Values, Learning and Organizations:
An Interview with J.M.Sampath

JM Sampath is the managing director of Arpitha Associates based in Bangalore, India. He and his wife Kalpana have been working on values in organizations for past 10 years. Recently, Sampath started working with high technology companies and joint ventures between the USA and India. He is in the process of completing his doctoral dissertation.

Prasad Kaipa, the interviewer, is the founder and director of the Mithya Institute for Learning and Knowledge Architecture in Campbell, CA. Prasad works with companies like Sun, Majesco, Ford and Boeing on executive development, integration of strategy with systems and culture, and cross-cultural team development. Prasad distributes his research and consulting time between USA and India. He has a Ph. D. in physics and he has been researching how people learn individually and collectively since 1988.

Prasad has been following the work of Sampath since 1991 and took the opportunity to interview him when he visited the Mithya Institute in late 1996.

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How did you become interested in looking at values?

The very first boss I worked with, I had a conflict. There were times when I was very upset with him. Others had issues with him; some did not. I had a lot of issues with him. That made me think about the source of conflict between us. What emerged was that my values did not match his. I was 27 at that time and it was the first time that I asked myself what my values are.

I realized that values are the source of conflict in many organizational issues. I looked at some theoretical models like those of Kolb and Allport, but they did not give me any sense of day to day application of their models at that time.

I was interested in parables. I realized that the characters in parables are not outside of me but inside me. I am not a voracious reader. I read one page at a time and reflect on that page for a long time. I started seeing characters from parables in me and all around me. That led me to gather some young students and ask them whether they see what I see in those parables. I found that, most times, they read parables, but do not necessarily have similar reflections on the parables. They don't necessarily connect them to their real life context.

I do not know whether I see the same thing as what you see in a parable. Can you help me understand what you mean by connecting it to a real life context?

Let us take a parable which is related to rituals that I picked up from the collection The Song of the Bird (by Anthony De Mello, published by Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, India).

Each time the guru sat for worship with his disciples, the pet cat would come and distract them. So the guru ordered his disciples to tie the cat whenever they sat for prayer. After the guru died, the cat continued to be tied at the worship time. And when the cat expired, another cat was brought in to make sure that the guru's orders were observed faithfully.

Centuries passed, and learned treatises were written by the guru's scholarly disciples on the ritualistic significance of tying up the cat while the worship is performed.

Let me relate this to an incident that took place in an organization. In a company that I have been working with, they have certain appraisal forms which ask for all kinds of information that they no longer use. Nobody questioned the forms. For years, every manager took a lot of time filling out the information, until one manager questioned the human resource executive about the utility of the data. The HR person first defended it and later realized that what the manager was asking was relevant. Then they changed the format for appraisal forms for the following year.

Why should executives pay attention to values? How do they help in their business?

People are the critical factor that make or break an organization, especially during these changing times. At the source of every conflict, whether it is between people or within oneself, is what the person values. In the course of my work, I realized that we don't address conflicts at a root level. What do I mean by this? Conflict arises within a person when there is a gap between what she wants to be and what she currently is. Without getting clarity to understand and bridge the gap within, trying to align her values with those of the organization is going to be difficult.

Conflicts arise out of this gap. Therefore, the effectiveness of this person is reduced till the gap is bridged inside and with the organization. Through a process of value clarification, one can facilitate the process of personal growth which will enable the person to align within and outside.

Values are generally connected with one's religion or spiritual practice. Is that correct and if so, how do you see your work, which is connected with Indian religions, to be applicable to American corporations?

Values are not necessarily directly connected with religion, but connected with a way of life. I draw parables from a variety of cultures and countries to create the context to explore values. Because I am working with business organizations, I look at the parables from a business perspective.

We can explore what values are in an operational sense. People get to experience our values through our behavior. We do what we do because we believe it is the most appropriate thing to do in that given context. If I am to combine these and arrive at the meaning of values, then it would be "my values are the beliefs that I hold within that govern my actions/reactions in a given context or situation." Interestingly, some of these beliefs are known to me and others are not. Yet all of them, known and unknown, govern my behavior. Therefore, it is important to understand what really triggers my behavior and work with that to bring about a lasting change.

How does this happen?

I saw this happen with myself while I started working with others on values. At first, I used to have business meetings where people didn't show up on time. I would get angry and become ineffective in my meetings. People perceived me to be sometimes emotional and insensitive in understanding their problems. I wondered why this disconnect occurred. Was the easiest way out for me to either not honor time and become part of the culture or what? The flip side of this story is that if others are on time and I am not, I find myself apologetic and guilty. This also reduced my effectiveness. It triggered me to go deeper and explore what I really believed in.

My beliefs were:

  1. Time is precious and it cannot be wasted.
  2. My time and others time is equally important.
  3. Waiting time is a wasting time.

I modified my third belief: waiting time need not be wasting time. This resulted in certain behavioral change in me.

I started going to meetings with a book or some work to do that reduced my feeling that I am wasting my time. I could do something while I am waiting. This insight allowed me understand the cause of my feelings and this dissipated my anger. So when somebody did not show up on time, I used that extra time to reflect or read by myself. When the person did show up I could comfortably be with them and the effectiveness of my meetings increased.

