Category Archives: politics

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XIX – Vision

Vision, the faculty or state of being able to see, the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom, is one of those grand words of contemporary leadership discourse which is nonetheless used on a daily basis. Vision is cheap, it is everywhere, and yet somehow it is still lacking.

As we find ourselves facing more periods of semi-lockdown, so we look to our leaders to find some reassurance and to guide us to a better future. There are well known psychological reasons for our amplified preoccupation with our leaders: the more uncertain we feel, the more we look for certainty from authority figures. Certainty can soothe our feelings of anxiety, even if it is misplaced or overblown. Remember President Trump’s mantra during the 2016 election: ‘there’s nobody who knows more about tax (or race, or poverty, or the economy, or whatever you want) than me’. This isn’t just narcissism, but a significant gesture of containment to the highly anxious or distressed, which in his case clearly worked well enough to get him elected. Whatever we think of Trump, he took a big enough proportion of his audience and their fears seriously. He acknowledged fears in order to promise hope.

More than 30 years of scholarship about leadership has left us with many contradictory views about what makes a good leader. It has also stimulated critical appraisal: how the leadership discourse tries to make the mundane extraordinary[1], how every grand claim for transformation carries its dark side[2], how leadership and transformation has been captured by neoliberalism as a way of masking the goals of corporate power[3]. But in the end we know a good leader when we experience one. Experiencing is different from thinking passively that vision is something a leader ‘has’, like some kind of X factor that they are born with. Optimism and charisma only take you so far. Instead we can understand leadership as a social and group activity, a relationship that involves the leader and those they lead in an evolving performance of  mutual recognition.

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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 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

Thinking without end

After the interview with Dawkins on BBC Radio 4 covered in the last post, the argument about evidence and political decision-making took further bizarre turns. The next day John Humphreys interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was asked to comment on Dawkins’ views. Latterly, two researchers were asked to comment further on the discussion. One worked at a religious research institute and the other for an organisation promoting the dissemination of science. As listeners to the BBC we were  led inexorably to think that the only alternative to a scientific perspective on Brexit and evidence, and this a reductive view of science, was to take a faith position. We believe in God or we believe in science. Both are metaphysical positions in the sense that you have to declare your faith in one or the other before engaging with a way forward. Continue reading

Pragmatic inquiry and Brexit

I listened to the eminent evolutionary biologist and New Atheist Richard Dawkins promoting his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, on the radio. He discussed the role of scientific method and evidence, particularly in relation to the Brexit vote. He began by saying that nothing so important as staying in, or leaving the EU should hinge on a binary yes/no vote. But he then went on to extol the virtues of scientific method, which in his radio interview, and in the introduction to the book, he argues should be the preeminent method for making decisions about the world, including Brexit. We should seek out the evidence, public and private, and make our decision according to that. For Dawkins, scientific method is predicated on removing prejudice and gut feeling, indeed all feelings, from rational decision-making and is as relevant to making political decision making as it is to discovering more about the natural world. The best example of a method which does this is the double blind randomised control trial, the gold standard of medical research. He declared that he didn’t want his politicians to be emotional, but rather he wanted them to make the best possible decision, rationally, and on the basis of the best possible evidence. Continue reading

Working in groups : what practical difference does it make to take complexity seriously?

Complexity and Management Conference 2017 –

2nd– 4th June: Roffey Park Management Centre

Human beings are born into groups and spend most of their working lives participating in them. Groups can be creative and improvisational, transforming who we think we are, and they may also be destructive and undermining. They hold the potential for both tendencies.

Many employers emphasise the importance of teamwork, yet employees in organizations are often managed, developed and assessed as though they were autonomous individuals.  And although many organisational mission statements include aspirations to be creative and innovative, it is a rare to attend a  meeting without a particular end in view, where participants feel able to explore the differences and difficulties that arise when they work together.

Meanwhile organizational development (OD) literature tends to idealize, and assumes that the best kind of organizations are those where staff ‘align’ with each other and learn to communicate in ways which bypass power and politics. They are offered step-wise tools and techniques to help them communicate with ‘openness and transparency’, so they can speak the truth and understand each other harmoniously. Conflict and power struggles are then topics that are avoided or ignored. The danger of the individualizing and idealizing tendencies in organisations is that they may leave employees feeling deskilled and unconfident about how to work creatively in groups.

At the 2017 Complexity and Management Conference we will discuss practical ways of working in groups, which assume that human interaction is necessarily imperfect, ambiguous and conflictual, and this contributes to the complex evolution of organizational life.

