Is Creating Company Values Grasping at Straws?

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 14.55.51Taking an ethical stance utilizing psychoanalysis

This blog explores how today’s excessive focus on values reveals a lack of ethics and a generic loss of conviction and belief. We see values everywhere in companies, public services, governments and international institutions, plastered across walls and websites, advertising to the world what the company believes in (or what it would like the viewer to believe the company believes in). There seems to be a belief that the more values we see, the more we will believe in them. Sadly the surplus enjoyment (plus du jour) that we get in displaying our values, reveals that this excess is nothing more than a veneer to cover a growing void that exists in our culture around what we really believe in. This in turn leads to a crisis in our ability to take an ethical stance, and to hold to values that are meaningful.   The sad collection of clichéd values we see displayed are more evidence of this lack.

Philosophers often claim that modernism/urbanisation has led to individual alienation and that post-modernism leads to an underlying experience of disenchantment and a crisis of collective identity. The loss of grand narratives and the lack of an identifiable ‘big Other’ (God or trustworthy institutions i.e. church, governments, banks etc) that we can have faith in or to rail against, leaves us disenchanted with our world, and a little paralyzed as to how to take an ethical stance. We are told paradoxical truths, we must value difference, but align company culture! Respect others beliefs but strive for what we believe in…. but what happens when these things are incompatible?

This disenchantment leaves us with a values deficit, that we overcompensate for by continually claiming to be values led. We protest too much.  The over zealous use of values adds to the empty shell of disbelief that exists. Values it seems have become yet another consumer item, a marketing and branding tool, an attempt to get employees and customers to identify with the good company in order to increase employee engagement, productivity and profit. (See

I am not saying that all values-led approaches are wrong or that they are inauthentic. Many leaders and companies try hard to do what is right, and often believe that doing good also helps success, but what they are also doing is unconsciously contributing to the problem they try to solve. Jacques Lacan a famous French psychoanalyst ( helped us to understand how lack creates desire. In simple terms we desire when what we don’t have, and this drives consumer capitalism, and in this instance the lack of belief and values drives the desire for excessive consumption of values.   The problem is that as with consumer goods, the enjoyment or relief we gain is short-lived, and we soon feel another lack for a a better suit, house or car etc. With values we are pleased when we identify them and put them on the website, but the emptiness soon returns. Why? Because the desire to have values, does not fill the real lack. New values wont give us the idea of belief we desire, because belief and faith cannot be concretized in our post-modern age. If we try they become rigid and certain we become fundamentalist and perverse, and as we see this stance is attractive to a growing minority these days.  So our task is to stop shouting so much about our values, and work on what we really believe in, however tenuous, fluid and challenging this may be.

Post-modernism offers an easy way out of taking an ethical position.  It is too easy to  reduce ethics to relativism, claiming we can never know the other, or that everything is subjective so there are no certain truths, and this somehow enables us to not make ethical decisions.   The challenge we face is how to hold an ethical position whilst also valuing difference and acknowledging complex causalities.   For example, we may find it easy to take a clear position on female genital mutilation, but whilst we may believe in democracy, taking a position on pushing forward the democratizing forces in China are more complex.   China is going through the biggest political-social experiment the world has ever seen, over the shortest timeframe. What took the west over 100 years to accomplish in terms of modernizing and urbanizing society the Chinese have done in 20.   It’s fragile and to do anything too quickly may undermine forces that would break up China and leave millions in civil war through regional conflicts and back to starvation.  We need to balance our ideology with the consequences of imposing it on others, but this doesn’t mean not taking an ethical stance. We still must make judgments and press for human rights whilst also acknowledging other realities that can cause greater systemic violence i.e. violence that is endemic and causes terrible pain but is hidden within social norms and structures. Zizek positions this against the subjective violence we can easily identify with displayed on the news or Hollywood movies. (See

Psychoanalytic Insights

So where is the line between taking an ethical position and imposing our cultural norms on others?  Psychoanalysis can really help here, because it teaches us how to work with ambiguity, to acknowledge that we are working with what we know and with what we don’t know (unconscious forces, motivations and our emotional attachments to unconscious ideologies). It teaches us to look much more deeply at our own part in any relationship, be it personal or inter-national. Taking a line is possible but only when we recognize that the line is not linear! There is rarely a black and white, or a clear good and bad, as these are fantasy positions.   Psychoanalysis can help to understand the unconscious forces that sustain fundamentalist religious ideology and concretizing beliefs, revealing the underlying and unconscious dynamics that support these perverse positions. Psychoanalysis also acknowledges the irrationality of rationality, showing how closer to home,  secularist fundamentalists such as Richard Dawkins who turn science-rationality into a new perverse faith, claiming science and rationality to be the new forces of salvation. (

Psychoanalysis helps to identify the shadow side of the enlightenment known as the ‘dark enlightenment’, how instrumental rationalism dehumanizes us all and helps destroys the planet.   Modernity has achieved great advances and also great human and environmental catastrophes.  Let us not forget the last two world wars that killed millions were not religious wars, and that the holocaust was a modern idea using modern science and rationality to justify and achieve its evil ends.  Karen Armstrong writes eloquently on this, and also reveals how the barbaric ‘medieval’ fundamentalist Islamists are also an offshoot of modernity.  (See and

Taking an ethical stance is not an exercise in fundamentalism- be it religious or secular.   It is not about being grandiose and self-righteous but about making judgments taking into account the context and our own unconscious bias and desires that create ideologies that we believe in without realizing they exist! Ideologies of the unconscious!

A psychoanalytic position helps expose this shadow but it also goes further.   It helps us understand how we enjoy, how we desire, how our attachments to pleasure  often lead us to enjoy our displeasure, how we all have perversity within us and that when we point a finger at the perverse other, we often point 3 fingers back at ourselves. It helps us understand and how our desire is the desire of the other, and how we are inextricably created by each other.  It teaches us how we become attached to our symptoms, take pleasure in them and how they sustain our way of being in the world.

To take an ethical stance and to hold values means more than getting the marketing and management team together to choose 3 buzz words that sound comforting.   It is to do the unconscious and conscious work of hard thinking, of bringing our experience and subjectivity to bear on issues, and to allow ourselves to experience doubt, uncertainty and anxiety without projecting it outwardly as quickly as we can onto the bad other in order to save our fragile egos.

To take an ethical stance is to challenge the normative, to take a stance against bland and banal value statements.   It is to bring a hint of the real into the imaginary!

Professor Simon Western is President Elect, International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations,

CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching Ltd

He runs advanced coach training and leadership development programmes and has consulted to senior leaders in international companies with an emphasis on creating new leaders for the network society.  

Simon is author of Leadership a critical text and Coaching and mentoring a critical text