Violence in organisations

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.


10 thoughts on “Violence in organisations

  1. Tom Gibbons

    I agree with what you are saying Chris, that forms of violence in organizations are alive and well, however subtle they may seem to be. I do a session where we talk about the thinking behind management and say that the thinking hasn’t changed much since the time when you could kill someone in an organization if they didn’t do what you want and just go find someone else. Technique has changed but not the actual thinking that much. It’s an intersting conversation that usually emerges.

    It seems people often don’t like terms like violence when you describe an experience such as yours. It’s too graphic or their definition is different and it is a challenge to go further than those present definitions to the thinking and assumptions that have created them in the first place.

    Thanks also for the reference to Hannah Arendt. I will investigate further. I’ve always liked James Hillman’s book Kinds of Power as well in that he pushes hard at times at equating the thinking behind some very violent historical occurences to current thinking that simply manifests itself in a different way.

  2. Michael Monaghan

    Hi Chris,

    What seems to be missing from this account of ‘organisational violence’ is an analysis of your role as ‘victim’. It’s some time since I read Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ but my recollection is that he describes power as something inflicted upon the weak by the powerful. But I think he would also say that eventually the ‘weak’ find ways of fighting back and this would fit with Elias’ notion of power relations not being static, that movement occurs. While many of us experience a temporary paralysis ‘in the moment’ during difficult encounters and think of the appropriate response 2-24 hours later, I am interested in the fact that you had four days to reflect on this situation, but remained ‘cowed’. I wonder if this has something to do with some insecurities about the way you work which are being projected on to the reviewer. Anyway, my main point is that, just as in domestic violence, the victim is playing a role in the process as well as the perpetrator. Why write about it in a book or a blog rather than engage with the oppressor, even if it meant losing that client?

    Best wishes


    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      You make interesting point, Michael, and in terms of engaging with the client, I feel that I did my best. We met at the end of each day as a steering group to discuss the next day’s programme and I engaged in a way that tried to make a difference. However, this wasn’t a moment of being cowed – I had to go in every day to facilitate a group of people many of whom had called my professionalism into question on the very first day. Neither Foucault nor Bourdieu are naive about power relations: particular classes or coalitions of interests dominate for particular reasons and because they are good at it. This is their practice, as the political scientist James C Scott demonstrates in Domination and the Arts of Resistance. People who dominate are constantly adapting to the resistors’ attempts to overthrow them. Neither side stands still.
      As for the reviewer I think s/he breached the academic protocol with her review, and the interesting thing is to ask what it was that upset them so. However, I am touched that you are concerned about my insecurities and would like to assure you that I do indeed take these things up with my clients but not at the expense of my personal well being while I’m doing a job, particularly when the job is in Peru – not an easy place to fluonce home from.

  3. Tom Graves

    Agree strongly with your point about ‘organisational violence’, and Michael’s point about the parallels with domestic violence. I do disagree, though, with Michael’s implied (if presumably unintentional) put-down of “Why write about it in a book or a blog rather than engage with the oppressor, even if it meant losing that client?” – easy to say ‘engage with the oppressor’, but in practice it can be all but impossible to do, and demanding that one do the impossible is itself a form of violence.

    Much of my own work with organisations (see e.g. SEMPER and SCORE: enhancing enterprise effectiveness or Power and Response-ability: the human side of systems) revolves around a simple dichotomy: the physics definition of ‘power’ approximates to ‘the ability to do work’, whereas most social definitions of power are closer to ‘the ability to avoid work’. In a social context, ‘work’ has a very broad range of meanings: solving a technical problem, rebuilding lost trust and reclaiming hope from despair are ‘work’, just as much as physical work such as driving a vehicle, digging a ditch or feeding a child. Social misperceptions of ‘power’ – in effect, viewing violence or abuse as ‘power’ – reduce the available ‘ability to do work’. Hence from an organisational perspective, if we want to enhance the effectiveness of the enterprise, we need to address the circumstances in which the collective ‘ability to do work’ is eroded or lost through the various misperceptions of ‘power’.

