Category Archives: emergence

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms VIII – authentic

Being authentic, meaning conforming to the original features; not false or imitation; or being true to your personality or character, has been a preoccupation of philosophers for hundreds of years. For humans and their flourishing, the question of authenticity means to inquire into what it means for anyone to live their life fully as an individual. To a degree, the idea has to be relational, turning on the paradox of the individual and the group. How might we flourish as individuals, but acknowledge authenticityour obligations to others, or even, for Aristotle, how we become fully ourselves by taking our relationship with the community into account. In our increasingly individualised world, however, following a radically subjective movement in thinking the preoccupation has been mostly about one side of the relationship, the individual.  As with many big ideas like happiness, or even leadership, it has proved far easier to define what authenticity isn’t than what it is. So, for example, being authentic does not mean conforming unthinkingly with what everyone else is doing, or doing something because you think you will be liked as a consequence, or coasting along in your life to get by.

In general, when the idea of authenticity is mobilised in contemporary management discourse it is meant to indicate an ‘inner’ authentic and true self, which one can discover through introspection, intuition and listening to one’s ‘inner voice’. It is a self which is already there, which just needs to be found and made manifest. In modern conceptions of authenticity, there is no escape from the tyranny of the subject.

For example, we are invited to bring our authentic self to work, or leaders may be encouraged to lead authentically. The point of doing so is often performative: to instrumentalise knowledge for greater organisational productivity. When we are encouraged to bring our authentic self to work it is because if we don’t, we won’t be fully engaged, the organisation may fail to thrive then productivity will suffer. This invitation to bring our imperfect, vulnerable selves into the organisation is so we can recover our full humanity. You might find this reassuringly humanising, or alternatively you might consider it another attempt by managerial discourse to colonize you and what might once have passed for your private life, so that everything you do to realise yourself is work-related. This is what Habermas meant by the colonization of the life world.

The authentic leadership discourse is variously interpreted, but is broadly predicated on four individual qualities: awareness of self through self-scrutiny; relational transparency; balanced processing and an internalized moral perspective. Each of the qualities has something to recommend it in the abstract, although no more so than any other edifying injunction to live one’s life well. It is usually understood individualistically. For example, awareness of self is certainly an important quality. Socrates told us that a life unexamined is not worth living. However, whether one can usefully do this from self-scrutiny, or feedback questionnaires is another question. In a previous post I wrote about how moments of self-revelation often arise in a group, and can be both unexpected and provoke feelings of shame and vulnerability. It involves a radical encounter of the self with other selves, and is often an uncomfortable process which destabilises identity.

The second quality, relational transparency, i.e. the injunction openly to share one’s thoughts and beliefs, is both helpful and unhelpful. When might one do this, and to what degree? Whatever one thinks leadership is, it aims at the productive exercise of power, which is always relational. So when to disclose, how and how much to be transparent, is at the heart of the exercise of a leader’s practical judgement, which has both ethical and political implications.

Balanced processing, the idea that a leader should take many points of view into consideration and treat them all fairly is in theory a wonderful thing. It requires moral imagination and an ability to decentre the self, what has been described as the ability to widen our circle of concern. However, and in my experience, organisations are increasingly intolerant places of alternative points of view. To express difference too often brings with it political repercussions. As an example, here in Oxford it was decided that cancer screening services would be contracted out to a private company. When local NHS managers and staff protested they were threatened with legal action by NHS England for defamation. Challenging management in public increasingly comes freighted with risk.

And finally, there is an internalized moral perspective, which is predominantly positive, to encourage trust and openness in others. The idea is that being clear about one’s own moral position leaves one less open to being swayed by the herd. Perhaps this last injunction comes closest to the original understanding of authenticity, concerning the need not to be conform to unthinking opinion: to know your own mind. A perceptive reader might question whether this last recommendation works against the last one. What would be the point of taking many points of view into consideration and treating them fairly if you were unwilling to change your mind in the light of what you had heard?

