Espoused Beliefs and Values – the second levels of organizational culture

All group learning ultimately reflects someone’s original beliefs and values, his or her sense of what ought to be, as distinct from what is. When a group is first created or when it faces a new task, issue, or problem, the first solu­tion proposed to deal with it reflects some individual ’s own assumptions about what is right or wrong, what will work or not work. Those individuals who prevail, who can influence the group to adopt a certain approach to the problem, will later be identified as leaders or founders, but the group does not yet have any shared knowledge as a group because it has not yet taken a common action in reference to whatever it is supposed to do. Whatever is proposed will only be perceived as what the leader wants. Until the group has taken some joint action and together observed the outcome of that action, there is not as yet a shared basis for determining whether what the leader wants will turn out to be valid.

For example, if sales begin to decline in a young business, a manager may say, “We must increase advertising” because of her belief that advertis­ing always increases sales. The group, never having experienced this situa­tion before, will hear that assertion as a statement of that manager’s beliefs and values: “She believes that when one is in trouble it is a good thing to increase advertising.” What the leader initially proposes, therefore, cannot have any status other than a value to be questioned, debated, challenged, and tested.

If the manager convinces the group to act on her belief, the solution works, and the group has a shared perception of that success, then the per­ceived value that “advertising is good” gradually becomes transformed: first into a shared value or belief and ultimately into a shared assumption (if actions based on it continue to be successful). If this transformation process occurs, group members will tend to forget that originally they were not sure and that the proposed course of action was at an earlier time just a proposal to be debated and confronted.

Not all beliefs and values undergo such transformation. First of all, the solution based on a given value may not work reliably. Only those beliefs and values that can be empirically tested and that continue to work reliably in solving the group’s problems will become transformed into assumptions. Second, certain value domains—those dealing with the less controllable elements of the environment or with aesthetic or moral matters—may not be testable at all. In such cases, consensus through social validation is still possible, but it is not automatic. Third, the strategy/goals of the organiza­tion may fall into this category of espoused beliefs in that there may be no way of testing it except through consensus because the link between perfor­mance and strategy may be hard to prove.

Social validation means that certain beliefs and values are confirmed only by the shared social experience of a group. For example, any given cul­ture cannot prove that its religion and moral system are superior to another culture’s religion and moral system, but if the members reinforce each oth­ers’ beliefs and values, they come to be taken for granted. Those who fail to accept such beliefs and values run the risk of “excommunication”—of being thrown out of the group. The test of whether they work or not is how comfortable and anxiety free members are when they abide by them.

In these realms, the group learns that certain beliefs and values, as ini­tially promulgated by prophets, founders, and leaders, “work” in the sense of reducing uncertainty in critical areas of the group’s functioning. And, as they continue to provide meaning and comfort to group members, they also become transformed into nondiscussible assumptions even though they may not be correlated to actual performance. The espoused beliefs and moral/ ethical rules remain conscious and are explicitly articulated because they serve the normative or moral function of guiding members of the group in how to deal with certain key situations, and in training new members how to behave. Such beliefs and values often become embodied in an ideology or organizational philosophy, which then serves as a guide to dealing with the uncertainty of intrinsically uncontrollable or difficult events.

If the beliefs and values that provide meaning and comfort to the group are not congruent with the beliefs and values that correlate with effective per­formance, we will observe in many organizations espoused values that reflect the desired behavior but are not reflected in observed behavior (Argyris and Schon, 1978, 1996). For example, a company’s ideology may say that it values people and that it has high quality standards for its products, but its actual record in that regard may contradict what it says. In U.S. organizations, it is common to espouse teamwork while actually rewarding individual competi­tiveness. Hewlett-Packard’s highly touted “The HP Way” espoused consensus management and teamwork, but in its computer division, engineers discovered that to get ahead they had to be competitive and political (Packard, 1995).

So in analyzing espoused beliefs and values, you must discriminate care­fully among those that are congruent with the underlying assumptions that guide performance, those that are part of the ideology or philosophy of the organization, and those that are rationalizations or only aspirations for the future. Often espoused beliefs and values are so abstract that they can be mutually contradictory, as when a company claims to be equally con­cerned about stockholders, employees, and customers, or when it claims both highest quality and lowest cost. Espoused beliefs and values often leave large areas of behavior unexplained, leaving us with a feeling that we understand a piece of the culture but still do not have the culture as such in hand. To get at that deeper level of understanding, to decipher the pattern, and to predict future behavior correctly, we have to under­stand more fully the category of basic assumptions.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

4 thoughts on “Espoused Beliefs and Values – the second levels of organizational culture

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