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 found myself sitting among a large group of experienced managers who were being updated on the strategy process by the deputy CEO of their particular organisation. He proceeded to explain how he had gone about developing the next corporate strategy in terms which I have critiqued extensively on this site. In critiquing systemic managerialism previously I have always been anxious not to caricature, not to set up an easy straw man opponent in order to knock it down. I have been concerned that if no-one these days really proceeds to explain strategy as vision-mission-values, sets up working groups to develop organisational values to underpin the vision, and then suggests that members of staff who don’t follow the values may have to go and work elsewhere, then there is nothing really to critique.
But what I found on this occasion was a text book example, perhaps a text book still in its first edition, of what I engage with elsewhere as idealised design. Originating in cybernetic systems theory and developed in the thinking of Russell Ackoff, idealised design assumes that fomenting excitement in staff who work in an organisation towards an idealised end point, increases motivation, commitment and performance. There is very little evidence for this claim, and given how long these methods have been used in organisations with change-weary staff, it would be just as easy to make the opposite claim that such abstract idealisations are just as likely to call out cynicism, negativity and disbelief particularly in the UK. Judging from the conversation which took place later at coffee, I think the group in which I was sitting may have been strung out along the spectrum from enthusiasm at one end, to bafflement and frustration at the other. Continue reading →
Increased competition, endless tendering for contracts, cuts to service, downsizing, paying people less: these are the things that a group of directors from a not-for-profit organisation supporting vulnerable people in the community tell me they have endured during the last three or four years. Although contractors, usually local authorities or public health bodies, want greater and greater quality, they pay less and less money for it. This is what ‘efficiency’ in the provision of community-based services has come to mean. An experienced worker supporting many vulnerable people in the community with complex needs might take home £17k a year, and then might need a second job in order to earn enough money to support themselves.
So how had the directors of this particular organisation kept themselves going during the period? What did they think about the way they had been working? Continue reading →
The annual Academy of Management (AOM) conference in Montreal this year was entitled: ‘Dare to care: passion and compassion at work’. I attended a symposium which had been established to critique the idea that caring would necessarily result in the good, which was implicit in the conference title. The symposium was called ‘the dark side of caring.’
The session proved to be much more popular than the organisers had anticipated, and as people filed in the chairs filled up quickly. New arrivals started bringing additional chairs or began to sit on the floor at the back of the room, which was now quite crowded. Five minutes or so after the session was supposed to have started the chair introduced the seminar and the principal speakers, but said she was also interested in hearing about everyone who had come. She was doing this, she said, in recognition of people’s rich experience and to make the session more democratic. She invited participants to introduce themselves, which they did sequentially in a clockwise direction. However, new people filing into the room began to disrupt the introductions, and sometimes the turn-taking had to stop and go backwards to accommodate someone who had not been introduced. Sometimes a group of three people would come in at once and would be missed entirely. Continue reading →
The poet Christopher Reid has recently won the Costa Prize for literature for his collection of poem entitled The Scattering which charts the demise of his wife from the moment she received news of her terminal illness through to her dying. The poems are both tender and unblinking, witty and emotional.
In a radio interview Reid expressed his surprise that a collection of poems so personal, and so specific to the particularities of his situation and his relationship with his wife, should evoke such strong resonances with so many of his readers. Many who wrote to him mentioned the powerful experience of recognition that they had had on reading his poems despite the fact that their own experiences of death and dying will have been very different. As a successful poet this need not have surprised him, nor would it surprise anyone else who takes an interest in how patient attention to particularities may at the same time throw up general observations about human experience. Paradoxically, there are generalities in the particular, and particularities in the general. We have addressed the question of how subjectivities are formed in previous posts both in looking at the subject/object dualism as well as drawing on insights from the complexity sciences where the particular is both formed by, and is forming, the general pattern of interaction. Continue reading →
Despite the fact that the literature on strategic planning has diminished considerably in the last fifteen years or so, still most organisations do it. So argues a recent article in the Journal of Management Studies byJarzabkowski and Balogun. It has become what GH Mead would term a social object, and in terms of the social game of organisational practice lots of people do it because lots of people do it. Strategic planning still has its academic adherents, but probably the scholar who has done most to drive a stake through its heart is the Canadian academic Henry Mintzberg. With his two books The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning and Strategy Safari the second written with two colleagues, he has done more than most to call the practice into question.
Equally Ralph Stacey, from a complexity perspective, has argued that strategic planning must serve some other purpose than being a means of predicting and controlling since they so signally fail to do so in an unpredictable world. Most organisations seem to get by despite their strategic plans rather than because of them. At his most laconic Stacey has considered strategic plans to be like an organisational rain dance.
So what is going on in organisations when people are trying to plan strategically and what kind of thinking do they get caught up in? Continue reading →
Much contemporary management practice revolves around ideas of consensus, alignment and agreement. So, we are expected in organisations to ‘share values’, to agree to the vision and mission, and in some developmental organisations to ‘be the change we want to see’, after Gandhi. We are to become saints like Martin Luther King or perhaps Mandela. The overwhelming mood is positive and successful.
One way of understanding this is as an injunction to leave our ‘bad self’ at the door and only to be ‘constructive’ at work, where constructive is taken to mean not causing any ripples. When conflict does arise it should be managed. Of course, there isn’t much that can’t be managed these days: time management, diversity management, anger management and more recently talent management.
An alternative way of understanding how change comes about in organisations, rather than through the planned, rational interventions of calculating managers working with staff who are good and agree not to disagree is through the exploration of difference. However it is important not to take this up as another positive and naive inducement – “let’s encourage diversity and difference!”, as though this is an easy thing to do which can only bring about good. I have been working with a group recently where the exploration of difference has proved painful, disruptive and dangerous. Because co-participants have refused to have their differences ‘managed’ it has caused consternation and bewilderment amongst all those concerned and has begun to affect others in the programme too.
What would it mean seriously to work with difference in ways that avoid the usual dualist solutions (good difference and bad difference, constructive and destructive), or the appeal to holism, where somehow we are obliged to synthesise a new ‘whole’? Continue reading →