Category Archives: changing conversations

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms – XVIII challenge

Challenge, to invite someone into a competition to establish who is superior, a call to prove or justify something, or to dispute the validity of something is now used universally in organisational life as a substitute for problem or difficulty. Originating as one of the key concepts of positive psychology, that crises reveal character, the trope works something like this: there are no problems in life, only challenges, and every challenge can be turned into an opportunity if only we try hard enough. It’s just a question of how we frame things.

In a way there is nothing unusual about the sentiment: in everyday speech we might encourage each other that every cloud has a silver lining (or more mischievously, Monty Python fans might invite us to ‘always look on the bright side of life’). Perhaps what is disturbing is its ubiquity, and the implication that we can never say that something is unachievable, unrealistic, or too damned hard. There is nothing wrong in the invitation to stiffen our resolve as long as it isn’t at the expense of fantasy thinking. When does the injunction to enter into positive engagement turn into a denial of legitimate resistance and contestation, the triumph of the maniacally upbeat over the ‘doomsters and gloomsters’?

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A critical glossary or contemporary management terms X – embrace

Embrace, to hold someone closely in one’s arms, especially as a sign of affection, to accept a belief, theory or change enthusiastically and willingly. This word has become very widely used in organisational life, particularly when applied to hardest of all concepts. So, for example, we are invited to ‘embrace complexity’, to ‘embrace change’ or to ‘embrace diversity’. It sounds cuddly and nice: problem-free. There is an implication in this invitation, then, that we might be a bit reluctant toembrace accept that organisational life is complex, or that having more diversity is beneficial, but if we do so then it will be good for us in an unalloyed way. Change is always good for us, particularly if it is transformational change. If we eat less, drink less alcohol, and exercise more as we promised ourselves in our New Year’s resolutions, then we’ll start to feel the benefits by March. There are no downsides and we’ll feel warm and good about ourselves; fitter, happier, and hopefully more productive at work. There, now that you have embraced complexity you’re beginning to feel better about your job already, aren’t you? Continue reading

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VII – sending out a clear message

When managers say that they need to ‘send out a clear message’, what exactly is being conveyed? That good management depends on good communication is something which every manager knows. But there are also moral undertones to the expression which imply taking a principled stand. So the phrase carries an aspiration for both clarity and moral purpose, perhaps communicating a message which might be difficult to hear.

There are any number of helpful training courses and web sites offering advice to support managers achieve clarity by decluttering their language, by avoiding jargon, by thinking about their audience, and by matching body language with the intended message.  Then there are a variety of tips and tricks for cutting out vaguecommuncation and ‘weakening’ words, even from some consultants’ techniques on how to ‘cut out the mush’ of misunderstanding so that management and leadership can be offered clearly. These can sometimes be accompanied by appeals for communicators to be authentic, honest and transparent. We are invited to be good selves, clearing away misunderstanding with the purity of our intentions and honesty about ourselves. The more authentic you are, the more your authority will be heeded. Continue reading

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VI – changing mindsets.

The term mindset, a collection of beliefs and/or attitudes, has evolved to mean any fixed group of ideas that has come to govern behaviour of an individual or a group. The term conveys cognitivist assumptions that attitudes and beliefs are confined inside an individual’s head, more, that a mindset can be changed with a particular programme of interventions of a behavioural kind. We can change our own mindset, or as managers in an organisational context, we can change the mindsets of those for whom we are responsible from one coherent, though undesirable, attitude to another. mindsetIt is a taken for granted assumption that any change programme in a contemporary organisation requires a change in mindset in staff before it is realisable. Changing mindsets is often linked loosely to organisational culture change (future post).

The work of Carol Dweck, a Stanford University cognitive psychologist is broadly cited for her work on mindset. She suggested that there is a fixed mindset, where there is an assumption that abilities and traits are innate, and a growth mindset, which is the belief that whatever talents we are born with, these can be cultivated and improved. Employers, parents, teachers, are encouraged to imbue a growth mindset in order to foster greater achievement. With a growth mindset an individual accepts setbacks, learns to reflect, and understands that effort is needed in order to attain ‘mastery’. Methods employed to instil this include setting achievable micro-goals, praising effort over results, overcoming negative ‘self-talk’, and, tautologously, encouraging growth mindset thinking. Here mindset is presented as a binary, fixed vs growth, but more broadly the term is used whenever some kind of change is required which is thought to need a commensurate change in attitude. Continue reading

Navigating a polarised world – perspectives on radical difference

Lots of people are currently thinking about how we might talk to each other differently, particularly when politics seems to have become so polarised, and what it is that gets in the way of our fully recognising each other. In an interesting article on what he terms ‘denialism’ in The Guardian the other week, Keith Kahn-Harris treats sociologically contestation over what we think to be true. Denialism goes beyond every day denial, of which we are all guilty, but is both ‘combative and extraordinary’, he says. In some ways, Kahn-Harris argues, denialists are like the rest of us: they just want the world to be the way they would like it to be, and to make actual sometimes unspeakable desires. However, where formally denialists tried to emulate the careful work that goes into making an argument that climate change is happening, in other words they spent time and energy building a careful argument, now we encounter post-denialists who might say one thing one day, and another the next. If you like, they feel no need to entertain science-envy by mimicking scientists’ methods, and can speak, like President Trump, off the top of their heads. This has an insidious effect of contributing to an environment where everything is contestable and no-one believable.