The problem with the idea of authenticity in the conventional management discourse is that circles around in a solipsistic loop of the autonomous, self-cognising individual. It doesn’t define itself in relation to anything except a sense of self which already there.  In contrast, a relational alternative would be to consider the idea of an indeterminate self, emerging in attempts to co-ordinate action with other indeterminate but interdependent selves. Authenticity here becomes the paradoxical ability to find oneself with and through others, choosing between multiple sets of responsibilities while negotiating joint action. It is the activity of dynamically sustaining membership of multiple groups as we navigate how to go on together, to become the fullest expression of ourselves.

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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 glossary of contemporary management terms IV – performance

Performance, the act of performing a dramatic role, or piece of music, a display of over-exaggerated behaviour (‘you’ve made a bit of a performance of that’), or simply the act or process of accomplishing a task or function, is a preoccupation of contemporary management. These days we are all concerned to improve performance. But how would we know if we had so improved? The first recourse for many contemporary managers is to reach for performance indicators, sometimes known as Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs. These are quantitative indicators, things we can count and match against prereflected targets for improvement or aspirations for the good. performance graphIn a school these might be exam results, in a university journal articles written, and in a company selling products, sales figures. Sometimes there is an expectation that these figures can only increase: being static or decreasing might be seen as a failure, as we ‘improve our performance’ endlessly into an idealised future. As one UK government minister is reported to have said without any sense of irony: we want to increase performance until all schools in the UK are above average. Although of course, every school aspires to being outstanding. Continue reading

A glossary of contemporary management terms III – deliver

Deliver, meaning to liberate (deliver us from evil), to give birth or to take something somewhere, has become ubiquitous in contemporary management speak. This is particularly the case in the UK after the Labour government set up what they termed the PMDU (Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit) in the 00s under the aegis of the now knighted Michael Barber. Barber’s book Deliverology – a Field Guide for Education Leaders is used in the public sector and civil services throughout the world. The idea behind deliverology is to set up a small department, reporting directly to the accountable leader, which turns broad social aims, improving the level of literacy in schools, for example,download into measurable performance indicators. Systematic programmes are then developed with aim of advancing current performance amongst practitioners, who might then need to report on a regular basis on what they are doing with more or less elaborate monitoring forms . Although such programmes are likely to be ‘evidence-based’, i.e. they will have engaged with practice in a particular field and will be informed by research, they are nonetheless more often than not top-down, technocratic and target-driven. No area of the British public sector is left untouched by this technocratic, target-driven approach to ‘reform’. Continue reading

Prepare for rapture – complexity and the dawning of a New Age

A friend alerted me to a website for a consultancy which claims to be offering new insights on management for a new world of work. Apologies for what sounds like, and no doubt is, a caricatured paraphrase of what I found, but here is what I think the site is saying:

We live in a networked world. There’s a lot of change. There is going to be more change and top down command and control is now an old paradigm of management. Some of this change is good, some of it isn’t, but mostly it’s good. But what we need to do is be more aware of the changes and prepare to design more change of the kind that we want. This will mean spreading power around a bit more and being alert to complexity. Leaders need to have visions and set targets to achieve them, then they coach their followers. They will need to be deeply aware and mindful. Followers need to work out how to be empowered and of service. They too will need to be deeply aware and mindful. If we all trust each other a bit more and deal better with complexity we can have more meaningful conversations. Then we’ll get the future that we want. In a more networked world we need: Knowledge. Trust. Credibility.  A focus on results. Continue reading

Sack your coach

Here are three I ideas I take from reading Byung-chul Han’s The Burnout Society in relation to what interests me in complex social processes of identity formation.

