Covering over paradox II

In the previous post I wrote about how paradoxes and contradictions produce unresolvable tensions for people working in organisations and often provoke strong feelings. For example, it is impossible to have reorganisation without including some people in the changes and excluding others, without having winners and losers, those who are satisfied and those who are not. All reorganizations are disruptions to power relationships which can sometimes be experienced as threats to identity or lack of recognition.

Last time I rehearsed some of the ways in which orthodox theories of management reduce the paradoxes of organisational life by turning them into dualisms, double binds, or separating them into sequential phases between stable states. In this post I will consider two other ways of re-presenting paradoxes in the form of idealisations and logic models.

In my experience there is a strong current of idealisation and what I have referred to elsewhere as a ‘cult of positivity in contemporary organisational life, and  this is a phenomenon particularly found in not-for-profits although it is not just confined to these. Staff in organisations may may make powerful appeals to the positive by assuring themselves and others that they are concerned with ‘positive change for the good’ or by claiming that their work is transformational or empowering. Of course it is very important to feel that the work you are doing makes a difference and that relations between people are positive. To undertake work believing these things is highly motivating. But when positivity is taken up in a cult-like way, that is to say as a means of including or excluding people from the group according to the degree to which they sign up to the ideal of positivity then it can also threaten to  become a form of tyranny and  a way of stifling debate and difference. Positivity expressed as cult value often creates environments which have a low tolerance of difference and dissent, those truculent shadow sides of interacting with other human beings which resolutely refuse to be banished, but which are now much more difficult to be publicly expressed. I think of organisations with highly idealised conversations about the importance of positivity as having only one register of discourse, as monotonal, and where I expect to encounter privately expressed resistance and subversion, sometimes articulated as passive aggression towards other members of staff or towards me.

Organisational vision statements are another very good example of idealisations which cover over the often contradictory and paradoxical nature of social life. They present a fantasy of a transformed world which is shorn of all constraint. Often they are just simplistic inversions of the way that we experience the world now, where everyone is enjoying their full rights, is not discriminated against and can live a full and healthy life. Alternatively, the strategic vision is of a thriving and resourceful company which occupies a leading position in its market and is the benchmark against which other companies compare themselves. Vision statements are like Second Life avatars where we can create alternative personae and make them into everything we feel we are currently not.

Of course, these visionary commitments may be noble things to aspire to, but at the same time they create unrealistic and unrealisable expectations which can then paralyse employees who are  given the responsibility of bringing them about. Rather than motivating people, strong idealisations can sometimes have the opposite effect if people are conscious of the huge leap that is necessary to move from the ordinary, messy, good-enough present, to the high fantasy of perfection. And then the reverse side of high expectation may be deep disappointment and regret.

Logic models such as highly structured project management methods, or ‘theories of change’ in the evaluation domain, are also ways of squaring off reality and making it fit a logical fantasy of precision and neatness. They assume that life proceeds logically, that a new undertaking will unfold predictably and in a linear fashion, and that our best guess about what is needed is more important than what we actually encounter. They are ‘thin simplifications’ and what they are unable to account for is the way that we are constantly obliged to improvise, knit, negotiate and exercise practical judgement. This is not an argument against project planning, but is pointing to the idea that plans can only ever be a rule of thumb and are a best guess at a certain point in time. In the pursuance of our planned intentions we are likely to come across experience which is more important than we predicted in the plan. We are also highly likely to  produce unintended consequences from our actions, possibly highly deleterious ones, which need our careful attention as much as following what we intended. Grand, wholesale plans for change or for doing good can provoke the opposite of what they intended and which is logically excluded from the plan.

So dominant theories of management cover over paradox, conflict and contradiction through the widespread use of abstract models, schemata, and idealisations. They privilege the abstract and the ideal over the particular and the contingent, the fantasy over the messy daily reality. It is the latter of these dualisms that the appeal to the complexity sciences hopes to reclaim, by pointing to the importance of the particular and the way that it helps to shape and define the general and make it more relevant and more rich.


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