Category Archives: ethics

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms – XVII roadmap

Recently the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, set out a ‘first sketch of a road map for reopening society’. Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister of Scotland set out a route map and the Northern Ireland Executive announced a ‘pathway to recovery’. These spatial metaphors of maps, routes and pathways are common currency in organisational life, and sit comfortably within the ‘life as a journey’ cliché. They make intuitive and bodily sense because they are metaphors we live by, language which helps us make sense of the world and helps structure our actions. Map and journey metaphors can be so taken for granted and seem such common sense that the conceptual assumptions they cover over become hard to identify and articulate. After all, it’s obvious you can’t make a strategy unless you set a destination, and once people know the direction of travel then they’ll get on board the train/bus. Often it requires a visionary leader to see where we need to get to in so many months/years’ time.

Implicit in the metaphor are foresight and control, and the ability to recognise in advance what the destination is. Thinking/planning comes before action. It is a claim on both knowledge and authority, and conveys a degree of certainty that we can trust to the driver to take sequential action and be in charge of our journey. In the context of national politics in the time of crisis, then conveying some degree of certainty may be helpful: if we are going to get aboard Boris Johnson’s bus, then we need to have some confidence in his driving skills and ability to know the route. To a degree the job of all people in positions of authority is political and demands good judgement about when to be more certain and when to disclose not knowing. There are few occasions in an organisation where the authority figure can state candidly that they have little idea about what to do next.

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A critical glossary of contemporary management terms IX – passionate.

Passionate, meaning capable of being roused to intense feeling, ardent, easily aroused to anger, is a word which is taken for granted now in organisations to convey commitment to the job, or being able to go the extra mile. Despite the ubiquity of the term over many years, it seems that we have not yet reached peak passion. Previously the word also had connotations of suffering or enduring. Hence the passion of Christ refers to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. To be passionate about one’s job, then, denotes hard work, endurance, and a willingness to suffer in order complete work which pushes the employee to their limit. In a way, then, to claim to be passionate is also an indication of submission and obedience to a call of duty.

passionThe prevalence of the term is at odds with the experience of many workers in organisations where metrics and performance management are used as a disciplinary apparatus to keep people’s noses to the grindstone. Ticking boxes, conforming to increased standardisation and targets often squeezes out worker autonomy and a sense that it is possible to exercise professional judgement. And yet while this narrowing of professional enjoyment is happening, employees are expected at the same time to be able to assert that they feel passionate about their jobs. Perhaps the greater the presence of the former the more the latter is required as public display. Continue reading

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.

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

What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life.

Complexity and Management Conference – 17th– 19th May 2019, Roffey Park Institute.

One of the difficulties of thinking, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, is that it tends to unravel things. Next year’s conference will address a theme which has come up again and again in previous conferences, the degree to which questioning, particularly of our own assumptions and value positions, can unsettle. It’s not always easy to question what’s going on, particularly in organisations which encourage us to align and be positive, but what are the ethical consequences of not doing so?

In a recent piece of research carried out for LFHE/Advance HE, we discovered that senior managers in Higher Education establishments may feel conflicted about some of the change projects they are responsible for. Keen to do a good job on the one hand, on the other they may also entertain doubts about the long-term effects of the changes they are implementing. One requirement of surviving in an environment which values change, then, may be the ability to entertain doubt and uncertainty, and to find ways of critically reflecting with others.

Equally, consultants trying to navigate the crowded field of concepts and management fads may find themselves working for clients who seem to be asking for support which the consultant doubts will be helpful – what does it mean to be a critically reflective and reflexive consultant, and what are the ethical implications?

We are delighted to have Professor André Spicer from the Cass Business School, City, University of London to give the keynote on Saturday morning, and help us think these things through.  Originally from New Zealand, André holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He has held visiting appointments at universities around the world.

André is the author of many academic articles and nine books. The most recent are ‘Business Bullshit’, ’The Stupidity Paradox’ and ‘Desperately Seeking Self Improvement’ He has worked with a range of organisations including Barclays, TFL, Old Mutual, the City of London, the House of Commons, IBM and CAA. He frequently appears in the international media and writes regularly about work and organisations for The Guardian. He is currently working on a book about skepticism and doubt.

On Saturday afternoon we ask conference delegates to suggest workshops that they themselves would like to run consonant with the theme of the conference.

As usual the conference booking page will go live on the university website early in the New Year. The fee for the conference covers all board and lodging from the inaugural dinner on Friday night 17th May, through to lunch on Sunday when the conference finishes.

In addition we will offer the usual one day introduction to the basic concepts of complex responsive processes of relating on Friday 17th.

 

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

Leadership development in a fragile state

My colleague Nick Sarra and I were asked to work with some practicing managers and leaders in what is usually described as a ‘fragile state’ in Africa. The country has been plunged into conflict for decades, and this has had a profound effect on social relations and the ability to get things done. Conflict still breaks out sporadically, making parts of the country off-limits,  potentially reactivating the tensions which still exist between groups living elsewhere in the country, especially in the capital. The government struggles to provide basic services, so the country is dominated by international aid agencies, development organisations and the representatives of international governments who each have their own sets of policies, procedures and priorities. This becomes visible the moment one steps off the plane: the airport car park is full of 4x4s, each sporting its own logo, and often there to meet, or disgorge development workers with their wrap-around shades and desert fatigues. Without the agencies this country would not be able to survive, but at the same time it feels a bit like an occupation. Continue reading

Authentic leadership

Browsing the bookshop at Schiphol airport I picked up the Harvard Business School handbook on leadership which is supposed to contain the ten must-read articles of the last couple of decades. In the book you can find the usual taken for granted tropes and separations: that there is a difference between leadership and management, that managers are of course needed as well, it’s just that they don’t have what George Bush senior referred to as the ‘the vision thang’, that today’s speeded up world demands more leadership not less, and that if not all leaders need to be or can be transformational, they do at least need to be authentic.

Authentic.

One explanation for the move to authenticity is, as the particular chapter revealed, that there have been thousands of scholarly studies produced about leadership without our being any the wiser about how we might become good leaders ourselves. There is no recipe: ‘what a relief!’ (states the chapter). The answer, then, is to be our authentic leaderly selves. This involves being self aware and conscious of our story, being clear about our passions, responding constructively to feedback and learning how to empower others. All of this is brought about by the power of self-scrutiny. We pull ourselves up by our boot straps by scrutinising ourselves intensively and realising our own shortcomings. Continue reading

The Archbishop and the CEO: reflecting on strategy and the courage to change

Having written about the experience of attending a hollow strategy event in the last post, I was interested hear criticism levelled at Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella for the address on strategy he gave staff recently. It is entitled ‘Bold ambition and our core’ and seems to be a terrific example of managerialist thinking (or perhaps lack of thinking).

After setting out an understanding of what the core of the company is, which seems to revolve around technology and the ‘customer experience’ Nadella then continues in the following way about the company culture:

Our ambitions are bold and so must be our desire to change and evolve our culture.

I truly believe that we spend far too much time at work for it not to drive personal meaning and satisfaction. Together we have the opportunity to create technology that impacts the planet.

Nothing is off the table in how we think about shifting our culture to deliver on this core strategy. Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evolve. New partnerships will be formed. Tired traditions will be questioned. Our priorities will be adjusted. New skills will be built. New ideas will be heard. New hires will be made. Processes will be simplified. And if you want to thrive at Microsoft and make a world impact, you and your team must add numerous more changes to this list that you will be enthusiastic about driving. Continue reading