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«Humphrey Bourne University of Bristol, UK Mark Jenkins Cranfield School of Management, UK Abstract We make the case that there are four distinct ...»

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Organizational values: A dynamic perspective

Humphrey Bourne

University of Bristol, UK

Mark Jenkins

Cranfield School of Management, UK


We make the case that there are four distinct forms of organizational values – espoused,

attributed, shared and aspirational. These partial, but related forms encompass variation in

temporal orientation and levels of analysis. We use these forms to reveal the dynamic nature

of organizational values by delineating the evolution of gaps and overlaps between them. We set out a series of propositions, originating from institutional, organizational and managerial sources to explain the nature of movement between these distinct forms of values and the potential implications for organizational behaviour and performance. Finally, we consider the possibilities of this fine-grained analysis of the organizational values concept for future research.

Keywords Organizational values, shared values, espoused values, aspirational values, attributed values.

Corresponding author: Humphrey Bourne, School of Economics, Finance and

Management, 8 Woodland Road, Bristol BS8 1TN, UK. Email:

humphrey.bourne@bristol.ac.uk Bourne H & Jenkins M (2013) Organizational Values: A Dynamic Perspective, Organization Studies, 34 (4) 495-514. DOI: 10.1177/0170840612467155 The significance of organizational values is underlined by their central place in many organizational phenomena including identity (Ashforth & Mael, 1989), culture (Schein, 1985), person-organization fit (Cable & Edwards, 2004) and socialisation (Dose, 1997).

Conformity with organizational values is offered as an alternative to bureaucratic control (Ouchi, 1980), providing potential for remote management of subsidiaries (Nohria & Ghoshal, 1994) or functional activities such as service productivity (Dobni, Ritchie, & Zerbe, 2000). Organizational values are shown to influence the interpretation of strategic issues (Bansal, 2003), strategic choice (Pant & Lachman, 1998), strategic change (Carlisle & Baden-Fuller, 2004) and management decision-making (Liedtka, 1989), while Hambrick and Mason’s (1984) ‘upper-echelons’ theory is based on the link between organizational outcomes and managerial values. Organizational values also shape the ethical stance of an organization (Finegan & Theriault, 1997), employee commitment (Ostroff, Shin, & Kinicki,

2005) and relationships with external constituents (Voss, Cable, & Voss, 2000). In short, values have a long reach and a wide span of influence on critical processes and characteristics in organizations.

There is a tendency for scholars to conceive organizational values as unitary, fully-formed and stable entities (see, for example, Amis, Slack & Hinings, 2002; Dobni et al., 2000; Van der Wal, de Graaf & Lasthuizen, 2008). A careful exploration of the concept, however uncovers differences indicating that organizational values adopt a number of forms. To illustrate this, we could select practically any commercial, public or not-for-profit organization and carry out a simple exercise. First, we might look for explicitly stated organizational values (Bansal, 2003). Typically, on the organization website will be a link to ‘our values’, usually a list of four to seven (e.g. ‘customer focused’, ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘profit driven’, ‘caring for others’), with perhaps a few lines of explanation and associated behaviours. We might also examine annual reports and other documents where, explicitly or implicitly, top managers espouse values in the words and phrases they employ (Kabanoff, Waldersee & Cohen, 1995). These organizational values are formally espoused and sanctioned by top managers.

Alternatively, we might ask members to describe their organization’s values (Balazs 1990;

Pruzan, 2001). They may say ‘this organization values tradition’, ‘here, principles matter more than rules’ or ‘there’s an emphasis on excellence’, and so on. Members attribute the values that characterise their organization through the patterns they observe in day-to-day actions. If, instead, we were to ask organizational members what values they share (Weiner, 1988), they may answer, ‘we like to exceed targets’, ‘we are keen to provide good service’, or ‘we want to be good team workers’, and so on. Members are generally able to identify shared organizational values, at least within their immediate work groups (Maierhofer, Rafferty & Kabanoff, 2003; Schein, 1985). Finally, we might want to discover what members think the organization’s values ought to be (Enz, 1988). It would not be unusual to hear them say, ‘we need to be more responsive’, or ‘we need to be more goal-oriented’, and so on. In contrast to those that have been established through patterns of actions, members may identify another form – the aspirational values they believe their organization should adopt if it is to thrive in the longer term.

Each of the above signifies a distinct form of organizational values: espoused, attributed, shared and aspirational. We contend that each is a valid but partial representation of an organization’s values, and that the relationship between these forms is constantly fluctuating in ways that hitherto are unexplored. While a number of theoretical models incorporate organizational values, gaps remain in our understanding of their dynamics. Some focus on content, categorising value profiles that reflect organizational culture orientations (for example: Quinn & Rohrbaugh, 1983; Wiener, 1988; Kabanoff et al., 1995), while others explore the role of values in, for example, the dynamics of organizational culture change (Hatch, 1993; Schein, 1985) or structural change (Amis, et al., 2002; Greenwood & Hinings, 1988; Hinings, Thibault, Slack & Kikulis, 1996). Such models yield many insights but do not explicitly explore the nature and dynamics of organizational values. This, we suggest, constrains theoretical and empirical dialogue, thus our ability to understand and explore an organizational phenomenon that is continually evolving.

