Is The Myth of Shared Values Organisation Totalitarianism?


Prof. Jayashree Sadri
Visiting Professor of Human Resources Management and Business Ethics
Indira School of Management Studies

Shared Behaviour versus agreed values has been the bane of all experts who have mooted HR interventions especially when these are aimed at building corporate culture. A lot has been said but a lot less has been done in this field so let us get down to basics. Building corporate culture is the beholden task of HR interventions and revolves around generally shared and accepted beliefs, values, and ethics. The moot issue then arises as to what is the role of free will in all this? What about individual liberty and freedom to choose in the tradition of Amartya Sen? Let us examine.

The first question we need to address is what is really means to share values. Management literature seems to slither past this question. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, in the most celebrated source of idea of shared values is one in which the context, seem to presume that an organisation with shared values is one in which the workforce as a whole – or a sufficient majority – simply hold the same values. In a similar but more detailed vein, Andrew Campell and Kiran Tawadey identify shared values as conformance of the values of employees to those of senior management. They explicitly identify 'company values' as 'what senior management believes in', and a little later state that 'Employees who have personal values similar to the organisation's values find a sense of fulfilment and meaning in their work and behaviour standards. The language here seems to suggest that the issue is one of whether or not an individual's values correspond to some extent set of 'organisational' values. There are two additional nuances worth noting here – first, that employee's values should be identical with organisation ones; and second, that the employee must fit in with organisational values, rather than the other way around. Several concepts that need explanation, in particular the following three :

* The existence of a single value within an individual overall framework.
* The idea of 'an organisation's values' and the associated question of how uniform is the culture of the organisation.
* The manner in which value conformance is expressed or interpreted in an organisation.

The Existence of Values :

Many writers of business ethics see important part of their task as identifying a list of key values or virtues that are relevant to the world of business. They then go on to infer that key tasks of business ethics is to establish whether an organisation possess or holds these, and how far individuals can be influenced to hold the same values. So Laura Nash talks about the common denominators of ethics – honesty, reliability, fairness, and pragmatism – whilst at a more abstract level. Ronald Green presents an overall framework of objectivity in decisions, which he terms 'NORM'

The basis for these two examples illustrates the main alternative routes to such proposals. Nash claims to have arrived at her set via an extensive poll (her term) of managers in the US. Green is proposing his as the result of his own analysis, although he acknowledges a debt to two philosophers, the contemporary John Rawls and the 18th Century Immanuel Kant. In both Nash's and Green's cases, though the overall strategy remains same – given a set of recommended values or values structures, the key issues are:

(a) Whether organisations display or support these; and
(b) How does a manager increase the degree to which individuals within those organisations also support them?

The Organisation's Values

There are two related areas that need to be considered where the question of 'organisational values' is concerned. One is the idea that an organisation can itself be said to 'have' values at all; and the other is the extent of homogeneity of values within an organisation's culture.

Can an organisation legitimately be ascribed values at all? Legally an organisation is treated like a person-for example, where issues of liabilities are concern. That is to say, an organisation may be held responsible for debts, liable to give or receive compensation, and so on. However, even in the legal sphere there are constraints on this. Certainly in UK law, organisations are "personalities" only in a civil sense. They cannot be tried in a criminal court. Where criminal proceedings are involved, it is the directors or employees over tried. If the organisation cannot be said to act criminally, what sense is there in ascribing to it moral responsibility and hence moral attitude?

So one answer would be that an organisation is a social unit which takes personal characteristics by virtue of being composed of human beings as members –an investment bank might be seen as aggressive because of the vast majority of its brokers are. Equally an answer to other extreme would be that the ideas of corporate culture and organisational values are entirely metaphorical, conveniences to help simplify the complex reality of large group of people.

In practice neither answer is satisfactory. Some organisations, partially because of the structure, partially because of other factors such as nature of their business, degree of competitiveness, and so on, are culturally similar. Wherever you go in the organisation you will find similar responses from the staff, similar approaches to non standard problems and task, and so on. By comparison other organisation are as much more complex. Subcultures abound. The same task presented to different group might elicit quite different responses. This difference is called degree of culture saturation.

