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 to 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
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.
The 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
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 our 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.
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. It 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
Teach us to sit still.
An interview with Richard Atherton from the Being Human podcast.
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
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