Values and identity in organisations

In any consultancy one of the first things I pay attention to is the way that the temporary colleagues I am working with try and catch me up in their ways of describing the world. Employees in every organisation have a particular way of understanding the work and each organisation has its own particular history. In daily practice all of these ways of seeing are mostly obvious to those caught up in them and don’t need explaining. They are simply the way the world is. To this extent they are ideological, if by ideology we mean a way of presenting the world as though there were no other way of understanding it. With my presence, as an outsider, staff are obliged to explain what they mean by what they say. They bump up against difference and otherness, and from this encounter they are encouraged to detach themselves temporarily from their immersion in what seems obvious to them so that they explain things to me. One of the principal things a consultant brings, then, is difference.

There are often significant events which have happened in organisations which get taken up and talked about  in ways which begin to pattern relations between staff. Perhaps there have been  particular feuds between people which have affected whole departments, or organisational processes have been developed which have significant symbolic capital. An example of the last in one organisation I have been working with recently is a set of working procedures which they have brought together in one binder together with the organisation’s value statements. The binder claims not just to offer methods for planning, reflecting and report writing, but also defines the ‘behaviours and attitudes’ that it expects employees to follow if they are to be true employees fulfilling the vision. It has been much talked about in the organisation and beyond, and during periods of quite dramatic organisational change has come to signify continuity. It has helped to stabilise employees’ sense of identification with what they are doing and the broader organisation in which they find themselves. Although reviews of the effectiveness of this set of proceedures always conclude that somehow the values are not being lived up to, the procedures are not being adequately followed, (which of course they never will be since they are idealisations) nonetheless, for significant numbers of staff the binder and what it has come to stand for is almost sacred.

At the same time, however, there are newer members of staff recruited some years after the binder of procedures were introduced to undertake new functions in the restructured and reoriented organisation who do not share the same affinity with the binder. For them it represents  an older organisation of which they have little experience. Some of these staff feel that they represent a new order and are there to take the organisation forwards which involves newer ways of working. The binder does not help: it is not so relevant to them and simply gets in the way.

The conflicting narratives about what the binder is for and what it represents polarise around the small team of staff whose job it is to carry out training on the binder. Themes of difference and disagreement which get taken up by staff begin to centre around this particular unit. Many staff who go on introductory training on procedures run by the unit often find the discussion of vision and values uplifting and inspiring. Thereafter, though, opinions differ as to the relevance of the rest of the binder, and the team is called in to train others on different aspects of the working procedures very patchily according to how relevant the different teams feel the procedures are to what they are doing. To a certain extent, who takes up the offer of further training and who doesn’t divides down the lines of those who identify with the new organisation and those who more clearly identify with the old.

This organisation, like many others, is currently facing cut backs and retrenchment. Not surprisingly, the unit responsible for being stewards of the binder are one of the first in the firing line. This is not just a matter of ‘performance’ but is also a struggle over identity, what we think we are doing and what we value. Who will stand up for the older ways? Will they be adapted to fit more closely with the newer disciplines that have been brought into the organisation with its reorientation, or will they simply be killed off?

In previous posts we have drawn attention to the fact that there is never one set of values in an organisation, but rather many, or at the very least different interpretations of the idealised values the organisation espouses. As organisations develop and change these values become disputed, are reinterpreted or are possibly abandoned. In all acts of creation there are also events of destruction and what eventually happens will be determined by the struggle over who we think we are, over identity and values.


One thought on “Values and identity in organisations

  1. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    A couple of days ago I was involved in a discussion with a group of fellow consultants about identity and “knowing who we are”. In particular, “who we are” (our being) was positioned as something separate from “how we act” (our doing) – and as something that is, at its core, essentially unchanging and ultimately discoverable.

    Paraphrasing Weick’s commentary on sensemaking: “How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?”, I provocatively suggested that “who I am” can only be meaningfully understood through what I do. In other words, “How do I know who I am until I see what I do?” Furthernore, since this doing is a relational act (even during self-reflection), the identity and values that are embodied in our interactions, are continually shaping and being shaped by those same interactions.

    I think this notion of identity as a relational construct can be particularly challenging. But, as you say, the struggle to know who “we” are – and who is and isn’t “us” – is central to organizational change and development.

    Cheers, Chris.


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