I recently submitted a book for publication and went through the usual delays while the chapters were sent out to reviewers. The reviews came back mixed, broadly two in favour, two against and one indifferent. One reviewer in particular, a declared academic teaching in a business school, had difficulty with what I was writing about and the way I was writing about it. The flavour of what I wrote can probably be gleaned from previous posts. S/he took exception to the fact that I was critical of the ubiquitous grids and frameworks that compete for space in the market place, was despairing that I was not prepared to tell managers what to do, and was scathing of the literature that I drew on, in particular philosophy and sociology. S/he deemed what I had written to be more worthy of a sociology department than a business school, and probably not even that.
One particular phrase in one of the chapters seemed to irk her/him. I had described an incident when a group I was facilitating took such exception to my encouraging them to negotiate what we might do next in the workshop that they turned on me and began to question my professionalism. What kind of a facilitator was I if I couldn’t keep to the agreed timetable and ‘deliver the outputs’ that we had agreed? There was an enormous amount of anxiety about ‘delivering the outputs’ even though we were to spend four days together and noone was quite sure what the outputs might look like at this early stage. Thereafter I felt so cowed by the experience of being ganged up upon that I spent the next three days asking my contractor on a regular basis what she wanted me to do and how she wanted me to do it. I did my job mechanistically, without any joy or imaginative engagement, but in order to complete the contract and survive. In the book I described this as a form of organisational violence.
This phrase clearly exercised the reviewer who used it as an example of my bad intentions in writing the book. Clearly this was an effort by a one man band who was simply being self-indulgent. What could I possibly mean by violence and how could I justify such a claim? The strength of my reviewer’s reaction (the violence of it?) intrigued me and has made me think more about what I meant by what I said, and in doing so I turned to Hannah Arendt who spent a lot of her professional life grappling with how violence arises, sometimes as totalitarianism.
In her work On Violence she wrestles with what it is that makes us uniquely human, in Elias’ terms how we become civilised. It is, she decided, our capacity for starting something new, which she termed natality. We are born into the world, and this is a beginning. Equally we can act and bring about new things in the world, and this as much as speech and thought distinguishes us from animals. When human beings gather together to act in concert to do something new then power arises, but so does the potentiality for violence. Violence can be justifiable but it can never be legitimate, since it is the exercise of power through politics that restrains the destructive tendencies of violence. Violence unconstrained by power exercised through politics consumes its own children as we have seen in the Terror of the french Revolution and in totalitarian states. However, power and violence are not just different, she argues, they are opposites. Violence brings about the destruction of power and becomes more manifest when power is in jeopardy.
What are the consequences for Arendt’s thinking on power and violence for organisational life, and why am I turning to her to explain what I think happened to me when I was facilitating? One of the central themes for me in organisations is the exercise of power, which occurs in the everyday politics of working together. We negotiate, we discuss, we are polite and impolite to each other, we reveal and conceal, we pull rank, we delegate, we take decisions alone and we ask others for their points of view. This, for Arendt, is the proper exercise of power in public space and leads to the greatest of human civilising achievements. When the daily political process breaks down, however, and there is no longer a potential for negotiating how we might go on together, and then we can experience this as violence.
In much contemporary management literature there is a big emphasis on developing a shared corporate culture, of trying to manipulate employee behaviour so that it conforms to organisational values, and generally being invasive of what Habermas referred to as the life world of employees. Some business gurus, such as Collins and Porras in Built to Last, are quite explicit that if you don’t share the company ideology (their word) then you should be ejected. This, too, I would argue is a kind of totalitarianism which tries to develop the organisation into a cult and works to prevent negotiation, discussion and argument, the sharing of different points of view. It is, a form of violence since in Arendt’s terms it seeks to undermine the exercise of politics.
From this perspective to attempt to rise above politics, to try to ‘manage’ it, or to view it as a distraction from what is really important, usually the ‘big picture’, is to miss the point. Daily politics allows organisational life to flourish. Without it we are forced merely to show up to work and work as automata, as I found myself doing as a cowed facilitator.