Keynote speakers this year: Dr Martin Weegmann, Dr Karina Solsø Iversen and Professor Nick Sarra

Martin Weegmann is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Group Analyst, who has specialised in substance misuse and personality disorders and is a well-known trainer. His latest books are: The World within the Group: Developing Theory for Group Analysis (Karnac, 2014) and Permission to Narrate: Explorations in Group Analysis, Psychoanalysis & Culture (Karnac 2016). He is currently working on a new edited book, Psychodynamics of Writing.

Karina Solsø Iversen is graduate of the Doctor of Management programme and an experienced consultant working in Denmark. Karina’s consultancy work is based on the practice of taking experience seriously as a way of working with leadership and organizational development. She has co-authored a Danish introductory book to the theory of complex responsive processes of relating, which has gained a lot of attention in Danish communities interested in complexity. Karina is also an external lecturer at Copenhagen Business School.

Nick Sarra is a Consultant Psychotherapist working in the NHS and a group analyst specialising in organisational consultancy,debriefing and mediation within the workforce. He works on three post graduate programmes  at the School of Psychology, Exeter University and is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hertfordshire.

Further details from c.mowles@herts.ac.uk. Booking begins early 2017.

Why appeals to nationalism involve narcissism and provoke runaway feelings, particularly towards non-members of the group – reflections on the referendum via Norbert Elias

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

Prepare for rapture – complexity and the dawning of a New Age

A friend alerted me to a website for a consultancy which claims to be offering new insights on management for a new world of work. Apologies for what sounds like, and no doubt is, a caricatured paraphrase of what I found, but here is what I think the site is saying:

We live in a networked world. There’s a lot of change. There is going to be more change and top down command and control is now an old paradigm of management. Some of this change is good, some of it isn’t, but mostly it’s good. But what we need to do is be more aware of the changes and prepare to design more change of the kind that we want. This will mean spreading power around a bit more and being alert to complexity. Leaders need to have visions and set targets to achieve them, then they coach their followers. They will need to be deeply aware and mindful. Followers need to work out how to be empowered and of service. They too will need to be deeply aware and mindful. If we all trust each other a bit more and deal better with complexity we can have more meaningful conversations. Then we’ll get the future that we want. In a more networked world we need: Knowledge. Trust. Credibility.  A focus on results. Continue reading

Groundless hope

In the recent general election in the UK in May the political discussion sometimes turned on the idea of hope. Each of the political parties was keen to convince the electorate that their particular plan for the UK, their ‘vision’, was the best recipe for hope. They each promised UK citizens a better future (although the vote may have come down to people’s perception of the least worst option). Equally, the current leadership election contest in the Labour Party which has been triggered by the party’s humiliation by the Conservatives, has provoked some jostling amongst the candidates. Each has been arguing that their particular platform offers most hope particularly to the poorest in society who have been most severely hit by government initiatives which target benefits.

To a degree you can see how politicians are caught in something of a double bind. One the one hand if they fail to set out some kind of transformative ‘vision’, a promise of hope, then no-one will follow them (even if it is as simple as ‘yes we can’, or ‘change we can believe in’). On the other hand, and because we have come to distrust politicians with their grand promises, any grand narrative is bound to be met with a sceptical response. Nonetheless, each of the candidates seems to be setting themselves the impossible task of coming up with a ‘clear vision’ for the future. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 5th-7th June 2015

Conference theme: Exploring our experience of everyday politics in organisations

How do we negotiate degrees of freedom with each other in what we can increasingly experience as regimes of disciplinary power in organisational life? How do grand schemes for whole-organisation transformation play out in every day relationships between people?

This conference will invite participants to discuss and reflect upon the every day politics of getting things done together, noticing the negotiations, compromises and improvisations which are necessary to take the next step.

Between now and then we will be posting further reflections on the topic on this the Complexity and Management blog.

The key note speakers this year are  Svend Brinkmann,  who is Professor in general psychology and qualitative methods as well as Co-director of the Center for Qualitative Studies, and Professor Patricia Shaw, co-founder of the Doctor of Management programme at UH and currently working at Schumacher College. Here is Svend’s profile page at Aalborg university http://personprofil.aau.dk/117579?lang=en and here is Patricia Shaw’s at Schumacher College: http://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/teachers/patricia-shaw .

The conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. The conference fee includes accommodation and food and will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK: http://www.roffeypark.com

The booking page on the university website will be set up in the New Year.

A more detailed agenda will follow, but the conference begins with a drinks reception @7pm on Friday 5th June and ends after lunch Sunday 7th June 2015.

Participants wishing to set up a particular themed discussion in a working group during the conference should contact Chris Mowles: c.mowles@herts.ac.uk