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2.8 Resolving the Conflict: Toward Enlightened Value Maximization?

Jensen believes the inherent conflict between the doctrine of shareholder value maximization and the objectives of stakeholder theory can be resolved by melding together “enlightened” versions of these two philosophies:

Enlightened value maximizationA theory that recognizes that corporate decision-makers need to be more sensitive to nonshareholder constituencies, that maximizing shareholder value does not produce the most value for the organization. recognizes that communication with and motivation of an organization’s managers, employees, and partners is extremely difficult. What this means in practice is that if we simply tell all participants in an organization that its sole purpose is to maximize value, we will not get maximum value for the organization. Value maximizationThe maximization of a corporation’s common stock by increasing the wealth of that corporation’s shareholders. is not a vision or a strategy or even a purpose; it is the scorecard for the organization. We must give people enough structure to understand what maximizing value means so that they can be guided by it and therefore have a chance to actually achieve it. They must be turned on by the vision or the strategy in the sense that it taps into some human desire or passion of their own—for example, a desire to build the world’s best automobile or to create a film or play that will move people for centuries. All this can be not only consistent with value seeking, but a major contributor to it.Jensen (2001), p. 16.


Indeed, it is a basic principle of enlightened value maximization that we cannot maximize the long-term market value of an organization if we ignore or mistreat any important constituency. We cannot create value without good relations with customers, employees, financial backers, suppliers, regulators, and communities. But having said that, we can now use the value criterion for choosing among those competing interests. I say “competing” interests because no constituency can be given full satisfaction if the firm is to flourish and survive. Moreover, we can be sure—again, apart from the possibility of externalities and monopoly power—that using this value criterion will result in making society as well off as it can be.Jensen (2001), p. 16.

Thus, Jensen defines “enlightened” stakeholder theoryA theory that corporate value cannot be maximized unless the corporation concerns itself with all its constituent stakeholders, with the specification that maximizing the corporation’s long-term market value is the right goal. simply as stakeholder theory with the specification that maximizing the firm’s total long-term market value is the right objective function. The words “long-term” are key here. As Jensen notes,

In this way, enlightened stakeholder theorists can see that although stockholders are not some special constituency that ranks above all others, long-term stock value is an important determinant (along with the value of debt and other instruments) of total long-term firm value. They would recognize that value creation gives management a way to assess the tradeoffs that must be made among competing constituencies, and that it allows for principled decision making independent of the personal preferences of managers and directors.Jensen (2001), p. 17.

Even though shareholder value maximization is increasingly being challenged on pragmatic as well as moral grounds, its roots in private property law, however—a profound element in the American ethos—guarantee that it will continue to dominate the U.S. approach to corporate law for the foreseeable future. As a practical matter, the courts have given boards increasing latitude in determining what is in the best long-term interests of the corporation and how to take the interests of other stakeholders into account. This latitude makes it imperative that directors openly and fully discuss these issues and agree on a clear, unambiguous statement of purpose for the corporation.