This paper contributes to the substantial literature encompassing organizational values by isolating distinct forms and exploring relations between them. Development of the construct provides clarification of terms and exposes the dynamic nature of organizational values, offering scholars and practitioners the potential to explore further their influence and evolution. A fresh focus on organizational values is timely from both research and practice perspectives. The values construct is widely evoked in organizational literature, but tends to be compromised by lax conceptualization so that the progress of values research continues to be constrained by the lack of a common theoretical basis (Connor & Becker, 1994; Stackman, Pinder & Connor, 2000). At the same time, organizational values are increasingly being used in practice to stimulate, and enforce, the alignment of behaviours (see, for example, Quappe, Samso-Aparici & Warshawsky, 2007), emphasising a form of normative control (Ouchi,

1980) that raises a number of issues around effectiveness and ethics.

In the following sections, we briefly set out key characteristics of values then expand upon four forms of organizational values, drawing from empirical studies in the extant literature.

We develop a framework that shows the interrelationships between the forms of values, and which highlights the dynamic nature of organizational values. We then discuss four archetypal organizational value structures that arise out of tensions between forms and explore their origins in a series of propositions. Finally, we discuss the implications for research and practice, and offer suggestions for future research.

The organizational values construct Values are defined as enduring beliefs that are personally or socially preferable to converse beliefs, which transcend specific situations, and which guide selection or evaluation of behaviour (Rokeach, 1973). Schwartz (1992; Schwartz & Bilsky 1987) identifies three ‘universal human requirements’ that form the basis for all values: the need for biological survival; the demand for social interaction; and social and institutional demands for group welfare. Differences in the relative importance placed on these requirements mean they hold potential for conflict within and between individuals and groups.

In common with values more generally, there remains a lack of agreement amongst scholars regarding definitions and conceptualisations of organizational values (see Agle & Caldwell, 1999; Dose, 1997; Rohan, 2000). We explore their variation more fully in the following sections, but begin by setting out some essential characteristics. Our position is that organizational values embody those general values that guide organizational members in their selection or evaluation of behaviour. They represent a form of consensus regarding the values that a social group or organization consider important for its aims and collective welfare (Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987; Williams, 1960).

The term ‘organizational values’ typically refers to the small number of values that together make up a value system. Individuals and groups develop value systems – broadly coherent arrangements of values that place greater importance on certain values over others – through

experience and learning (Schwartz, 1992). Coherent value systems are stable and enduring:

they are neither wholly fixed, for then there would be no ability for change, nor too fluid, for then there would be no continuity. Changes do occur over time as individuals and groups learn and adapt, but these are typically incremental, infrequent and limited by the requirement for associated adjustments to other systems of belief and action (Meglino & Ravlin, 1998;

Rokeach, 1973).

In contrast to personal values, which are located at the level of individuals who ‘have’ or possess their own values (Schwartz, 1992), group and organizational values possess particular characteristics that make the level of analysis difficult to isolate. As Rohan (2000, p. 265) points out, there ‘is no consensus about whether to understand these in terms of the average of the group members’ personal value priorities or, for example, group leaders’ or other significant members’ beliefs about what the group priorities should be’. Moreover, a group or organization’s values may refer both to those that are presently held in common, and to those that it intends to reach in future (Williams, 1960). Rather than opting for the adoption of one or other of these forms, we argue that each is valid and that it is their interrelation that provides the basis for a broader and more dynamic concept of organizational values.

Organizational values are closely connected to other organizational phenomena, in particular culture and institutionalism. Schein (1985) sees values as manifestations of shared basic assumptions, themselves revealed in organizational artefacts, while Gagliardi (1986) makes the distinction between primary characteristics of culture, its basic assumptions and values, and secondary characteristics, which include artefacts and symbols. Both view values as integral to, but not homologous with culture, although in quantitative research studies, they frequently serve as proxies (O’Reilly, Chatman and Caldwell, 1991). From an institutional theory perspective, organizational values are the product of values prevailing in institutional fields, and which form the basis for organizational structures and routines (Greenwood & Hinings, 1988, 1996; Oliver, 1992). Conformity with the values of the institutional field is an issue of legitimacy: congruence between the values of the organization and its larger social system can assist in gaining support and access to resources, and so can be essential for survival (Ashforth & Gibbs, 1990; Parsons, 1956). Within organizations, groups such as professional associations and trade unions play an important part in transmitting the values of their groups to members. In highly professionalised institutional fields, such as health and education, members of organizations may be influenced by conflicting institutional values (Greenwood, Suddaby & Hinings, 2002).

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