Conflicts at the workplace are a source of reduced effectiveness and productivity. This applies to US companies interested in gaining market share in Asia where the cultures are so different. It becomes more and more important to understand ones own values as well as the values of the other party to see potential conflicts before they take place and create opportunities for fruitful collaborations. Is that what you are saying?

Yes. Resolving issues at a much deeper level proactively is an effective way to deal with multi-cultural settings. Differences that we perceive between various cultures are at the form level rather than the essence level.

What I mean by this is that accountability is the same in the Indian context or the western context. It is all about getting the job done. Conflict arises when there are differences in the meaning given to this word by each person. Not much effort is being put into aligning these meanings. Therefore, cultural conflicts arise in the business context.

In California, we are paying more and more attention to managing and valuing diversity. As more and more women and minorities move up the ladder in corporations, conflicts also arise within the same culture between white male management style and the other kinds of management styles. What you are saying is probably applicable even in those contexts.

I suppose so. The form of conflict might be different, the form of the individual and her expression might be different but the essence does not change. As long as we keep track of essence and not just get caught up with form, then we can avoid stereotypes.

Can you tell me about your Discovery Kit?

The basic objective of the tool is to introduce the basic human values and to initiate a process of self inquiry. It also aims at giving you the different facets of the same value and in doing do, widen your understanding of each value.

It has been used in various organizational contexts in my workshops. It is used to help people to re-audit some of their life events and identify learning out of these. It is also used to become sensitive to future events and see the learning that can result out of the day-to-day life. People start seeing meaning in their real life stories.

There is a chart that allows you to play the snake and ladder game (popular in India). In the game, there are 100 steps and each represents a different value. There are ten ladders representing positives and ten snakes representing negatives. Each value has an associated story which can be read in the accompanying story album. By playing the game using a dice, one can explore various values one encounters as one plays the game.

You can also use the Discovery Kit to facilitate deeper insights into five themes: Team building, Leadership, Creativity, Excellence, Interpersonal Relationships. There are separate play charts for each of the themes and a group explores these themes by reading each story and pondering over the values that they encounter during the play.

Every participant gets Discovery Kit in my workshops. Amtrix Appliances, an Indian company, uses it in meetings of their top management. Just before they talk about an important issue, like employee relations and the conflict between management and the union, they start with the interpersonal relations chart, which comes with the Kit.

They may begin their exploration by focusing on rigidity and the parable that goes with that value. By exploring what makes them rigid, they begin to loosen up their mindsets around that issue. When they tackle the real issue at work, the chances are that they will become more open and the issue gets resolved much quicker. In the same company's R&D division, they use the parables related to creativity extensively. They explore possibilities.

BFL Software, another Indian company, uses the Discovery Kit as part its `story of the day' program. When they were working on quality, they post parables related to excellence on the notice boards. Managers are using discovery parables to coach people and it has been an effective coaching tool--once they learned how to use it (which happens during the course of the workshop that they have gone through).

So every manager goes through your workshop in companies you work with?


Is workshops your primary mode of working with companies or do you also have other ways of working with them in exploring their values?

Workshops introduce and help them to explore values in a deeper way. When they get back to work, I can coach them and create a context in which real life situations can be handled in a more meaningful way to create a win-win for all parties involved.

I am fascinated by your value profile instrument. I have used another value questionnaire which has over 100 questions and is very detailed, but I feel that your instrument might get at similar things much more quickly. Would you please talk about your value profile instrument for a minute?

The principle on which the value profile instrument is built is 'no single value by itself is valuable.' Values are interdependent. One needs to understand this interdependence in order to understand one's own behavior.

Let us take one of the fundamental tenets of the American system: Freedom. Freedom by itself means nothing. It starts gaining meaning as other values come into the picture. If I am given a choice to do my job in the best possible way to produce given results, I may freely choose to set a goal that is very high. Now having set the goal, I have to take responsibility to make it come true and I have to work hard to do so. Freedom does not help me in achieving the goal but only in setting the goal. In the absence of responsibility, the goal remains a dream. That might result in my manager not giving me the same freedom to set such high goals as I did not meet my goals the previous time.

On the other hand, I might have goals, take responsibility for them, but not put in the extra effort to explore the alternative paths that would help me to do my job in the shortest and safest way possible. In other words, taking initiative to look at the alternatives is also important instead of slogging through the beaten path just because I am responsible and have high aspirations. The difference between a person who is taking an initiative in addition to being responsible and has high goals is that he is a smart worker not just a hard worker.

If I have all the three values (aspiration, responsibility and initiative) but not get involved enough in the job all the way through, the quality of my output could suffer. Finally I should also have the discipline to do things on time. In the absence of proper timing the output might be excellent, but it will not serve the purpose.

As you can see from the above example, paying attention to certain values and neglecting others could create in an imbalance, affect the productivity of a person, and result in certain behavioral patterns. These patterns could be quantitatively measured. The consequences of such patterns be predicted in an organizational context at the individual and the team level to a great degree of accuracy.

