Category Archives: everyday politics

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 XI – organisational politics

Move fast and break things – this is the poster that one of the Tech Giant CEOs is supposed to have in his office. The invitation to ignore social conventions, perhaps even to avoid consulting people and talking things through, is a signature of managers in a hurry. Thinking, talking can disrupt progress and slow everything down. In UK politics we have some very vivid examples of Arendtthis attitude, when the current government prorogued parliament to prevent any more deliberation, or when they use procedures intended to facilitate anti-terror legislation to rush through changes to Education policy. Enough talk getting in the way, we need to deliver things.

So politics, the way that people living in groups make decisions, is under particular strain at the moment, and so too in organisations.

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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 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

Complexity and Management Conference 17th-19th May 2019 – booking now

This year’s Complexity and Management Conference, on 17th-19th May:  What does it mean to be critical? – complexity, reflexivity and doubt in everyday organisational life offers the opportunity for delegates to reflect on what it means to be critical and why it is important to be so in today’s organisations. On the first morning of the conference we have invited Professor Andre Spicer to help us get the discussion going. If you want to sign up for the conference and save yourself some money before the early bird deadline expires, then click here.

Here are a few ideas on the traditions of thought to which we will be contributing.

We have a strong critical tradition in western thought, starting with the ancient Greeks. However, the contemporary philosopher Julian Baggini has shown us how a variety of cultures have their own traditions of systematically thinking about the human condition, on the basis that, as Socrates put it, the life unexamined is not worth living. How might we lead a good life, what do we mean by truth, how might we guard against the fragility of goodness, as Martha Nussbaum expressed it?[1] Examining our lives in the back and forth dialectic of discussion is necessary if we are to make meaning and become fully human, but it can have its negative consequences, as it did for Socrates. Problematising, probing, judging comes with its own risks: we are unlikely to be condemned to death for corrupting Athenian youth, as he was, but simply asking questions can call out a strong reaction. Why might that be?

As Kant identified, to critique (originating in judgement, from the Greek krisis) involves imagination and daring:

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!”- that is the motto of enlightenment.[2]

Kant thought that ‘daring to know’ may require courage to take on sources of authority, so that even religion, perhaps the biggest locus of authority in his day, would need ‘to sustain the test of its free and public examination.’[3] He suggested that subjecting sources of legitimacy and authority to critical inquiry is not something to be undertaken lightly, although it is necessary if we are to liberate ourselves from ignorance. Both implicitly and explicitly, becoming critical means engaging with questions of legitimacy and power and calling into question the status quo.

But is it enough just to doubt and reason on our own and by ourselves? From a Hegelian perspective the answer is no, since Hegelians would claim that we are not just autonomous, rational individuals cognizing in the abstract, but we are socially and historically formed. More, and from a pragmatic perspective, it is not helpful to doubt everything all of the time, but we should engage first with those problems which preoccupy us.[4] To pursue inquiry from a Hegelian and pragmatic perspective means taking an interest in history. How has the phenomenon, the particular predicament we are interested in evolved over time, and what has led to what? We then try to place our  difficulties, within the larger history of social relations and their structural contradictions. This may mean drawing attention to power relationships and calling into question the legitimacy of certain ways of knowing and speaking, perhaps asking the question cui bono, who benefits? It certainly means pursuing these questions through dialectical inquiry, where an abstract notion of truth is replaced by the idea that insight arises in the back and forth or argument in a community of engaged inquirers.

And by taking part in discussion and argumentation we then find ourselves discovering that moral and political judgements in particular are plural. We might enhance our ability to see the world from perspectives other than our own. So in addition to Kant’s injunction to dare to know, we might find ourselves developing greater empathy, imagination and solidarity.

If this kind of inquiry interests you, where you engage with a committed group of peers to discuss current organisational difficulties and discover plural and complex points of view, then this year’s Complexity and Management conference 17th-19th May is the place to be. There may be no resolution to your predicaments but perhaps you will find some degree of solidarity with and from others in the complex responsive processes of relating. Dare to come!

Early bird concessions end 1st April. On Friday 17th May there is a one day introductory workshop to the ideas underpinning complex responsive processes of relating.

[1] Nussbaum, M (1986) The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] An answer to the question what is Enlightenment? 1784

[3] Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason, 1781.

[4] “We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy…Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.” CS Peirce (1992), The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings Vol 1, Bloomington: Indiana University Press: pp28-29.

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

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.

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