The first is his idea that we live in an achievement society rather than a disciplinary society. Byung-chul Han may be taking Foucault to his logical conclusion when he argues that rather than being exploited we have now come to exploit ourselves voluntarily. In contemporary society there is no limit to the extent to which we are encouraged to be flexible accommodating and self-improving. We commit to stretch targets and KPI’s, more for less, smart working, efficiency savings and we make ourselves life-long learners. We focus on our own health and the habitual improvement of the body. Byung-chul Han argues that freedom and constraint now combine in the same individual so we are both the exploiter and the exploited as we endeavor to achieve more and more. As a result, he argues, we risk depression and burn-out. We are encouraged to commit to the dictum that ‘nothing is impossible’, but as a consequence the opposite is also true, that nothing is possible. We can go on improving ourselves, fitting in, meeting new and more exacting targets, getting more for less without end, until we hollow ourselves out. There is no-one else to look to for help or guidance if we are all to be self-starting entrepreneurs. We are entirely responsible for our own futures, we must depend on ourselves rather than others. Continue reading

Six things you can stop worrying about as a leader and one thing that should keep you awake

1 Everyone knows what good leadership is in the abstract and the ideal. But there is no leadership in the  abstract. There is only what you do when you show up at work, and this will never be ideal. So if you are a leader you are always a work in progress making it up as you go along with your colleagues. You won’t always know what to do, and that’s ok. One of the central tasks of leadership is how you work out what needs to be done together.

2 Whenever I work with senior people it is only a matter of time before someone mentions Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King (I have a dream) or Gandhi (be the change you want to see). You are none of these people, nor do you need to be an exceptional world leader to do your job. You might be good at your job and the right person to be leading, and you might just have got lucky or speak the right kind of leaderly language. But the more you play into the ‘exceptional leader’ narrative the more you will invite denigration and opportunities for people to point out that you have feet of clay. As a leader you will have a strong role in people’s fantasies and imaginative life (because of the strength of the leadership discourse) , and this will need to be handled with caution.

3 Relax about the vision thing (see 1 and 2 above). Saints and prophets have visions, and visions of the corporate variety are often so grandiose or vacuous as to be meaningless: everyone wants to be ‘best in class’, ‘world leading’, or ‘internationally renowned’, so what does it mean if you do too? This is not the same as saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious for your organisation, set high standards and want that you and your colleagues do the best you all can. It might be perfectly obvious to you and your senior colleagues what needs to be done, but so might something else in six months time when the game has changed.

4 You are highly unlikely to ‘transform’ anything if you mean by this that you can guarantee bringing about wholesale change for the good. Changes you make will bring about the expected, the unexpected and the unwanted. There will always be unintended consequences, and ‘success’ will depend upon who is judging and when the judgment is made. Large initiatives may make little difference and widespread change might come about from a conversation in a corridor. You must live forwards but can only understand backwards. Leadership, as an academic pointed out, is often about the ‘extraordinisation of the mundane’ – much of what you do as a leader is no different from what most people do at work, but the ordinary conversation you have with a colleague may have special significance because you’re the boss.

5 No one can design organisational culture, not even the most powerful and successful leader, if by culture we mean what we’re all doing together. You can change people’s work, set them targets, punish and cajole, tell them that they have to demonstrate certain behaviours and reward them accordingly, but how they respond to this will be largely beyond your control (unless you live in North Korea). Attempts to manipulate people’s values may well result in resistance, more or less overt, and/or superficial compliance. If people don’t have a choice about their values, rather their values ‘choose them’, then what are you getting in to if you try to dictate your colleagues’ values?

6 And You won’t be able to choose your leadership ‘style’ if by this you think you can rationally chose the kind of leader you want to be before you show up at work, like choosing an outfit. You are much more likely to be moulded by the organisation you work for than to mould it. You will find yourself responding to the game of organisational life in ways which will surprise you as you run to keep up, even if you’re the boss. You’re in charge, but you’re not always in control, not even of yourself.

And the thing which should keep you awake at night is that if you said any of these things in an interview for a leadership role you probably wouldn’t get the job. This is because leadership, as one academic has pointed out, is the subject of much dogmatically stated nonsense which seems to have a grip on the public imagination, not least because some of the tropes about the powers of exceptional leaders are repeated over and over so they are taken for granted as self evident truths. Everyone these days is thought to need leadership training, no matter how lowly their job, and many organisational problems are ascribed to ‘absence of leadership’.  The myths about leadership are now self- sustaining.