In Informal Coalitions, I challenged the widely held view that people need to share the same values, if organizations (and society more generally) are to function effectively.
I referred to this again recently, as a brief aside during a session on the conversational nature of organization. The meeting had been arranged by Naomi Stanford who, having reflected on what she saw as my “very firmly” stated view, later addressed this question in one of her excellent weekly blog posts on aspects of organization design.
As usual, she raised some interesting questions, pointed to a number of comments made on the subject by others, and offered some observations of her own. She concluded by saying that she agreed with the basic proposition.
So where am I coming from on this? And does it matter?
The essence of leadership
To begin with, establishing a set of organization-wide “shared values” has been a taken-for-granted aspect of the leadership task since the concept was first introduced by McKinsey consultants in the 1980s. This formed the central element of their “7-S Framework” (although they originally gave it the less catchy title of “Superordinate Goals”). According to this, and similar formulations, leadership is something that those formally appointed to specific organizational roles do to others (their “followers”), in ways designed to enhance individual and collective capability and performance. In McKinsey’s case, addressing and aligning the elements of the 7-S Framework was seen as the primary route to achieving this.
However, the nature of leadership is not defined by the job descriptions of particular role-holders. Nor is its practice confined to those who happen to occupy those formally designated positions.
Acts of leadership emerge spontaneously, as ‘punctuation marks’ in the ongoing process of everyday, conversational interaction.
Such acts are characterized by the ability of participants in this process to mobilize the collective action of others, in support of particular ways of thinking, being, and acting. That is to say, to succeed in encouraging and enabling people to come together around conversational themes which increase their understanding, emotional engagement, and capacity to act. And which shift the patterning of their ongoing interactions in significant ways.
As a natural dynamic, people tend to coalesce informally around those themes that make sense to them and which resonate sufficiently strongly with their own values and motivations. Or those that attract the support of others with whom they personally identify.
Whenever a sufficiently powerful coalition has been mobilized informally in this way, the conditions exist for the particular theme to be raised successfully as a formal policy proposition. In other cases, it will continue to be taken up in related shadow-side conversations and affect what happens in practice - often decisively - although it will not be spoken about in formal arenas.
So where does this leave us in relation to shared values?
On framing understanding and co-creating the future
Crucially, mobilizing collective action in this way does not require those involved to subscribe to a shared set of values. Any more than it requires them to have the same personal goals in life, natural ways of being, self-concepts, or whatever. It is only necessary for the particular theme being advanced at the time to make sense in relation to each individual's “personal frame of reference” (as I termed it in Informal Coalitions).
We each perceive, interpret, evaluate, and act into the world through the frame provided by this imaginary construct, which is unique to each one of us. This affects our ways of being, thinking, and acting (largely unconsciously); both clarifying and distorting our view of the world, and providing us with our sense of self. However, this uniquely personal frame continuously (re)emerges and becomes embodied via the communally social process of our ongoing interactions with others. This is the same interactional process through which organization is continuously (re)enacted, and out of which our concept of "the organization", as a collective identity, emerges.
As we act, moment to moment, into the continuously emerging future, this framing helps us in our never-ending quest to keep all of our important relationships in a desired state simultaneously. This not only includes those that are immediately relevant to the matter in hand, of course, but also others in our lives that might be affected by what is going on at that moment. I described this in Informal Coalitions as "the art of organizational plate-spinning". So the feelings that are motivating our behaviour at any given moment are unlikely to be confined to those that are supposed to affect our behaviour in a particular work context.
Insightfully, Ralph Stacey makes the distinction between publicly stated norms and personally held values. Both of these are socially formed, and intimately intertwined, in the course of this ongoing interactional process. Importantly, too, they both contribute to the framing of people’s thoughts and actions in each specific circumstance. However, whereas values provide a source of personal motivation and enthusiastic (or, at least, willing) participation, norms act as a form of social control, by constraining how people behave in the public arena.
The exercise of disciplinary power
Whenever “shared values” are referred to in the conventional management discourse, therefore, it is actually norms that are being spoken or written about. And, although these are often presented as a central aspect of so-called “transformational” leadership (with all of the positive connotations that this is meant to conjure up) Stacey points out that these actually act as a form of disciplinary power (after Michel Foucault). That is to say, these norms enable those who are formally in charge in a particular situation to control - at least to some extent in public settings - the thoughts and actions of those whom they are managing. This is because people are aware that observed compliance with the prescribed norms of behaviour provides the basis for such things as job selection, everyday acknowledgement and inclusion, formal recognition and reward, future advancement, and so on. Establishing such norms is therefore one of the ways in which managers (who are themselves subject to these same dynamics) seek to ‘catch the real-world wiggliness of organization in a net’, as I’ve described it elsewhere (see here, for example).
Although those formally in charge in a specific context cannot control what emerges overall from people’s myriad interactions, this does mean that they can exercise a degree of control over the ways in which those (inter)actions play out in public. The imposition of behavioural norms provides them with the disciplinary power to achieve this - even if the established management discourse glosses over this, by labelling these as “shared values”. Here, as everywhere else, there will be widespread differences of interpretation, and in the ways in which particular norms are taken up by people in practice. This means that any possibility of achieving an identikit response 'across the board' is purely illusory - unless pursued in an obsessive, cult-like fashion.
Does it matter?
Establishing norms is not, in itself, bad. Any more than a “values-led” approach is necessarily good. It depends on the nature of the imposed norms, and how these are applied. And on the specific, personally held values that are motivating and guiding people’s behaviour. Large-scale social organization necessarily requires people to behave in line with certain norms, if the process is to continue to function; a necessary degree of order and coherence is to be achieved; and the 'licence to operate' is to be maintained. In some cases, too, the constraints on behaviour that these involve might well command the widespread support of those affected, such as complying with the law; not knowingly putting the health and safety of people at undue risk; and so on.
What is unhelpful - and potentially unethical - though, is to disguise the exercise of disciplinary power - and the essential dynamics of constraint, compliance, and control that this involves - as characteristics of something that should be unquestionably met with willing engagement. Something, that is, which is enthusiastically “shared” rather than unilaterally imposed. Worse still would be the situation in which norms were packaged as "shared values" but applied in ways that amounted to coercion and bullying.