The core elements that the instrument measures are:

  1. Achievement
  2. Relationship
  3. Power
  4. Learning
  5. Integrity

The five elements are combined to arrive at a holistic view by using the model of a wheel which gives insight into what one can work on to increase ones own effectiveness.

How is the instrument being used?

The instrument has been used as a tool for personal growth at the executive level for one to identify one's own imbalances and understand the consequences in one's life. Once a person understands consequences, a shift begins to happen.

It is also being used to understand the executive team profile and identify the imbalances in the team. In companies (like Amtrix Appliances, Sri Ram Fibers in India as well as Ford Motor Company and Majesco Software in the USA) we have assessed the individual and group profiles at different time intervals and identified shifts that are taking place in creating a more balanced profile that would lead to being an effective leader.

The value profile instrument is also used extensively in coaching the executives in a one on one situation. In such a setting, I help an executive to identify his/her own beliefs that are being carried unconsciously or consciously in causing the imbalance. For example, one executive had a belief that keeping their word on the delivery schedule is more important than the product quality. This led to his company delivering many products on time, but some of his products had come back for rework which cost the company more money. Once the executive realized the cost of his belief to himself and the company's reputation, he began to focus on quality in addition to delivery times and could reduce the overall product cost and increase his customer satisfaction.

This example shows how paying attention to values and beliefs could directly result in customer satisfaction and product quality.

I myself use this tool to bring about my personal growth. My wife Kalpana, who works with me and is trained to lead workshops in this area, also helps me to integrate my values, beliefs and my work in my own life and I do the same with her. Every six months or so we use the value profile instrument to discuss our own personal and professional evolution.

How many people have used it and what can you say about its reliability?

We have used this instrument with over 2,000 people in the last four years. The majority of them are from India and from the business sector and about 10% of them are from the education and community development arenas. A small but growing number of new profiles have been done for people from other cultures and countries. The results so far show that there is a close correlation between their behavior and the profile.

Some of the feedback from people has been that the instrument has helped them to locate the behavior they need to focus on to increase their effectiveness. This instrument brought clarity to them and helped them to pinpoint the change that needs to be brought about in themselves.

We have tested the reliability using the test/re-test method and the correlation is 0.68. For a behavioral instrument this number indicates higher reliability. For FIRO-B the correlation is supposed to be 0.72.

Are you familiar with the 360 degree feedback process that has become popular in many US companies? This instrument seems to do similar assessment and feedback to executives by gathering feedback from colleagues, subordinates, customers, and bosses. How does your instrument compare with 360 degree feedback?

I do not directly know much about 360 degree instrument other than what I heard from you. In the Value Profile Instrument (VPI) we ask the participant to get the feedback from at least five people of their choice who, in their opinion, know the participant fairly well.

360 degree feedback participants are asked to get feedback from people of their choice and they must include subordinates, colleagues, customers and superiors. In your VPI, there is no necessity to distinguish their relationship to the participant and the only requirement is that they know the participant and value their opinion.

This process reduces the defenses of the participant to receive the feedback they have given.

In the 360 degree process, participants do not know who gave what feedback. In yours, they do. They can go back to initiate a dialogue with the feedback giver to deeply understand why they feel the way they do. Doesn't it create conflict in some cases?

Since the participant is initiating the process by his/her own choice and knows ahead of time that there could be gaps in perception between self scores and others scores, we make it clear in the workshop, as well as one on one, that they have to focus on the behavior rather than on the person and use the instrument for development. In India, it worked very well. We are taking into account the differences in culture in the USA vs. India and exploring what would make this instrument effective and useful for a US audience. So far, in the US companies that have used our approach, we did not have any conflict or negative impact that could not be resolved by one-on-one meetings.

We also realized that there is more need for personal coaching in the US context than in the Indian context. In India, there is a much more willingness to take feedback from someone else. They can relate to it conceptually and emotionally. There is a reflection that takes place, a willingness to reflect on the question for a longer time without having to have an answer. In the US people tend to react more quickly and ascribe meaning from their own context. By coaching them a little more and working with them to make correlations with other circumstances and other people, they become more open to reflecting and examining themselves.

What are you taking away from your interactions with US companies and how did your interactions differ from those of Indian origin?

I was amazed at the action orientation and task focus of people here. I see an imbalance between head and heart in the work context. I mean that there is less place for emotions and feelings at workplace here. There is a need for integration here. In India, there is more of heart and head but less discipline and time sense. Reliability in terms of action is high here. There is a great degree of frankness in people and less ambiguity in communication. In India, it is very subtle communication and you have to guess what people are saying.

I am taking away the task orientation and discipline part for myself.

What are you working on and what are your future plans?

I am intending to modify my VPI for use by OD consultants in the USA and also build a holistic value clarification process using many other tools for initiating a change process at a personal and organizational level. My wife Kalpana is working on developing more instruments in the area of the feeling of belongingness. We are working on developing new methodologies in value development that focus more on understanding values through inquiry than advocacy for schools and other educational institutions. I am working on collaborating with others who have complimentary skills and knowledge to bring more wholeness and value to what we can offer.

You can send your comments on this article to J. M. Sampath and Prasad Kaipa by clicking here: Comments


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