What we really do at work: power, conflict and subversion

I have been working for a while with some health service managers and we have been discussing the Initiativitis that they suffer which is triggered on a daily basis by senior managers, local and national politicians. Some of these are well thought through and follow causally and coherently from the last initiative, others are whimsical, unintelligent or brutal. This leads to rounds of review, organisation and re-organisation. Things never stand still. Sometimes initiatives cut across each other, sometimes it looks as though drastic service reductions are being planned.

So in order to protect patients for whom they feel responsible, and colleagues whom they are managing, this group of managers I am working with try to take up each initiative, and as they do so find they are involved in acts of political lobbying and engagement, even subversion. One might make the case that they would not be doing their jobs properly if they weren’t. They get engaged in discussions about how this or that particular service ‘improvement’ might be carried out in practice, and they begin to steer it this way and that, according to their ability to influence the managers with whom they are engaged. Their ability to influence their manager will depend a lot on the way their manager manages them. So those who have shouting bullies as managers who demand that things are done their way, pronto, there is very little wiggle room. In these cases difference might only come about through defiance or lying. With more open, democratic managers there is usually greater possibility of compromise, of hybrid outcomes which can keep the spirit of what is intended at the same time respecting the integrity of what exists already.

As peer managers they discuss together what might be best to try and achieve, but these discussions are often hidden from the more public fora in which the explicit struggle is taking place. Equally, those provoking the initiative are themselves engaged in formal and informal discussions about what they intend, what they are prepared to say publically about what they intend, and how they will dress these ideas up for more public consumption. What actually transpires will be an interweaving of all these different intentions, with the more powerful having a greater effect on the outcome than the less powerful. Equally, there will be unintended consequences, both unwanted and unexpected, for which no single group will be responsible . Their are public transcripts about what is happening alongside multiple hidden transcripts.

On what basis is it ethical to engage in acts of subversion at work? What any group of managers brings to the service that they manage is a grounded understanding of what they are responsible for, which will have arisen out of their practice over time. They will usually understand their domain of service much better than the managers who manage them: what they might lack, however, is an understanding of the broader, more abstract thinking that is behind the wider organisational initiative. So by negotiating with peer managers about what would be best to try and preserve as well as change in their particular area of operation at the same time as negotiating with more senior managers about the broader implications of what is being proposed, managers are trying to make wider organisational generalisations, abstract propositions, more particular. And in doing so they can make the difference between a poor or a better implemented initiative. Their group of peers will exercise a discipline on the discussion about what they might and might not strive for. Together they try to work out how to engage, and the quality of this discussion will be critical for informing how managers then engage with the broader political process of change.

One might make the case that in order better to bring about better grounded organisational initiatives one should actively encourage political engagement and acts of subversion. This is an idea which would run counter to the dominant way of understanding politics in organisations which would suggest that politics and conflict should be ‘managed’. Perhaps managers would have a formal and informal job descriptions. The informal job description might read as follows: X manager is required to find ways of quietly or even actively subverting the worst excesses of senior management and government initiatives so that patients and colleagues can be protected from ill-thought out policies. In order to do so the manager will engage intensely in political processes within the organisation in order to find allies to work with, and will talk through with peers how best to work in difficult circumstances. In doing so they will recognise the need to change some practices as well as the need to preserve others, continuity and change arising in paradoxical relation at the same time.


2 thoughts on “What we really do at work: power, conflict and subversion

  1. thebccp

    Interesting piece. It would be interesting to see how long the hypothetical mole could remain effective before the political process rolled over him.

  2. sbilling

    I love your informal job description and would like your permission to include this phrase in every position description I am ever involved in formulating the future!


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