One of the interesting things Kahn-Harris does is to kick away the liberal myth that if denialists would stop denying we would necessarily share a common moral view:

‘Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly.’ Continue reading

Changing conversations: changing hearts and souls

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

Margaret Thatcher Sunday Times, 3 May 1981

I worked with a group of senior managers in a higher education establishment to help them think about their ways of working while they discussed strategy. A pattern emerged in discussion about current difficulties and in anticipation of future changes that drew on ideas of an education marketplace, and which drew forth economic language. Managers were concerned about ‘buy in’ to plans and strategies, they worried about brand, they were anxious about their students’ customer experience, they wondered how they would act if their institution were a supermarket, a supermarket like John Lewis for example. They were anxious about competitive threats from the Chinese, they wanted to make business cases for change, they were concerned about their products. Education needed to be as flexible as possible so that students could consume whatever, whenever they wanted. They were worried about student satisfaction. These notes of market vocabulary were the clearest melody, although there were also contrapuntal themes opposing them – some argued that being business-like isn’t the same as being a business. Continue reading

From quantity to quality

I had been invited to work with a group identified as ‘talented potential leaders’ in a large public sector organisation in a European country. Workers in the organisation were highly likely to be users of the organisation’s services, a bit like workers in the NHS in the UK because of the size and scope of the organisation. To an extent, then, there is no inside and no outside, no clear-cut distinction between the employees and the ‘customer experience’: employees had very direct access to what it meant to use the organisation’s services, which were widely available.

My role was to encourage the ‘talent’ group to think about how they are thinking, to identify some of the organisational patterns they found themselves caught up in, and to think about how the organisation did strategy. To what extent were accepted ways of undertaking strategy in the organisation helpful? How did they square with their own experience of making plans and trying to implement them?

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Organising as conversational activity

‘Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps which have gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument, then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or the gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late. You must depart. And you do depart with the discussion still vigorously in progress.’

Burke, K. (1941) The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, pp110-1.

The above quotation encapsulates for me what it’s like joining an organisation, as a consultant, or as a new employee, understood from a pragmatic perspective. On entering an organisation you pitch into an argument which is already going on and in which there are several threads of heated discussion. It’s a struggle to join in, to understand what is being said and what it might mean for what you do next because you don’t yet have enough history with this particular group. You take up a role and become part of the action, influencing and being influenced. Once in the organisation, not to participate is as significant as participating, because people have already noticed you. Do you have anything to say? There’s no ‘safe space’ that people sometimes crave in team away-days, and nor is there a view from outside what is going on where you can make sense independently, somehow uninfluenced. The moment you speak your ‘truth’ you have become part of the discussion; you have taken sides in organisational politics.

For the pragmatists groups of people talking together, arguing, making alliances, trying not to make alliances, clarifying what we mean by what we say, is how knowledge if produced. It is fallible knowledge, good enough for now until circumstances, and the turn the heated debate takes obliges us to think differently. In doing so, thinking differently, we understand ourselves and the argument we are part of, anew. We have to decide how to take the next step, but having taken the next step, everything looks slightly different from the new position.

There might be some advantage for those engaged in this situation of flux if they can use their reflective intelligence. Although there is no stepping out of the discussion it may be more or less possible to participate but at the same time to notice how your participation influences things, and how you are influenced. The ability to notice the repeated patterns of this particular episode of hurly burly may offer different options for you and the other discussants. But it may also not be an advantage for long. It is hard to maintain an understanding of plural points of view, particularly if they are changing as the discussion changes. Is it possible to maintain your own argument and be radically open to other arguments both at the same time?

These, then, are some key ideas from pragmatic philosophy which are helpful for thinking about organisational life. Organising is a conversational activity which has no beginning and no end and which takes place in a group of groups. It is often heated because our valuations matter to us: we cannot stand outside our commitments, although we only fully realise what they are through articulating them and encountering others’ difference. In struggling together as a conversational community we discover how to take the next step, which may then give us a new perspective to keep going with our inquiry. Practising intelligent reflection, noticing the patterns of our habitual engagement, may offer potential for thinking and behaving differently. But there is never just one thing going on and taking in plural points of view requires work.

Researching ‘transformational change’

Recently I have been involved with a team of researchers in researching so called ‘transformational change’ in a not-for-profit sector. I suspect the research has been commissioned on the understanding that transformational change is something which senior managers choose, and can, to a degree control. We are at the beginning of the research but the process itself has thrown up interesting insights into research methods , but also how the idea of transformation is framed and understood by our commissioners, and by the respondents. This helps us researchers understand the term anew too, but makes it no easier to think and write about. Continue reading

Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward. Continue reading