A critical glossary or contemporary management terms X – embrace

Embrace, to hold someone closely in one’s arms, especially as a sign of affection, to accept a belief, theory or change enthusiastically and willingly. This word has become very widely used in organisational life, particularly when applied to hardest of all concepts. So, for example, we are invited to ‘embrace complexity’, to ‘embrace change’ or to ‘embrace diversity’. It sounds cuddly and nice: problem-free. There is an implication in this invitation, then, that we might be a bit reluctant toembrace accept that organisational life is complex, or that having more diversity is beneficial, but if we do so then it will be good for us in an unalloyed way. Change is always good for us, particularly if it is transformational change. If we eat less, drink less alcohol, and exercise more as we promised ourselves in our New Year’s resolutions, then we’ll start to feel the benefits by March. There are no downsides and we’ll feel warm and good about ourselves; fitter, happier, and hopefully more productive at work. There, now that you have embraced complexity you’re beginning to feel better about your job already, aren’t you? Continue reading


A critical glossary of contemporary management terms IX – passionate.

Passionate, meaning capable of being roused to intense feeling, ardent, easily aroused to anger, is a word which is taken for granted now in organisations to convey commitment to the job, or being able to go the extra mile. Despite the ubiquity of the term over many years, it seems that we have not yet reached peak passion. Previously the word also had connotations of suffering or enduring. Hence the passion of Christ refers to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. To be passionate about one’s job, then, denotes hard work, endurance, and a willingness to suffer in order complete work which pushes the employee to their limit. In a way, then, to claim to be passionate is also an indication of submission and obedience to a call of duty.

passionThe prevalence of the term is at odds with the experience of many workers in organisations where metrics and performance management are used as a disciplinary apparatus to keep people’s noses to the grindstone. Ticking boxes, conforming to increased standardisation and targets often squeezes out worker autonomy and a sense that it is possible to exercise professional judgement. And yet while this narrowing of professional enjoyment is happening, employees are expected at the same time to be able to assert that they feel passionate about their jobs. Perhaps the greater the presence of the former the more the latter is required as public display. Continue reading

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VIII – authentic

Being authentic, meaning conforming to the original features; not false or imitation; or being true to your personality or character, has been a preoccupation of philosophers for hundreds of years. For humans and their flourishing, the question of authenticity means to inquire into what it means for anyone to live their life fully as an individual. To a degree, the idea has to be relational, turning on the paradox of the individual and the group. How might we flourish as individuals, but acknowledge authenticityour obligations to others, or even, for Aristotle, how we become fully ourselves by taking our relationship with the community into account. In our increasingly individualised world, however, following a radically subjective movement in thinking the preoccupation has been mostly about one side of the relationship, the individual.  As with many big ideas like happiness, or even leadership, it has proved far easier to define what authenticity isn’t than what it is. So, for example, being authentic does not mean conforming unthinkingly with what everyone else is doing, or doing something because you think you will be liked as a consequence, or coasting along in your life to get by.

In general, when the idea of authenticity is mobilised in contemporary management discourse it is meant to indicate an ‘inner’ authentic and true self, which one can discover through introspection, intuition and listening to one’s ‘inner voice’. It is a self which is already there, which just needs to be found and made manifest. In modern conceptions of authenticity, there is no escape from the tyranny of the subject.

For example, we are invited to bring our authentic self to work, or leaders may be encouraged to lead authentically. The point of doing so is often performative: to instrumentalise knowledge for greater organisational productivity. When we are encouraged to bring our authentic self to work it is because if we don’t, we won’t be fully engaged, the organisation may fail to thrive then productivity will suffer. This invitation to bring our imperfect, vulnerable selves into the organisation is so we can recover our full humanity. You might find this reassuringly humanising, or alternatively you might consider it another attempt by managerial discourse to colonize you and what might once have passed for your private life, so that everything you do to realise yourself is work-related. This is what Habermas meant by the colonization of the life world.

The authentic leadership discourse is variously interpreted, but is broadly predicated on four individual qualities: awareness of self through self-scrutiny; relational transparency; balanced processing and an internalized moral perspective. Each of the qualities has something to recommend it in the abstract, although no more so than any other edifying injunction to live one’s life well. It is usually understood individualistically. For example, awareness of self is certainly an important quality. Socrates told us that a life unexamined is not worth living. However, whether one can usefully do this from self-scrutiny, or feedback questionnaires is another question. In a previous post I wrote about how moments of self-revelation often arise in a group, and can be both unexpected and provoke feelings of shame and vulnerability. It involves a radical encounter of the self with other selves, and is often an uncomfortable process which destabilises identity.

The second quality, relational transparency, i.e. the injunction openly to share one’s thoughts and beliefs, is both helpful and unhelpful. When might one do this, and to what degree? Whatever one thinks leadership is, it aims at the productive exercise of power, which is always relational. So when to disclose, how and how much to be transparent, is at the heart of the exercise of a leader’s practical judgement, which has both ethical and political implications.

Balanced processing, the idea that a leader should take many points of view into consideration and treat them all fairly is in theory a wonderful thing. It requires moral imagination and an ability to decentre the self, what has been described as the ability to widen our circle of concern. However, and in my experience, organisations are increasingly intolerant places of alternative points of view. To express difference too often brings with it political repercussions. As an example, here in Oxford it was decided that cancer screening services would be contracted out to a private company. When local NHS managers and staff protested they were threatened with legal action by NHS England for defamation. Challenging management in public increasingly comes freighted with risk.

