implications for leaders of the future are profound and far-reaching. Whereas conventional leaders have assumed both right and responsibility for deciding on and implementing corporate values as a key part of their role, the legitimacy of their (a) basis of appointment, (b) role and (c) authority to dictate values to a diverse organisational population are now all within scrutiny. Corporate values are no longer viewed as simply neutral or pragmatic but, rather, indicative of an underlying worldview open to challenge. It’s no longer a case, therefore, of how to get employees to adopt values agreed at the top or even how to ensure consistency between values, strategy and policy – although these still apply. We now need to find new ways to manage increasing diverse values more effectively.
Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps understandable that many leaders find the forthcoming era threatening and anxiety-provoking. Those most open to social constructivism are starting to explore new and emergent ways of leading, drawing in particular on learning from the still relatively new field of complexity theory. New forms of organisation are, too, emerging with less-defined boundaries, stronger links with local, national and international communities, greater sense of social responsibility, a holistic-humanistic ethos and collaborative policies and practices.
Other leaders reject the philosophical basis of postmodernism and continue to build their organisational values on what amounts to reason or revelation. Whilst accepting a degree of validity to the social constructionist argument that we each experience the world subjectively, critics from both modern and religious camps deny that this supposition necessarily leads to the conclusion that there is no truth or that truth cannot be known. If, for instance, I don’t know or believe that London is the capital city of England, it does not for that reason cease to be true. By extension, they dispute that ethics and values can only be defined in subjective terms.
The implication for organisations is that values can still be presented as ethically or pragmatically sound, even in a postmodern environment. Alternative ways of working to those advocated by the postmodernist may continue to be tenable insofar as employees and other stakeholders share those values and their underlying religious or philosophical foundations. The political question is whether a predominantly postmodern culture will tolerate those who continue to hold specific and, at times, exclusive truth claims, especially insofar as extending those truth claims to others is concerned. This is a genuine dilemma for secular political authorities and organisational leaders too.
By way of personal example, I worked alongside a secular humanist who commented that she very much respected my views as a Christian and my right to hold them as true. She went on to explain that she would consider it inappropriate if I was to share my faith with others or to persuade them that my views might be true for them. In order to be consistent as a Christian, however, I will necessarily share my faith with others and seek to convince them, albeit without manipulation or coercion, of their need to find salvation in Jesus Christ. After all, that is the central tenet of my faith. How is postmodern society to reconcile tolerance of such beliefs with intolerance of their practice implications?
The same dilemma faces organisations too as we have witnessed recently in, for instance, France’s education system grappling with the wearing of religious symbols in schools. How to balance different value systems within the whole without imposing syncretic/homogeneity on the one hand or precipitating social disintegration on the other is a difficult challenge. Issues of congruence too, come to the fore again at personal, organisational and national levels including how to hold onto the things we value most with genuine integrity whilst responding constructively to the complexitites of an increasingly diverse and changing environment.
Conclusions Globalisation will increase significantly the degree of contact and inter-linkage between people, cultures and organisations holding different philosophical worldviews. The degree of contact is being accelerated by new digital technologies, with the resulting effect that cultures are no longer able to exist in social isolation. The growth in contact between cultures is highlighting distinctions as well as commonalities and some distinctions are leading to increased polarisation between worldviews, particularly religious and secular. Phenomena such as Al Qaeda and the US ‘war on terror’ are symptomatic of this separation and their struggle on the global stage has started to raise consciousness of competing values in organisations and the general population at a more local level.
An increase in postmodern outlook in the West may help to reduce certain forms of social and political dogmatism, opening the way to new forms of dialogue and ways of organisational working. In particular, emergent models of leadership and teamworking are likely to evolve that enable greater diversity and participation. Postmodern society will, however, have difficulty with religious and other groups that hold absolute truth claims and this will exacerbate polarisation. This ideological struggle will be felt in organisations where the effective management of diversity will become a critical issue.
Those holding idealist/ethical values will expect greater organisational integrity, particularly in terms of the means by which values are developed and how they are reflected in practice. They will be supported by postmodernists demanding greater degrees of democracy in organisational decision-making processes. Those holding pragmatic/functional values will support this stance, too, if organisational effectiveness is demonstrably enhanced as a result. The challenges for leaders are becoming clear. Sort out your values as a matter of priority before your own staff and stakeholders sound the revolution!
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