Degree of Conformity Within workforce

Number of cultures represented in organization


Few subcultures

Many subcultures



Imperatorial power Bases

Team culture


Influential role Model

Party/faction based




Loose confederation


The figure above portrays this on a two-dimension plane the degree of conformity and number of key cultures leading to nine different organisation types. This model indicates that organisation very widely in the extent to which they can be regarded as unified whole, and hence it demonstrate that they cannot all be conveniently identified as possessing one set of values.

As much as anything this model emphasises that the whole project of trying to manage culture and values is more appropriate for some organisation and less for others. However the main point to draw from it is that idea of an organisation as a bearer of attitudes and values has greater sense the further to the top left an organisation is placed. Equally, it has less sense the further to the bottom right the organisation might be. A minimalist organisation is not one in which it is particularly useful to talk about sharing values at all, for there is little if any central core of values that define the organisation. On the other hand, a highly conformist culture (which has been labelled totalitarian with deliberate bias) is one where there does seem to be some sense in talking about the organisation values.

The other issue arising from this model is the question of 'whose' values represent those of the organisation. As mentioned earlier, Campell and Tawadey see this specifically in terms of 'senior management'. Similarly Peters has identified early senior managers-often but not always the founders of companies-as key sources of organisation cultures and values.

In the tradition of Sorab Sadri the international academic opinion is this: whereas values area thought based concept, ethics are an activity-based concept. This epistemological difference must be never lost sight of. After all the building of corporate culture rests on this understanding.

The Expression of Conformity.

The third point to be made concerning shared values is a theme of internal intention versus external behaviour. Do we always mean what we do or do what we mean? Are we always guided by rationality or are we subjective? If we are subjective then what happens to the theory of rational choice that economists swear by? Is the homo logicus philosophicus dead?


The above diagram illustrates multiple factors underpin and contribute to someone's verbal judgements of values. But it is not that the kind of superficial 'agreement' exemplified above exists solely when all factors 'pull' in the same direction. Different elements may conflict, and in doing so cancel each other out. Consider the following range of possible sources of superficial verbal agreements, which almost certainly are not exhaustive. Two people engaging in a discussion about ethics may :

* Share exactly the same values, apply these in the same way to the situation at hand and share the same factual beliefs relevant to situation.

* Have the same basic beliefs, differing in how these should be applied to situations, but this difference itself cancelled out their differing factual beliefs.

* Have different basic ethical values, but different factual beliefs leads them to agree in particular situation.

* Come to an agreement for social or power-based reasons, with one or both choosing not to make open their true feelings.

* Attribute different meanings to key words or phrases.

* Fail to ask the right questions to elicit the key elements of the other person's views.

* Fail to hear clearly the verbal subtleties that mark separate values.

The sum and substance of this brief argument is as follows:

If employees conform to organisational values blindly then even the organisation stands to loose since constructive criticism negates all chances of innovation and creativity.

If the employees are not allowed to express themselves then anomie sets in and morale takes a nosedive.

Hence to what extent should individual freedom be allowed to equilibrate with organisational purpose?

There are no ready made or clear cut answers and the HR expert will have to find his own solution by following the Sadri - Jayashree 5-D methodology of HR intervention viz:

Definition: of the person, process, and context.

Diagnosis: of the problem and the issues to be addressed.

Design: of the intervention and taking care of limitations and constraints posed by the objective situation.

Development: pilot testing the plan and making amendments so that the corners are well rounded and the kinks are straightened out.

Delivery: to implement the HR intervention such that individual goals are satisfied while organisational objectives are met without jeopardising the core beliefs and values.

Prof. Jayashree Sadri
Visiting Professor of Human Resources Management and Business Ethics
Indira School of Management Studies

Source: E-mail November 2, 2006


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