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 →
I have worked with two different groups of managers over the last couple of weeks to introduce, or reintroduce them to the ideas which inform a complex responsive process perspective on organisations. This perspective, for those unfamiliar with this blog, draws by analogy on the sciences of complexity, and on social science resources to think about social complexity. The intention is to struggle with what it means to consider social order, human action, and social change as complex and non-linear.
The main conceptual pillars contributing to this perspective are insights from complex adaptive systems theory, the pragmatists, political theory and psychoanalytic traditions. It takes an interest in everyday conversation, gossip, politics and power, values and ideology, and the strong feelings provoked by processes of inclusion and exclusion in social life. But in the end the perspective is a theory of theories. It’s possible to read the same scholars and draw different conclusions, or one could stitch them together differently. But as a constantly evolving constellation of ideas it is an attempt to understand social complexity and offers an alternative to thinking that organisations are things to be manipulated by managers based on ideas of predictability and control. In the context of organisational theory there are a substantial minority of scholars who write into similar traditions noticing the complex and processual nature of human organising, although they may not draw on the complexity sciences in the same way or reach the same conclusions. The perspective of complex responsive processes is coherent and radical, but speaking generally is certainly not the only game in town.
If I had to sum up the most important aspects of the perspective for me, it is as an encouragement to think that things could be other than they are and so to pay attention differently.
I am still interested, though, by the strong reactions of groups of managers who listen to the ideas, even if they have come across them before. These reactions arise predictably and unpredictably as a pattern: it is very rare not to encounter them, but the precise way they manifest themselves are slightly different each time. Continue reading →
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.
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 Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s chief scientist Jayne Lawrence gave an interview on the BBC on Wednesday 5th November arguing that doctors needed ‘binding targets’ to reduce the over-prescription of antibiotics. Despite the fact that everyone knows we are becoming resistant to antibiotics, including and especially doctors, still the amount of antibiotics prescribed has risen rather than fallen both in the UK and across the world. It was unclear from the interview with the BBC journalist exactly how these binding targets would work – and Dr Lawrence was taxed on this very point by the interviewer. What happens when the annual target for prescribing antibiotics has been reached and yet there are more patients who need them? However, one of key her arguments was that targets help GPs keep the issue ‘in mind’.
This is a good example of what has become an accepted response to a general, population-wide problems. It has become taken for granted that the first recourse must be to set a target and preferably to make it binding. So we have the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for social development in developing countries, global emissions targets which are binding depending on whether a particular country has signed up to the Kyoto protocols or not, and a variety of targets for the NHS, Education and schools in the UK with more on the way (the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has just announced forthcoming waiting time targets for mental health patients). These are then backed up by apparatuses for scrutiny and control so that the targets can be enforced and made ‘binding’.
On this blog I have posted a variety of articles here, here and here where I have suggested that setting targets has become axiomatic in organizational contexts as a way of declaring seriousness of intent and sometimes moral purpose; as a way of exercising disciplinary control by ‘naming and shaming’, including and excluding when targets are taken up as cult values; and as an authoritarian theory of motivation (that staff in organizations will not do things unless they are forced to do them and then inspected to make sure that they really have). Continue reading →