Category Archives: recognition

Sack your coach

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


The experience of strategy

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

Surviving in times of cuts

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

Negotiating caring at the AoM

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

Poetry, generalisability and method

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

Strategy as co-created narrative

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 by Jarzabkowski 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

The difficulty of working with difference

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.

self and otherAn 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

Power, politics and social networking

I was talking with a group of information professionals about how participants in online communities communicate and wondered what the sociologist Norbert Elias would have made of the phenomenon. Elias was particularly interested in the power relationships between people and in groups. We were discussing the similarities and differences between living in a village and being part of  virtual communities like, say, Facebook. What are the power dynamics in online communities and how will they come to shape the way we interrelate?

As far as villages are concerned, Elias and Scotson carried out a study of  Winston Parva, a fictional name for a real village in Leicestershire, UK where there were three distinct communities. There were rich professionals  living in big houses, a poorer, established community and an equivalent ‘outsider’ community in terms of class who had  more recently moved in from slums  demolished in London. The established community aspired to being more like the group of professionals and richer residents, and in doing so were keen to distinguish themselves from the recent immigrants. They talked themselves up, creating what Elias and Scotson called a heroic ‘we’ identity, at the same time as denigrating the incomers, or outsiders. They did so by means of gossip and stereotyping ascribing to the whole ‘outsider’ community characteristics of a small minority of more troublesome community members. What interested Elias was the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that this set up, and the way in which, over time, the outsiders began to talk of themselves in  self-denigrating ways. They had come to believe the derogatory things that were said of them, and to think of themselves as being ‘lesser’. Established communities are likely to try and police their own community members so that they do not undermine the social distinction which is being made between one community  and another, and are likely to be just as hostile to ‘treacherous’ same community members as they are to outsiders. The dynamic of inclusion and exclusion is one which people have to work hard at to maintain. Continue reading

The Paradox of Trust

The following post is written by Dr Iver Drabaek, who is a graduate of the doctoral progamme at the University of Hertfordshire, Complexity and Management Centre.  Based in Denmark, Iver works as a management consultant specializing in corporate integrity, fraud and corruption. Given his domain of work,  Iver has written and thought a lot about trust.

In most societies trust is thought of as a prerequisite for doing healthy business and as fundamental for good relations. It is one of those things that we would like to have more of and which – as many other “good’s” – it has long since been put into formulas in popular management books like Peter Covey’s: “The Speed of Trust: The one thing that changes everything”, or Stevenson and Barcus’: “The Relationship Advantage: Become a trusted advisor and create clients for life”. Still we know little about how trust really emerges and most of us probably have also experienced the unpleasant feeling of distrust when we are together with people we think we ought to trust because they are either close friends or relatives. Or maybe we have been taken by surprise when people who appear trustworthy are revealed to be fraudsters who have tricked people to believe in them. No doubt trust is a complicated issue. Continue reading

The experience of leadership

I was invited to facilitate a  two day retreat for a senior management team by the team leader. One of the things that exercised him was the fact that individually his colleagues were very competent, but somehow they did not work well together with him as a team. The style of his predecessor had been very different from his, in that she had a much more authoritarian way of working. She was  more comfortable dealing with people bilaterally. When the team met together as a group they had learnt to wait for her to tell them what she had decided and had got out of the habit of talking things over together. When the new team leader came into post he would ask them what they thought about something, and they would reply by asking him what he thought. They were forever waiting for him to take the lead.

The team leader decided that the best thing to do was to start the retreat by talking about leadership, and the kind of leadership that the team should be exercising, together and with others. His suggestion was that we should spend the first session defining what we meant by leadership, agreeing it, then working out what that might mean for practice. We would go on to develop a plan for the kinds of leadership we might have in place by a certain point in the future.

A constraint for me in knowing how to work with this group was the fact that they had had a session the previous year, with their last team leader, where things had broken down in the group quite quickly and someone had stormed out of the meeting. I realised that there might be quite a lot of trepidation about this meeting and how it might be run.

One of the difficulties that I had with this way of working, of agreeing the meaning of an abstract idea, then proceeding from there, is the notion that a group of people would necessarily agree, or even that it is important to do so. Is it really possible to reach a sufficient degree of understanding for the next steps of working together to be obvious? Many of us would be able to articulate idealised understandings of leadership, but how far does this enable us to lead? There are of course lots of books in train stations or airports setting out simple rules, the six steps to this, or the three ways of being. Or, of course, we could buy the books by the great captains of industry who offer us access to the secrets of leading.

How should we lead together, however, in this time and place, in this context, with each other?

I suggested an alternative. Rather than spending so much time in idealising about abstract concepts, team members would give an account to each other of the kinds of things that they are managing at the moment as a way into exploring how they were working together, and how they might go on to support each other. We would deal with questions of real time practice. By taking turns, team members would practice recognising each other as managers and leaders, and would come to understand their role in the group in doing so. We would use this method as a way of experiencing, and reflecting on how the team was leading together, rather than how they ‘should’ be leading.

I suggested this as a way of working to undermine the way we predominantly understand practice in Western organisations as thought before action. It seems a common sense approach: first we establish what it is by what we mean in abstract terms, and then this shared understanding enables us to coordinate our actions. The alternative I was offering is to understand leadership as a shared experience: reflecting on our actions and giving an account to each other of how we are leading gives us a much better grounded opportunity to come to realise what we mean by leadership. We come to know it when we experience it together. Theory arises out of practice and informs it, which in turn drives theory.