Why professionals do things counter to their professional values, beliefs & ethics - frequently
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Why professionals do things counter to their professional values, ethics & beliefs – frequently

Professional Values

Why do professionals do or agree to do things that go against their own personal and professional values, beliefs and ethics? A new study explores the reasons why professionals do things counter to their professional values and ethics more frequently than they are willing to admit…


Professionals are difficult to manage

It is a familiar assertion that professionals are notoriously difficult to manage. In part it is assumed that this is because they have minds of their own, stick to their professional values, ethics and value their professional autonomy.

However this view of the primacy of professional values and beliefs and doing the right thing as opposed to doing things right, according to the rules of the organisation as Peter Drucker highlighted, may not actually be correct.


Professional values in the workplace


Professionals give up their professional values

There is significant evidence that professionals frequently give up their autonomy and professional values and ethics, especially in the face of conflict with management edict, bureaucracy, systems and organisational agendas. The question this paper attempts to answer is why do they do this?

Previous  researchers have suggested that this surrender of professional values and autonomy is done because, in order to progress within an organisation, they often need to comply with the organisations bureaucratic systems and that these systems tend to win. They also found that professionals ‘maintain a fantasy’ of autonomy in an attempt to maintain the consistency of their professional identity, whilst surrendering to the bureaucratic system.


And the winner is… the bureaucracy

In other words they give up their professional values and beliefs to the bureaucracy of the organisation whilst being in denial that this is what they are doing, in order to progress within the organisation, or even just to maintain their position.

…they give up their professional values and beliefs…in order to progress within the organisation


Professional values and ethics


Failing to fight for their beliefs

The paper looks particularly at the example of university professors in business schools who are famed for their autonomy and values promotion. Yet they discovered that they are just as likely to fail to fight for their beliefs within the organisation, whilst outwardly maintaining the illusion of autonomy and sticking to their beliefs as any other professional.


‘Over’ managed

What they argue is that professionals find themselves in ‘(over) managed’ organisations, which are in effect professional bureaucracies that demand compliance in exchange for progression. This widespread use of managerial systems, polices and procedures and the demand for compliance they argue, is on the one hand reaching for increased efficiency and on the other hand forces reliance on compliance, systems and procedures rather than professional judgements, values and challenge.

This set of systems that demand compliance, the paper suggests, results in ‘an embrace characterised by perceived managerial stupidity on the one hand and professional cynicism on the other.’

Over managed


What they found was that professionals often not only frequently comply with managerialism and compliance systems, but often collude with them by helping devise such systems or getting involved with bureaucratic ‘working parties’ that end up demanding further compliance.


Protest has little effect

One of the reasons this occurs, the authors suggest, is the feeling that protest will have little if any effect. Protest takes energy, effort and time; time, energy and effort that detracts immediately from the focus of their presenting day-to-day professional work. So the professional focuses on their work whilst maintaining pretence of professional autonomy.
The problem is that without this protest, the control systems often severely constrains their professional outcomes and frequently promotes cynicism because professional beliefs often have to change to accommodate the ‘system’. This gives rise to ‘cynical complicity’ with the system.

In effect professionals are faced with a conflict between the professional ideals of reason, argument, critique, creativity, experimentation and innovation on the one hand, and the organisational requirements for compliance, standardisation, oversight, and loyalty for instance on the other. Promotion and reward in organisations are often given for acquiescence and observance with the latter, rather than the fulfilment of their professional values and beliefs.

Not listening


4 Reasons for professional ‘over-compliance’.

The paper goes on to explain the four reasons for that they term as ‘over-compliance’ by professionals:

  1. Coercion through hierarchy. What this means is that there is often an institutionalised myth that managers and bosses are there to issue edicts to be carried out and not challenged. The higher up a decision-maker is, the harder it is challenge their judgements. Part of the reason for this is the growth of bureaucracy and administration in organisations, which promote control. Secondly there are rarely structures set up where people can actively voice concern and challenge decisions ‘up the line’.
  2. Turning performance into a formulaic activities and making this the agenda within the organisation.
  3. Domination of professionals via measurement and assessment of performance.
  4. Adopting the use of the measurement and assessment systems by the professionals themselves to create a sense of self-worth. In other words comparing your worth and ability as a professional via the management measurements rather than the values and beliefs of the profession.


The 4 faces of power

These the what are known as ‘the four faces of power’ that are exerted on professionals, which can frequently lead to a situation of professional compliance. They also argue that these bureaucracies create a situation of selective professional neglect whereby the professionals focus on the measurable as defined by the organisations management and ignore their professional values and beliefs. This in turn produces ‘bland’ outcomes whilst giving the appearance of safety.

As the authors point out ‘Relentless compliance can turn you into a clone’. Many professionals tend however to flop between compliance and complaint and never get themselves out of this trap.


playing the game

Playing the game

Many professionals get caught up in playing the game rather than challenging the situation; asking good questions of the management about the real affect some of the practices are having and helping the organisation really examine their values and beliefs. In effect without doing this and by ‘playing-the-game’, most professionals are colluding with the anti-professional practices growing in most organisations and by doing so, they are trading their professional beliefs and values for a quiet life.





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Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. (2016). (Un) Conditional surrender? Why do professionals willingly comply with managerialism. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 29(1).

Supporting references

Alvesson, M. and Willmott, H. (2002). Producing the appropriate individual. Identity regulation as organizational control. Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 39 No. 5, pp. 619–644.
Barker, J. (1993), ”Tightening the iron cage: concertive control in self-managing teams”. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 38, pp. 408–437.
Collinson, D. (2003), ”Identities and insecurities”, Organization, Vol. 10, pp. 527–547.
Drucker, P. F., & Wilson, G. (2001). The essential drucker (Vol. 81). Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Fleming, P. and Spicer, A. (2003), ”Working at a cynical distance: Implications for power,subjectivity and resistance”, Organization, Vol. 10, pp. 157–179.
Ginsberg, B. (2011),The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the all administrative university andwhy it matters, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Graeber, D. (2015), The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, Melville House, London.
Meyer, J. W. and Rowan, B. (1977), ”Institutionalized Organizations: Formal Structure as Myth and Ceremony.” Zey-Ferrel, M. and Aiken, M. (eds), Complex Organizations: Critical Perspectives, Scott, Foresman, Glenview

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David Wilkinson