    For this I use a simple five-point scale:
    1: actively dysfunctional (aka ‘violence’) – propping Self up by putting the Other down, such as in destructive competition and ‘power-games’
    2: passively dysfunctional (aka ‘abuse’) – offloading responsibility to the Other without their engagement and consent, as typified in the business context by silos and demarcation disputes
    3: ‘best practice’ – the best that can be achieved in a command-and-control context, where no allowance is made for emergence or for individual difference
    4: organisation supports individual – ‘control’ is relinquished and assumptions of identicality are dropped, as typified in ergonomics, accessibility, self-adapting systems and appropriate heuristics-based responses to non-real-time emergence
    5: wholeness-responsibility – ‘command’ is also relinquished, permitting appropriate principle-based responses to real-time chaotic contexts (as per your Joanna Lumley example) and, in the business context, typified by self-directed work and self-managed production teams

    (Note that 1 and 2 also have ‘lose/win’ variants – respectively, ‘putting Self down to prop Other up’, and ‘importing [inappropriate] responsibility without the Other’s engagement and consent’. In that sense, Michael is correct in that a ‘victim’ may be actively engaged in a dysfunctional transaction, but that assertion is by no means always the case.)

    Interestingly, the effective ‘ability to do work’ can often be identified through language used in the context. (More details on this in the ‘SEMPER and SCORE’ book mentioned above.) For example, in terms of relationship between availability of information and ability to do the related work, there’s a very significant difference in organisational effectiveness implied where one group tell us “we have all the information we need to do our work, exactly where and when we need it”, compared to “we’re just mushrooms, fed sh*t and kept in the dark”. Withholding needed information may seem like ‘power’ to a dysfunctional manager, but it will almost always damage the overall ‘ability to do work’ – and hence the organisation’s effective ‘bottom-line’. Likewise with all other contexts in which dysfunctionality is misconstrued as ‘power’.

    So yes, ‘organisational violence’ is real, yet also rarely acknowledged at present; likewise the real impacts of that organisational violence, in all its variant forms. Something that, as individuals, as consultants, and as a society in general, we urgently need to address.

    Hope this helps, anyway – and thanks.

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  5. Kathleen Schulweis

    Dear Chris, This is my first meeting with you and your blog and I am intrigued by your writing and your experiences. One thing jumped out at me that’s not about violence (although I have worked with and in violent environments for nearly 30 years and have conducted research (I’m a sociologist) on same). what jumped out was the need of the team to have you follow a format and achieve deliverables. Years ago I read a sales book by Jim Cathcart (Relationship Selling) and in it he distinguishes 4 types of thinkers-two linear types, two relator types. I think you had the linear types in the room-the kind that like linear and deliverables. You seem to lead with the relator style so had a bad match. What I notice about the linear types is they tend to be very judgmental and ‘bottom line’ oriented and not so well versed on the power of politeness. They seem very violent sometimes. Of course I wasn’t there and I don’t know you (and, we all have both the linear and relator in us but tend to lead with one or the other). E.g., I am very much the relator first (as a coach) but have a strong linear focus when it comes to learning. I look for bottom lines from a person of sensitivity and integrity. I would have sided with you but would have advised (privately) to stick to a plan for the group.

    By the by, I teach this model inside a specialized program on constructing presentations and trainings (mostly for coaching and solopreneurs so have some experience using the model. Good book.)

    Thanks for your time. I’ll watch for your posts. And, good luck with your book (see, still relating).

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Kathleen. I see what you are saying about linear types, but actually I think there is more going on here. It seems to me to accompany a particular type of management thinking which is reductive and which values doing over thinking about the doing. It produces extreme anxiety in groups in which everyone is caught up, whatever type of person they are. I think this is why people begin to feel alienation at work because these kinds of environments do not suit people who would prefer to think about what is going on, what you would call relators, but are prevented from doing so.

      I enjoyed your website.

  6. Kathleen Schulweis

    Hi Chris, thanks for the kudos on my website and for your insights on alienation. You’re absolutely right. When I do corporate work and see that stuff happening, it makes me so sad. I have to really manage myself to get through the work because it’s so unnecessary. Pretty much most of us want to perform and be part of a team and be associated with our ‘means of production’.


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