Category Archives: anxiety

Thinking the unthinkable

I have worked with two different groups of managers over the last couple of weeks to introduce, or reintroduce them to the ideas which inform a complex responsive process perspective on organisations. This perspective, for those unfamiliar with this blog, draws by analogy on the sciences of complexity, and on social science resources to think about social complexity. The intention is to struggle with what it means to consider social order, human action, and social change as complex and non-linear.

The main conceptual pillars contributing to this perspective are insights from complex adaptive systems theory, the pragmatists, political theory and psychoanalytic traditions. It takes an interest in everyday conversation, gossip, politics and power, values and ideology, and the strong feelings provoked by processes of inclusion and exclusion in social life. But in the end the perspective is a theory of theories. It’s possible to read the same scholars and draw different conclusions, or one could stitch them together differently. But as a constantly evolving constellation of ideas it is an attempt to understand social complexity and offers an alternative to thinking that organisations are things to be manipulated by managers based on ideas of predictability and control. In the context of organisational theory there are a substantial minority of scholars who write into similar traditions noticing the complex and processual nature of human organising, although they may not draw on the complexity sciences in the same way or reach the same conclusions. The perspective of complex responsive processes is coherent and radical, but speaking generally is certainly not the only game in town.

If I had to sum up the most important aspects of the perspective for me, it is as an encouragement to think that things could be other than they are and so to pay attention differently.

I am still interested, though, by the strong reactions of groups of managers who listen to the ideas, even if they have come across them before. These reactions arise predictably and unpredictably as a pattern: it is very rare not to encounter them, but the precise way they manifest themselves are slightly different each time. Continue reading

Anxious management

I was reminded of the importance of anxiety and the idea of emotional contagion the other day when I sat with a group of not-for-profit trustees who were being given a presentation by an auditor from a big corporate firm of accountants. The auditor had been asked to present on his experience of auditing other not-for-profits to identify what other organisations were concerned about and how they were dealing with it. The trustees saw it as a way of ‘benchmarking’ the field so that they could be reassured that they were focusing on the right things as they undertook their roles and developed a new strategy.

What transpired in the meeting made me think about how certain ideas about leadership and management are spread partly because they have emotional valency, and thus are more likely to be taken up without being challenged. For the presentation was not just an overview of the sector but also carried a strong ideological message wrapped in an anxiety narrative. This was that adopting a particular approach to organisations and management based on an especially dominant orthodoxy is a way of belonging to an in-group in especially turbulent times. To emulate others would mean ameliorating anxiety about not keeping up, not being professional and not being alongside the people who really know.  Continue reading

Experiencing uncertainty

I was working with a group of managers and we had been discussing how a lot of managerial work is about dealing with uncertainty. Things don’t work

questionout quite how you planned, surprises come out of left field, and your boss, or the organisation with which you are working closely, has just decided that something else is now a priority. What you came in to do in the morning has somehow gone off course by the afternoon, but you’re still responsible for your first priority. This was the link I had been making previously to the complexity sciences: I had been arguing that small changes can amplify into big differences, and social life arises in the interplay of differing intentions. But how do you know how to respond and what to pay attention to?

I suggested that we might work together with uncertainty with the group as an experiment the next morning, if they were up for it. We would meet with no agenda as such and the only task would be for the 26 of us to sit together in a room for an hour and a half and talk about how we cope with uncertainty, making links with organisational life, and noticing at the same time how we were dealing with the task together as we were dealing with it. I was explicit about the fact that this was a group method developed by the Institute of Group Analysis as a way of paying attention to process from within the process itself. I told them that would participate with them, but that I wouldn’t be in charge. I warned them that they might find it a bit uncomfortable and anxiety provoking, but they were a group of social work managers and no doubt they would have been in situations like this before.

They said they would like to try it. Continue reading

Putting the ‘cult’ into culture

This week saw the publication of another report into an organisation, the Mid-Staffordshire hospital, which was deemed to have been poorly managed, and therefore to have seriously and dangerously failed its service users. Some of the contributing factors to organisational failure were thought to be the management team and board’s slavish persuance of government initiatives, which led to keeping an over-tight rein on the budget in order that the hospital might qualify to become a Foundation hospital, and/or superficial management to targets. By implication the inspection regime must also be at fault since the hospital seems to have passed a variety of inspections.