And finally, there is an internalized moral perspective, which is predominantly positive, to encourage trust and openness in others. The idea is that being clear about one’s own moral position leaves one less open to being swayed by the herd. Perhaps this last injunction comes closest to the original understanding of authenticity, concerning the need not to be conform to unthinking opinion: to know your own mind. A perceptive reader might question whether this last recommendation works against the last one. What would be the point of taking many points of view into consideration and treating them fairly if you were unwilling to change your mind in the light of what you had heard?

The problem with the idea of authenticity in the conventional management discourse is that circles around in a solipsistic loop of the autonomous, self-cognising individual. It doesn’t define itself in relation to anything except a sense of self which already there.  In contrast, a relational alternative would be to consider the idea of an indeterminate self, emerging in attempts to co-ordinate action with other indeterminate but interdependent selves. Authenticity here becomes the paradoxical ability to find oneself with and through others, choosing between multiple sets of responsibilities while negotiating joint action. It is the activity of dynamically sustaining membership of multiple groups as we navigate how to go on together, to become the fullest expression of ourselves.

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VII – sending out a clear message

When managers say that they need to ‘send out a clear message’, what exactly is being conveyed? That good management depends on good communication is something which every manager knows. But there are also moral undertones to the expression which imply taking a principled stand. So the phrase carries an aspiration for both clarity and moral purpose, perhaps communicating a message which might be difficult to hear.

There are any number of helpful training courses and web sites offering advice to support managers achieve clarity by decluttering their language, by avoiding jargon, by thinking about their audience, and by matching body language with the intended message.  Then there are a variety of tips and tricks for cutting out vaguecommuncation and ‘weakening’ words, even from some consultants’ techniques on how to ‘cut out the mush’ of misunderstanding so that management and leadership can be offered clearly. These can sometimes be accompanied by appeals for communicators to be authentic, honest and transparent. We are invited to be good selves, clearing away misunderstanding with the purity of our intentions and honesty about ourselves. The more authentic you are, the more your authority will be heeded. Continue reading

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VI – changing mindsets.

The term mindset, a collection of beliefs and/or attitudes, has evolved to mean any fixed group of ideas that has come to govern behaviour of an individual or a group. The term conveys cognitivist assumptions that attitudes and beliefs are confined inside an individual’s head, more, that a mindset can be changed with a particular programme of interventions of a behavioural kind. We can change our own mindset, or as managers in an organisational context, we can change the mindsets of those for whom we are responsible from one coherent, though undesirable, attitude to another. mindsetIt is a taken for granted assumption that any change programme in a contemporary organisation requires a change in mindset in staff before it is realisable. Changing mindsets is often linked loosely to organisational culture change (future post).

The work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford University cognitive psychologist is broadly cited for her work on mindset. She suggested that there is a fixed mindset, where there is an assumption that abilities and traits are innate, and a growth mindset, which is the belief that whatever talents we are born with, these can be cultivated and improved. Employers, parents, teachers, are encouraged to imbue a growth mindset in order to foster greater achievement. With a growth mindset an individual accepts setbacks, learns to reflect, and understands that effort is needed in order to attain ‘mastery’. Methods employed to instil this include setting achievable micro-goals, praising effort over results, overcoming negative ‘self-talk’, and, tautologously, encouraging growth mindset thinking. Here mindset is presented as a binary, fixed vs growth, but more broadly the term is used whenever some kind of change is required which is thought to need a commensurate change in attitude. Continue reading

A glossary of contemporary management terms V – going forwards.

Going forwards, either used to mean ‘what we’ll do next’, ‘in the future’, or sometimes just as a hollow place holder meaning absolutely nothing at all, is another orientational metaphor which makes embodied sense. It belongs to the family of journey metaphors which we referred to in previous posts: we choose our ‘direction of travel’, we know where we’re going, we are determined. Moving-Forward-1We’re on our way to a better future, an onwards and upwards ‘trajectory’. Nearly 15 years ago Tony Blair’s election campaign chose the tautologous slogan ‘forward, not back’ just to reinforce the point that to vote for Labour meant being in a car with no reverse gear. There is only the future: there are no regrets.

There is a particular cognitive approach to executive coaching, still in use in many organisations, which exemplifies this kind of singular future-oriented thinking. For example the GROW model is explained as follows:

  • Goal.
  • Current Reality.
  • Options (or Obstacles).
  • Will (or Way Forward).

Organisational problems are understood as the individual’s struggle to overcome particular difficulties with determination and rational analysis. And perhaps if you intend undertaking some difficult change process it is good to imply that you will push on and not falter at the first sign of mutiny, and that you know what you’re doing.

However, maybe there is more to uncover about complex experience than talking as if there is only one tense which is important, the future, and only the individual’s rationality and will to map it out. Continue reading

A glossary of contemporary management terms IV – performance

Performance, the act of performing a dramatic role, or piece of music, a display of over-exaggerated behaviour (‘you’ve made a bit of a performance of that’), or simply the act or process of accomplishing a task or function, is a preoccupation of contemporary management. These days we are all concerned to improve performance. But how would we know if we had so improved? The first recourse for many contemporary managers is to reach for performance indicators, sometimes known as Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. These are quantitative indicators, things we can count and match against prereflected targets for improvement or aspirations for the good. performance graphIn a school these might be exam results, in a university journal articles written, and in a company selling products, sales figures. Sometimes there is an expectation that these figures can only increase: being static or decreasing might be seen as a failure, as we ‘improve our performance’ endlessly into an idealised future. As one UK government minister is reported to have said without any sense of irony: we want to increase performance until all schools in the UK are above average. Although of course, every school aspires to being outstanding. Continue reading