Posts Tagged ‘Values’


Personal Development workshops on the MBA run throughout the year, and across several locations, but they also tend to cluster; the same title seems to run several times in close succession. We have seasons of Starter Workshops, and one has just finished.  Now it’s all about the second in a sequence of four workshops – Development Plans. I’ve been thinking about values in the past couple of weeks, as this is one of the subjects featured in this workshop.

Trying to move my own thinking on, I’ve been reflecting on how to say something new about this.  When I joined Henley, I think (like most Business Schools) discussion of values was restricted and narrow. The view – albeit the dominant one in management education – defined values as enduring beliefs rooted in reason and represented in lists of nouns. This is, in fact, now the discourse used by corporations as well as individuals, and is what most of us think when we think about what our own values are.

I wanted, when I took over, to expand on this so I first tried to provide an alternative interpretation of values by proposing that you could equally regard them as pre-linguistic and not arrived at through reason (just “there”, which really puts the cat among the pigeons when you realise that on an MBA doing anything without resorting to words is difficult). By asserting that our values are somehow pre-existing, and collectively generated ideas rather than just concepts, it becomes possible to see the limits of a strictly linguistic basis. More recently I’ve been trying to take that one step further.

What are the base assumptions behind our working definition of values?

When asked, most post-experience MBA students will volunteer phrases such as “personal beliefs”, “guides to ethical behaviour”, “collective goals”, “codes of conduct to guide decisions and choices”, and “statements of fundamental purpose”, to describe what they mean. Values are seen as expressions of drive, as motivation and as a sort of enabler of choice (or limiter to choice) – rather like a set of rules. But people are often confused as to whether values are ‘things’ inside individuals, or ‘things’ owned in groups and societies. It feels like both, a bit. Discussion sometimes stretches to whether values change (either for individuals, or in societies) over time.

But my wonder is whether we need to step back and look at the assumptions behind these impressions and beliefs about values. For example, have we always interpreted values in the same way or this is a recent phenomenon? Can our definition of history help explain why we tend to invoke values in the way we do (that is, purposeful, definable, rational and concrete)?

Here are a few assumptions that I think our culture makes:

1. Human society is essentially moving in a direction of ever-increasing sophistication and refinement. Change is directional, and there are desirable ends to which we, as a species, are moving. This view seems to underpin not just the theistic religions of the west but the trajectory of science as well. Business, by extension, is purposeful in its own purpose (i.e. we are in our nature drawn to grow and evolve toward something).

2. Human societies are organised in such a way that purpose is growth. Expansion is progress. More.

3. Such growth, development or purposeful activity is a consequence of the examination with (a comparison of) the past. The past is considered real, reconstructed as history.  Events constitute more than a chronicle, they are concrete in time. Further, they are as concrete in the future as they are in the past. Events exhibit trends.

4. Therefore, our societal goals and the values that explain them are purposeful, time-bound and linear. Our goals are growth oriented and are powered by the scientific understanding of resource usage.

5. Values are seen as being made of the same ‘stuff’ as other forms of knowledge.

What would be an alternative view, one that could help us surface these assumptions and thereby clarify our thinking? It could, presumably, include the following elements (that emerge under the tutelage of my favourite philosopher Alan Watts):

1. Human society is seen as what it is in the present, not the future or the past. There is no temporal progression toward a more complete or sophisticated future.

2. Events are recorded, but as chronicles, not stories. Other than a sort of cyclical and poetic meaning, this narrative has no particular pattern of meaning.

3. Societies are aimed at maintaining a balance with or in nature, not a conquest of it, as the key to sustainable community.

4. Societal goals that are valued are those that celebrate this relational world and our relationship with it.

These are just some thoughts. They do need further development, but I wanted to get them down.

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When you start to think and write about something called “Personal Ideology”, there must be a need to question the assumptions behind the words. An Ideology is, according to dictionary.com, “the body of doctrine, myth, belief etc., that guides an individual, class, or large group.” It apparently dates to end of the 18th Century and was coined by Antoine Louis Claude Destutt, comte de Tracy. But you knew that…

Personal conjures an image of something that belongs to me, is mine and not anyone else’s. Private, in fact.

But it’s not so easy to reconcile these two ideas. None of us makes up our own guide to life from scratch, without reference or in isolation from everyone else’s personal ideology. Surely, regardless of where we end up, all our guiding principles, values and beliefs are inculcated in us (knowingly and unknowingly) by the world we come into and which we tend to become conscious of only with reflection. It just feels like it’s private because that’s just how we encounter the world, as agents in it.

So, first off, I my guiding principle is that whatever belief system I have, it is there because of all the inputs I have had from and with other people and theirs are the result of all the belief systems and values that define them.  Whether these things are expressed as the result of a rational thought process or the poorly articulated attempt to express something that is more basic than language, that is something I have started to reflect on more recently.

I know that this step in this reflection (and we’re getting to the home straight now, with only nine postings left) starts by asking me to relate my fundamental beliefs (or values, which are the bedrock of beliefs) around the existence of a god or deity, or force in the universe. But actually I have a question  – “why do so many people have a belief in a deity?”

This is not to criticise them (or you), but to wonder why. What is it about us and our ability to abstract our thought that has created in us the need for myth, for religion, for belief? Even the counter-argument to theism that has grown in eloquence and force over the last 200 years at least, seems not to dent in otherwise intelligent, thinking people the wish to believe in something more than the blink-of-an-eye that each of our lives constitutes in universal terms. It’s not a blink of an eye to us, of course. The idea of a life-span, fully lived, is apparently enough for some people, but not for most – so perhaps there is something in what makes us humans that demands we reconcile the self-knowledge of mortality with the self-belief in the worth of living, and that we do so by calling in an exterior agent.

But isn’t the existence or not of a deity (what Heinz von Foerster would describe as) an “undecidable question”?  That is, all our stories of origin must remain conjecture.

My own guiding belief is that, for us, this is it. I experienced oblivion before I was born and I will experience oblivion after I die, and the two states of nothingness are exactly the same. I should be bloody grateful for the chance to spend a lifetime wondering about it all in-between. I like the expression ‘a system is the best explanation for itself” and I feel no need for a teleological explanation of why we are here. I think the “how” of us being here is pretty fascinating and important if we are to see what we can do for our children and other generations, but not the “why”. There’s no why.

And yet, I am really interested in understanding this fascination for belief, and I won’t deny that something of who I am is a result of a very long history of these ideas. I’ll try to reflect on my own history with all that tomorrow.

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