I watched some of the final debate over Britain’s referendum to Remain/Leave last night and wondered at the wild clapping and cheering that greeted references to Britain’s putative ‘independence’ if we vote leave. Boris Johnson referred to this coming Friday morning as potentially Britain’s ‘independence day’. The setting was bound to amplify dynamics in a crowd of 6,000 or so people, particularly with a debate which swtiches between poles. There is no middle position here: Britain will either remain, or leave. A large, public televised space is not a forum which naturally lends itself to nuance or subtle argument. But in thinking about the intense nationalist emotion that this debate stirs up, particularly for Leavers, I was reminded of Norbert Elias’ digression on nationalism set out in the The Germans. Continue reading
I was reminded of the importance of anxiety and the idea of emotional contagion the other day when I sat with a group of not-for-profit trustees who were being given a presentation by an auditor from a big corporate firm of accountants. The auditor had been asked to present on his experience of auditing other not-for-profits to identify what other organisations were concerned about and how they were dealing with it. The trustees saw it as a way of ‘benchmarking’ the field so that they could be reassured that they were focusing on the right things as they undertook their roles and developed a new strategy.
What transpired in the meeting made me think about how certain ideas about leadership and management are spread partly because they have emotional valency, and thus are more likely to be taken up without being challenged. For the presentation was not just an overview of the sector but also carried a strong ideological message wrapped in an anxiety narrative. This was that adopting a particular approach to organisations and management based on an especially dominant orthodoxy is a way of belonging to an in-group in especially turbulent times. To emulate others would mean ameliorating anxiety about not keeping up, not being professional and not being alongside the people who really know. Continue reading
So was it right that he was sacked or not?
Those of you who are not cricket fans, or not UK residents (or both) may not have heard that Kevin Pietersen, England’s best but most unpredictable and unreliable batsman, has been told that he no longer figures in the plans of those managing the England cricket team. This follows a disastrous tour of Australia where the team lost all of their matches in the annual grudge series with the Australian team known as the Ashes. (The competition is called the Ashes following England’s shock defeat to Australia in 1882, when the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary stating that English cricket had died and its ashes had been sent to Australia. Every year since then the England team has struggled to wrest them back).
What is interesting about the sacking is the soul-searching it has provoked in the press well beyond the sports pages. This is not just because sport, to bowdlerize Clausewitz, is war by other means (or if you like, and after Elias, the civilising of our aggressive instincts in highly interdependent societies), but because it appeals to our sense of identity, our ‘heroic we’. Pietersen’s sacking has provoked very strong emotion in a wide variety of people, not all of them avid cricket fans. Clearly, it’s not just about the game.
The Wimbledon grand slam tennis event is a very good example for helping us to think about how we would account for the complex stable instability of social life. It is an event where the dynamic regularities of British social life are reproduced and potentially transformed year after year and where we have an opportunity to reflect upon the interconnectedness of individual and group behaviour. We recognise and might look forward to the event year on year, and partly because there are always differences and novelty. We are reassured by the annual improvisation on traditional themes. The recognisable patterns of tradition and the familiar arise because of a multitude of fluctuating, responsive social relationships dependent on the co-operation between very long chains of interdependent people. Meanwhile the event is predicated on competition and the disciplined channelling of intense emotional and physical drives. Continue reading
Without rules organisational life would be impossible. They enable and constrain, they set out codes of social conduct between different groups of people, often with different and potentially rival professional backgrounds, trying to get things done together. And they often codify and represent more symbolic and aspirational themes of organisational life: they declare that such and such an organisation takes itself seriously as a professional place to work, and aspires for its staff to act in civilised ways in public and within the institution. Rules may encode organisational habits, routine ways of getting things done more efficiently which have evolved over time. They are also manifestations of political struggles taking place within organisations, which may be compromises between rival positions, but at the very will least tell you something about the particular figuration of power which staff are experiencing in an organisation at any one time. Who sets the rules, why and when they set them, how they are applied, all say something about organisational politics and what GH Mead referred to as the ‘struggle over the life-process of the group’.
Organisational rules can be both explicit, implicit and perhaps hybrid, with explicit rules evolving implicit corollaries, and whether they are one or the other tells an outsider nothing about the degree to which one is obliged to conform to them. Organisational rules may be explicit but more observed in the breach, or implicit and closely followed as a means of including and excluding. In this post I will be dealing just with the more explicit variety and the way that staff take them up, contributing to the stable instability of organisations, which I have been writing about in previous posts. Continue reading
I experience a number of reactions when I talk to groups of managers about what I take to be some of the more radical insights from the complexity sciences, based on the work of the Complexity and Management Group, University of Hertfordshire. For some in the groups of managers I am working with, the analogies that I draw from the sciences of uncertainty pose a direct threat to the paradigm of predictability and control that they have accepted and are trying to practice. What I am saying can then cause severe irritation, sometimes anger, and there may be an attempt to trivialise what I am saying. This trivialisation may take the form of argument that if what I am claiming is true this would mean that anything goes in organisations, that management is not needed, or that we should just sit back and ‘let things emerge’. If the future is uncertain, then what’s the point of planning anything?
At the very least, what I draw from this is that there must be something in my exposition that they recognise, and which they find negating. Their anger or sense of having been provoked, is a way of re-establishing their particular relation to themselves and their place in the world which has been called into question. It also calls into question power relationships, which I will discuss further below.
Some others may have something akin to a conversion experience arguing that radical insights from the complexity sciences are the new truth, which must be ‘embraced’. Embracing the new truth will for some imply ‘mainstreaming’ it, which is a way of claiming that it should become the newly dominant way of talking about and framing the world. This then leads to proposals for creating tools or techniques for ‘introducing emergence’ into organisations, for modelling complexity, and for identifying and ‘seizing tipping points’. In these sorts of proposals, emergence is usually equated with something good, and ‘embracing complexity’ is a kind of shorthand for encouraging staff to be creative or innovative, where innovation again is code for ‘positive change’ or change that we think we want.
Enthusiasts for complexity can quickly fall back into the paradigm of predictability and control, where the body of ideas is understood as a way of behaving or understanding the world that is more likely to bring us what we think we know in advance will be good. Alternatively there may be disappointment that when they bring this new ‘truth’ to bear on work situations or with colleagues, somehow and inevitably the status quo reasserts itself. They may feel disappointment that this particular radically contingent way of understanding the world has encountered no traction and little recognition. In turn this may lead to questioning whether this perspective is in any way helpful or practical. Continue reading
I was recently invited to fill out a questionnaire for a colleague who was being assessed for a 360 degree appraisal concerning her leadership abilities, although I did not work for her organisation. I was being invited to offer an ‘outsider’s’ perspective. To the best of my knowledge this colleague does not lead a large team, although she has a very senior position. I understand this questionnaire to be a reflection of many organisations’ preoccupation with leadership and their need to quantify and assess the leadership potential of their employees, whether they are in leadership positions or not. It is part of a much wider discourse about leadership and a widely accepted supposition that it is a critical determinant of organisational success.
This particular questionnaire comprised 40 or so Likert scale questions with four discursive questions at the end asking about the colleague’s principle strengths and weaknesses. The questions divided roughly into eight main themes. Continue reading