22 Why do we avoid discussing values?

Brad C. Anderson

Even though values guide human activity individually and in organizations, you seldom hear values discussed in our education system or debated within organizations’ offices. Once you become sensitized to the values underpinning human action, you will see that the most significant debates of our time are, at their core, debates about values. Despite this, you seldom hear a discussion about the values informing each side of the discussion.

Why do we Avoid Discussing Values?

As the following example demonstrates, you may find when you start talking about values openly in your organization, people might dismiss your concerns. 

Resistance to Discussing Values – Part 1: A Personal Example[1]

Several years ago, as I was organizing a research study on organizational wisdom, I had a phone conversation with a healthcare organization’s senior executive. For my research, I wanted to interview her and other members of her staff. I explained that I was interested in researching how values influenced organizational behaviour.

As soon as I mentioned values, she began to withdraw from the conversation. “We are a very business-minded organization,” she said. “I’m not sure your focus on values aligns with our needs.”

I quickly rephrased. “Think of values as objectives. Different groups in your organization have different objectives, and managers need to reconcile them.”

Replacing values with objectives caught her attention. “Oh yes,” she said, “that sounds interesting.”

Why did the change in name work? We will see shortly.

To understand why Western society seldom discusses values, we must distinguish between two ways of thinking: instrumental-rationality and value-rationality. Through instrumental-rationality, individuals make objective, logical calculations to achieve goals efficiently, maximize self-interest, or apply rules and laws.[2]

Whereas instrumental rationality tells us how to achieve an end, it does not help us determine which end is worth achieving. For this, we require value-rationality.[3] Rather than relying on impersonal rules or means-ends calculations, value rationality emphasizes the role of values in guiding action.[4]

Since the in the Eighteenth Century, Western societies have venerated the impartial logic of instrumental-rationality.[5] Consequently, throughout our education system, instrumental-rationality dominates. Business education focuses on impartial economic calculations, science on the objective use of the scientific method, medicine on the rational application of interventions to fix dysfunctional biological systems, and so on.

The result is a society trained to apply logical problem-solving to resolve issues. Since values are , the deeper an individual is immersed in instrumental-rationality, the more likely they are to view value-rationality as ‘irrational.’[6] This attitude has given Western society a great capacity to figure out how to do things, but it leaves us with a deficit in determining what is worth doing.[7]

Resistance to Discussing Values – Part 2: A Personal Example

Why did replacing the word values with objectives work to retain the senior executive’s interest to whom I was talking?

Business education teaches students that it is the job of managers to assign objectives to their staff. They then apply impartial metrics to assess whether employees are achieving their goals.

Even though you could argue objectives and values are similar (they both define desired ends to achieve), the word ‘values’ seldom appears in business lectures. Profit-maximization is assumed to be the goal of businesses, so executives set objectives for managers to maximize profits. Business students learn several tools of instrumental-rationality to achieve those objectives.

Even though profit-maximization is itself a value, those trained in a business mindset see values as unbusinesslike. Recall the response of the senior executive to my mention of values. “We are a very business-minded organization. I’m not sure your focus on values aligns with our needs.” To retain her interest and engage her in a discussion of values, I had to camouflage values using closely related business terms.

Many different industries will likely have similar responses when you try to engage them in a discussion of values.

Key Takeaways

  • Discussing values is uncommon
  • Due to the subjective nature of values, those deeply ingrained in see as irrational
  • This may create challenges for those who wish to address the values guiding human action.

  1. Anderson, B. C. (2019). Values, Rationality, and Power: Developing Organizational Wisdom - A Case Study of a Canadian Healthcare Authority. Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
  2. Kalberg, S. (1980). Max Weber’s Types of Rationality: Cornerstones for the Analysis of Rationalization Processes in History. American Journal of Sociology, 85(5), 1145–1179.
  3. Weber, M. (1978). Economy and Society. (G. Roth & C. Wittich, Eds.). Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
  4. Kalberg, S. (1980). Max Weber’s Types of Rationality: Cornerstones for the Analysis of Rationalization Processes in History. American Journal of Sociology, 85(5), 1145–1179.
  5. Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Weber, M. (1978). Economy and Society. (G. Roth & C. Wittich, Eds.). Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
  7. Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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Why do we avoid discussing values? by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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