Going forwards, either used to mean ‘what we’ll do next’, ‘in the future’, or sometimes just as a hollow place holder meaning absolutely nothing at all, is another orientational metaphor which makes embodied sense. It belongs to the family of journey metaphors which we referred to in previous posts: we choose our ‘direction of travel’, we know where we’re going, we are determined. We’re on our way to a better future, an onwards and upwards ‘trajectory’. Nearly 15 years ago Tony Blair’s election campaign chose the tautologous slogan ‘forward, not back’ just to reinforce the point that to vote for Labour meant being in a car with no reverse gear. There is only the future: there are no regrets.
There is a particular cognitive approach to executive coaching, still in use in many organisations, which exemplifies this kind of singular future-oriented thinking. For example the GROW model is explained as follows:
Options (or Obstacles).
Will (or Way Forward).
Organisational problems are understood as the individual’s struggle to overcome particular difficulties with determination and rational analysis. And perhaps if you intend undertaking some difficult change process it is good to imply that you will push on and not falter at the first sign of mutiny, and that you know what you’re doing.
However, maybe there is more to uncover about complex experience than talking as if there is only one tense which is important, the future, and only the individual’s rationality and will to map it out. Continue reading →
Trajectory (trans meaning across, jecto meaning to throw), the curve that a body such as a planet describes in space, a path or line of development similar to the same, is a word which is frequently used in management speak. It is what Lackoff and Johnson (1980) refer to as a ‘metaphor we live by’ in the sense that it makes intuitive, cognitive and bodily sense. It’s a spatial metaphor
with an implicit understanding that we launch our project or plan, and it rises in a gentle curve of our plotting towards an end point we have preplanned. Like physicists or rocket scientists, we can steer the vessel, the organisation or the department, in a calculated way. The appeal is also to engineering science and cybernetic systems thinking.
A document I read recently outlining a strategy had the word ‘trajectory’ peppered through it a number of times and it made me wonder about what else was being communicated. The course of the trajectory was unsurprisingly ‘upwards’, towards a better, improved position for the organisation. The metaphor implies calculation and control, as well as an ability to predict in advance what ‘better’ and ‘improved’ is going to mean. It fits broadly within the ‘life as a journey’ metaphor, where we have a destination and/or a ‘direction of travel’. It also carries with it implicit inclusion/exclusion criteria. If we want to reach the same destination, the improved position, then of course we need to travel together on this trajectory and get on the same bus/train/rocket. Otherwise we might get left behind, or we might reveal ourselves to be the kind of staff members who don’t want to travel in the first place, in which case we might not belong on the team. Anyway, who would set themselves against improvement, refusing to travel to a better destination? It’s rare to find people who want to be left behind.
So the word trajectory does a lot of work. It conveys simply the idea that managers promoting the strategy are in control and can make predictions about how things will turn out: if the calculations have been done correctly, then we will definitely arrive on the moon. It is deterministic, plotting one course. The metaphor makes instinctive sense that we can’t make any changes unless ‘we know where we’re going’ and have a ‘destination’ in mind. And at the same time it arouses a degree of anxiety about being included or excluded, along with the everyday anxiety of all travellers about showing up on time, so we don’t miss the train/opportunity.
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 →
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 →