Taking a detour via detachment in INGOs

I have been working with staff from an international development organisation to review a new service that they set up a year ago. For them this involved creating a new department, launching a new vision and strategy, and team building within the new entity. There were a number of away-days and launches. Inevitably there were glitches, miscommunications, lacunae. Additionally, the ambitious work plan of creating the new department, with new policies and procedures, has been run over by events. So staff were running around trying to set up something new at the same time as they were responding to business as usual. Everything has taken much longer than anticipated.

The new department comprises people who work in the UK and overseas. Some of these latter were doing a similar job to the one they were doing previously, but were now considered to be in a different department. Some of them are not clear that they have become part of a new department – their everyday reality is much as it was before, although they might be reporting to a different manager. For staff in the UK the changes have been more obvious and more talked about. They are engaged in struggles with the old department from which the new entity has been carved concerning who does what, who takes responsibility.

Members of the new group make observations which seem very familiar to me from previous similar situations. The first is to criticise the senior management team who set this process going in the first place. Why didn’t they plan this properly – why didn’t they foresee some of the difficulties which were going to arise and pre-empt them? The second is to bemoan the lack of clear communication. If only we could communicate clearly, or even design a better system of communication, then some of these problems would not have arisen. The third is to draw attention to the feelings of demoralisation that some people feel: they complain that they have not been sufficiently consulted, or they may have been made anxious by the turbulence of change, or they may have lost out in terms of power and autonomy in the new department. Some people present have been moved out of the new department, and are now only loosely connected to it, and are feeling excluded.

We begin to reflect on what we are saying. Starting with the first, to what degree could the senior management team reasonably have been expected to foresee all the difficulties which beset the transition, particularly those which were world events which disrupted whole countries, not just the organisations working in them? Are we really criticising senior managers for a lack of prescience, or for not adequately dealing with the inevitable difficulties that would have arisen from any reorganisation? To what degree are we fantasising the senior managers can control everything that is going on? Of course this is not a justification for lack of planning, if there was, or for not attending sufficiently to big changes that senior managers themselves had called for. However it is not absolving managers from their managerial responsibilities to accept that they have a limited ability to predict and control.

On the second complaint it is usual for a group of people who are trying to establish something new together to be trying to develop a new way of talking about what they are doing. Opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding are rife. There will be a degree of continuity with what has gone before, but inevitably new ideas generate new ways of speaking and acting. One way of thinking about trying to act differently is that it is like trying to learn a new language together to describe what it is we are doing. There are a variety of mistranslations.

The third area of complaint provokes the greatest disagreement amongst the group when I suggest that the new department, by including some and excluding others, will have changed power relationships. The act of including and excluding is itself an expression of power. Some who were previously included are now outside the new grouping, and others, who were previously in lower status jobs or perhaps came from outside the organisation, have been promoted. In any reorganisation there are always winners and losers. When there is an attempt to create a new grouping, a new ‘we’, there will inevitably be people who struggle to recognise themselves as being a member of the new group. Some will be feeling passed over, or will have felt that their contribution is no longer recognised to the degree it was previously.

This observation nonplusses some people including, though not exclusively, some of those who have gained in the reorganisation. They argue that they feel alarmed by what I’ve said. For them the organisation they work for is one organisation, a unity. Everyone should feel empowered: it is unhelpful to propose that some people may have been disempowered or excluded. These are our values, they say: empowerment and inclusion for everybody. Others point out that if people in the room can’t find a way of talking about what has happened, feelings of disempowerment resulting from the reorganisation, feelings of not being recognised and valued, then they will never be able fully to come to terms with what has happened. One person says that this kind of thing, the inability to sit with discomfort, happens a lot in the organisation and maybe it offers a new opportunity for talking about things in a way that is usually avoided. Perhaps, in order to come to terms with what has been going on, we need to persist in talking about things even if it makes everyone feel uncomfortable to see where that may lead. Maybe it is too limited to think that by only by paying attention to ‘the good’,  and denying the painful aspects of being together, good things will necessarily flow.

Trying to stay to stay in conversation with each other when the discussion is risky is not an easy thing to do, particularly if there is a pronounced tendency to collapse what has been going on into good or bad, positive of negative, successful or not successful. It is common in INGOs to talk in these kinds of dualisms, and to talk in idealised ways about ‘positive change’ or ‘change for the good’. Continuity and change are perpetually present in every day organising. If, after Norbert Elias, we can try to take a detour via detachment we might find ourselves reaching for explanations of the kinds of changes we have been experiencing rather than rushing to evaluative judgements. If we can do this for long enough, perhaps it may be possible to understand ourselves and what we are doing anew.


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