The annual Academy of Management (AOM) conference in Montreal this year was entitled: ‘Dare to care: passion and compassion at work’. I attended a symposium which had been established to critique the idea that caring would necessarily result in the good, which was implicit in the conference title. The symposium was called ‘the dark side of caring.’
The session proved to be much more popular than the organisers had anticipated, and as people filed in the chairs filled up quickly. New arrivals started bringing additional chairs or began to sit on the floor at the back of the room, which was now quite crowded. Five minutes or so after the session was supposed to have started the chair introduced the seminar and the principal speakers, but said she was also interested in hearing about everyone who had come. She was doing this, she said, in recognition of people’s rich experience and to make the session more democratic. She invited participants to introduce themselves, which they did sequentially in a clockwise direction. However, new people filing into the room began to disrupt the introductions, and sometimes the turn-taking had to stop and go backwards to accommodate someone who had not been introduced. Sometimes a group of three people would come in at once and would be missed entirely.
Just before the main speakers were invited to begin, someone observed that we ought to make room for people sitting at the back so that they too could be included. One person sitting on the floor said that they could hear quite well and were comfortable; the chair said that she thought we should push on with the seminar. At this point the person who wanted the people at the back included got up and walked out.
Some people who introduced themselves explained why they had come in terms of their current research interests, some of which sounded extremely interesting. Others were just curious. When the two principal speakers took their turns, one told an interesting and personal anecdote about why this was an interesting topic of concern for him, the other speaker simply read for ten minutes from a paper he had prepared .
A discussion began as participants in the seminar began to contend with what had been said. One participant, quoting the psychiatrist RD Laing, announced that the dark side of caring was inevitable since all human beings are essentially incapable of goodness. Another participant announced that he was a professor from a north American business school and had immersed himself in ethics for more than ten years. He had written several books and articles and among his conclusions were that the more hierarchical an organisation was, the less likely it was to be caring. Organisations must be democratic if they are to have a chance of caring for their employees. He had managed to prove this empirically.
The discussion heated up and two or three people began to dominate, sometimes speaking over each other. One or two of us signalled that we wanted to speak by putting up our hands and indicating to the chair. Although at one point she acknowledged me to go next, one of the dominating speakers simply ignored the chair’s direction and butted in. Unable to contain himself about the point being made, the professor responded, also ignoring the chair’s direction. The woman sitting next to me hissed at me: ‘just interrupt!’.
Eventually I did get my turn and this is what I said:
There seemed to me that from my experience of being in this particular seminar there were a number of generalisations that one might make about doing or being good.
Firstly, what we take to be the good is relational, often contested and therefore has to be negotiated, particularly by those with whom we seek a relationship of care. The participant who invited people to be included in the group was denied, both by one of the people he wanted to include and by the chair. It may be that there were other reasons for his leaving, but one reading of why he walked out would be that he felt offended that his definition of the good was not accepted by those to whom he appealed and by the person seen to be in charge.
In the competition and conflict over what we take to be the good there will inevitably be compromise – as a group we were constantly finding ways of going on together, to be heard, to complete the task, to discuss the issues. Sometimes this would mean not caring for some people as we much as we had done for others since some of the people in the room had not had a chance to introduce themselves and say why they were interested to come. It is rarely possible to care universally
Caring and negotiating over how to act for the good provokes strong feelings in people in which their sense of identity can be seriously threatened, and which they will try to sustain in powerful ways (as with the eminent American professor). There is often a tendency to idealise the good, or to suggest transcendental solutions of the perfect good. This is something that the nobel prize-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen writes about compellingly in his latest book The Idea of Justice. In his version of justice there is room for both competing and partial definitions of the good.
Compelled to look out for me, my neighbour tried to insist that I interrupt those who were cutting across others – in other words, although we would ideally widen the circle of concern as much as possible, sometimes our immediate compulsion to write a wrong may involve misrecognising, or even harming, others.
I was struck by how most people were completely immersed in the discussion, whether actively or not, and how we were completely caught up in the experience. There was a vibrant struggle for recognition going on in the room which we were negotiating together moment by moment. Despite the contributions from a number of people that the answer had to be X, or turned on an essential factor Y, the discussion moved on through the constant opening up and exploration of different positions, more or less critically and intelligently.
All of the above gives important food for thought for those institutions, like international development NGOs, or state caring agencies, whose mission it is systematically to do good for others. How might the intention of doing good be compromised by too systematic and idealised schemata for doing good since the practice of doing good by each other is a ragged and incomplete affair?