Performance as social practice

One way of thinking about the way we act socially is that we are born into a world where there is already a play going on. The play arises out of a history of social interaction and creates ways of speaking and acting which condition the way that new actors can speak and act. The way we express ourselves, indeed the very way we think about ourselves, is entirely shaped by the play that we join and the actions and speech of others. Our sense of self arises in our ability to respond to others who are also conditioned by the social circumstances that we experience together. Social relationships hinge on an array of taken-for-granted practices which are largely invisible to us because we are already acculturated by them. We are not consciously following rules, nor are we overtly directed to behave as we do. According to Bourdieu, we would be hard pressed to define the social rules that govern our action because it is difficult for us to stand outside of ourselves: in order to do so we would need to be both the subjects and objects of study, which we can only partially achieve:

Caught up in the matter in hand, totally present in the present and in the practical functions that it finds there in the form of objective potentialities, practice excludes attention to itself (that is, to the past). It is unaware of the principles that govern it and the possibilities they contain; it can only discover them by enacting them, unfolding them in time. (The Logic of Practice, 1990: 92)

In Bourdieu’s terms, the functioning of habitus lies between overt determinism, where all our actions are simply conditioned by our inherited dispositions, and the god-like agency of rational free will that is implied by many contemporary management theories. Action is probable and broadly predictable within certain parameters, but not certain since we are responding to a different set of circumstances each time we act. How we will act, though, is ultimately unknowable until we have acted with others and interpreted that action.

This way of understanding social action is very different from many ‘performance management’ processes in organisations where there is a presumption that we are in control of our bodies and our actions, and that what we do is a product of our conscious and rational application. We conceive of what we are going to do, and then we do it, or more likely in organisations, senior managers set objectives which are then fulfilled by employees. Performance management becomes a process of correcting employees’ efforts towards the ideal path that has already been rationally chosen.

Another way of understanding ‘performance’ would be to conceive of it as the necessary improvisation that employees will be obliged to perform as they take up generalised objectives in their particular context. As they try to act with intention they will find themselves behaving in particular ways, simply because of the way they have been acculturated, and will be obliged to respond to others in an improvisational dance. In this situation, what the employee is trying to achieve is not the only thing going on, particularly if they are trying to achieve things with and through others. A manager might be concerned not just with whether the employee has achieved ‘results’ but how they interacted with others in the process and what happened as a consequence. Outcomes of improvisation are likely to be probable, rather than certain. In soliciting from the employee what has happened as a result of them acting with intention, it may make the dance they have become involved with much more explicit. In taking up the challenge of meeting their objectives they may have come across more important things to be doing than what was presupposed. This could be more innovative and important than the strategy that was being attempted.

We could come to understand the word ‘accountability’ to be the way that employees give an account of what they have done and why, rather than simply giving an account of whether they have hit a particular target or not. If managers tend towards taking a greater interest in means as well as ends, focusing on both might affect the ends themselves.

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