Category Archives: power

A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XIII – unleashing potential

In the current Brexit debate in the UK politicians from the Conservative Party repeat certain words and phrases ad nauseam until the message is drummed home to an exasperated electorate on the expectation that they have a limited attention span: the Conservatives are the party to ‘get Brexit done’  because they want to ‘unleash Britain’s potential’. unleash potentialThe latter phrase is often also used in schools and universities about young people to describe the institutions’ plans for them, and is widely deployed in organisations undergoing some kind of transformational project. The idea of potential, a latent ability which has yet to be realised, together with the word ‘unleash’, or to release from constraint, implies enormous energy, like water behind a dam, which is somehow prevented from reaching its full expression. When the UK exits from the EU the whole of the UK’s creativity and energy will suddenly burst free of the constraints currently hemming it in and will flood the world with Britain’s greatness.

The phrase is common to the humanistic and positive psychology movements as well as neoliberal groups suspicious of government regulation or any impediment to what they see as the free functioning of the market. Shared amongst all adherents of unleashing potential is the link with confidence and optimism. And as such the phrase has all the characteristics which should pique the curiosity of critical inquirers into contemporary organisational discourse. It is future-oriented, it is positive and it is simplistic. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Navigating a polarised world – perspectives on radical difference

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

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

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

Meeting to achieve measurable outcomes

In the last post I discussed the ways in which people regulate themselves and each other in everyday life. I made the argument that without this self- and group discipline there would be no order in social life. As we have pointed out many times on this blog, après Bourdieu, Elias and Foucault,  and by drawing on analogies from the complexity sciences, power relations both enable and constrain what it is possible to do. There is, however, a general tendency in more popular management literature to suggest that somehow we can do away with or ‘transform’ power relations by being nice to each other, or by being appreciative, or by being open and transparent, or authentic. These perspectives convey the implicit idea that power is somehow unpleasant or illicit. But this is to cover over or even to miss the productive nature of power. Power produces a regimen of resistance and compliance, the exact patterning of which will always be unpredictable, but is likely to give rise to both routine as well as a degree of novelty. But to ask the question about how disciplinary power operates in social life is not simply to enquire into how ‘they’ are doing something to ‘us’ but also to probe into how we are doing things to ourselves. How we try to influence each other to organise our joint undertakings can say a lot about the kinds of pressures we are under and how we aspire to being professional. Continue reading

Tennis championships as complex responsive processes of stability and change

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.[1] 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