From this and other examples, what are some repeating patterns in organisational life, and assumptions informing them? What sorts of things do leaders and managers, board members and government ministers seem to be thinking about management and leadership that might be contributing to the mess?

Apologies in advance for the caricature – it is the weekend. Continue reading

Two perspectives on leadership

I was recently invited to fill out a questionnaire for a colleague who was being assessed for a 360 degree appraisal concerning her leadership abilities, although I did not work for her organisation. I was being invited to offer an ‘outsider’s’ perspective. To the best of my knowledge this colleague does not lead a large team, although she has a very senior position. I understand this questionnaire to be a reflection of many organisations’ preoccupation with leadership and their need to quantify and assess the leadership potential of their employees, whether they are in leadership positions or not. It is part of a much wider discourse about leadership and a widely accepted supposition that it is a critical determinant of organisational success.

This particular questionnaire comprised 40 or so Likert scale questions with four discursive questions at the end asking about the colleague’s principle strengths and weaknesses. The questions divided roughly into eight main themes. Continue reading

Appreciative Inquiry II – AI and the positive psychology movement

In an article called ‘The Happy Warrior’, which draws on a poem by Wordsworth of the same name, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum takes aim at the positive psychology movement, which is one of the contributing influences on Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Nussbaum is drawn to Aristotle, Wordsworth and Mill because they develop a highly nuanced and subtle understanding of what is broadly termed happiness, or positive states of mind, in the positive psychology literature.  She is offended by what she terms the ‘conceptual breeziness’ of the positive psychology movement and argues that it is often highly reductive of what is a nuanced and subtle area of human concern. For Nussbaum, it is impossible to reduce the idea of happiness to a single, one-dimensional metric so that it suits the quantitative calculations of cognitive empirical research into subjective states, which is the bread and butter of positive psychology.

It is worth rehearsing some of her arguments here, since a lot of what she says also applies to AI, which focuses relentlessly on the positive to the exclusion of the more problematic aspects of organisational life.

Continue reading

Attempts to make the uncertain certain

I was rung up the other week by someone who worked in a management team in a development organisation, which wanted to try some new initiatives in three ‘fragile states’. It had become clear to them that traditional ways of working, adopting and following logical planning instruments, were inadequate in these particular dynamic and fast-moving contexts, and they were keen to try a different approach. I began to discuss the possibility of working experimentally: with the teams already working in-country, why not start with what they would like to do. Take the first steps, reflect on it, see how it had gone, and then take the next steps. Repeat the process over again. The programme would evolve as new possibilities emerged, although it would take a good deal of discussion and judgement. Programme coherence would build up with retrospective sense-making over time. ‘Yes, but can you prove that this way of working is effective?’, my co-respondent asked.

In a recent journal article I described the way in which staff in an organisation I had a great deal of experience with had tried over time to reflect systematically on the way they were working. This involved acting with intention, but regularly being open to puncturing and questioning these intentions through discussion, reflection and involving the subjects of their intentions by asking them what they thought of the work. It often involved taking two steps forward and one step back, and seeing the process of reflection and discussion not as an adjunct to the work, but as the work itself. The staff often had to work to tight deadlines, to cut short their deliberations to meet them, so were not in any way paralysed by talking rather than doing. Talking was a form of doing. One of the reviewers of the article commented that this was all very well, but what had I actually said about working differently? What would an ideal model of working actually look like?

I was supporting an organisation think about how they might assess work they were doing in East and West Africa where they had made an explicit commitment to their donor that they would focus on what they thought would be sustainable ways of working. That is to say, instead of providing services or materials as such, they would support local stakeholders, central and local government officers, local organisations, politicians and local councillors to work out what their problems were and what they wanted to do about them. The staff in the organisation I was supporting were clear that they had expertise to offer, but the problems were not theirs to ‘solve’. They would support, cajole, facilitate, discuss, offer training if necessary or seed initiatives. But since the inception of the programme the relations with the donor had changed, partly owing to a change in personnel in the donor. Now the donor required ‘objective evidence’ that this way of working produced results, and that these results would be transferable elsewhere. Exactly which kinds of ‘instruments’ were they using to encourage local discussion, and how could they be validated?

In each of these three examples I would argue that there is an illusory quest for certainty. Continue reading