Teach us to sit still.
An interview with Richard Atherton from the Being Human podcast.
Teach us to sit still.
An interview with Richard Atherton from the Being Human podcast.
Most Saturday mornings when I’m here I go to the farmers’ market in the local primary school which my kids attended. I was intrigued to see this appended to the door.
The first thing that struck me about it is how confusing it is: who, exactly is the audience? Is it the children, the staff, both? What would a child of five or six make of it (given that this 50-something adult finds it difficult enough to comprehend)? Mostly the poster encourages us to live in the present – this is a new day, and we can make a new start on what happened yesterday. But surely today isn’t just a blank page for us to make an impression on because we are so bound up with others: there are all kinds of things unresolved from yesterday which may trip us up today. There are responsibilities and demands beyond learning in school to which we will need to respond. The poster invites us to learn from yesterday, although it’s not exactly clear what we might learn, and how we might do so if we’re exclusively focused on today. We’re encouraged to stop stressing about tomorrow, but we are supposed to stress about today. There are precisely 1440 minutes from which to extract the maximum, as if we were milking a cow. This creates what we might think of as the Extractor’s Paradox: that the more focused we are on getting the maximum out of our time, the less likely we are to do so. It’s just like the pursuit of the butterfly of happiness – the more you chase it, the more it eludes you. And 1440 minutes make 24 hours – shouldn’t we sleep? How anxiety-provoking to lie awake at night worrying about making the best of lying awake not sleeping. Today we’re going to be the best version of us, but how will we know? What happens if we’re not? Who decides? Will we find ourselves endless repeating the day over and over again, like Groundhog Day, until we reach enlightenment?
I realise that this is supposed to be harmless encouragement to everyone in a school to do their best. Unfortunately I find in it the conventional anxiety narrative of the neoliberal society: motivational, slight sinsiter platitudes as a veneer over relentless striving. Don’t rest; maximise; extract; be the best you can be; never stop remaking yourself; yesterday’s achievements count for nothing, because you have to prove yourself all over again today; the world’s your oyster; you can achieve anything.
I know that good schools, particularly ones with very young kids such as primary schools, accept kids however they turn up, ‘best self’, average self or even worst self, partly because they know kids bring with them all kinds of invisible baggage that has been packed for them, unconsciously at home. The school will cope with the cornucopia of selves who present. They acknowledge that school life can sometimes be tedious, that sometimes kids will be bored and will find themselves staring out of the window, and that they won’t be 100% motivated everyday. Kids are likely to enjoy playing and hanging out with their mates in the playground as much as learning in a committed way. They’ll be happy when they are completely absorbed in what they are doing, with no particular end in view. Learning will sometimes be deliberate, and sometimes accidental. And one of the most important lessons will be about learning to rub along with others, being in the mess of life with other people, noticing oneself in relation to others. We bring out the best in each other, we bring out the worst in each other: that’s what we have to learn to live with in school.
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
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
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
out 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
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
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