Category Archives: shame

Tales of organisational abuse

The three-year Commission to Inquire into the Dublin Archdiocese investigated hundreds of  incidents of abuse and showed the ways in which decades of exploitation of children had been covered over by the active participation of the legal  authorities and four archbishops. Bishops, priests and religious orders in the diocese had clear knowledge of allegations and practice of abuse going back to the early 70s and there were complaints made against 28 priests, some of whom were known by the church authorities to be abusers even before they became priests. The report concludes that:

The Archdiocese was pre-occupied until the mid-1990s with maintaining secrecy, avoiding scandal, protecting the reputation of the Church and preservation of assets.

I listened in horror to radio reports by those who had been abused who either felt unable to raise their voices, or if they did raise them they were accused of trying to undermine the authority and dignity of the church and of spreading malicious rumours.People who raised their allegations  were often publically vilified.

Such an enduring tale of abuse over such a long period of time can only be sustained by people in all positions actively or passively colluding in what is going on. Every day, in small ways and in large, the way these matters were discussed and acted upon undermined or amplified those processes of abuse which were being suffered by children. It may not always have been clear what was going on as the brilliant film Doubt starring Meryl Streep illustrates so well, but there are enough accounts in the report to make it clear that this exploitation was not only known about but that people actively covered it over ‘for the good of the church’.

In much more minor ways one can experience similar abusive processes taking place in organisations. Continue reading

Rising tides of guilt and shame

In previous posts I have been reflecting on the function of guilt, shame and humiliation in organisations, and in this post I am exploring the thinking of the sociologist Norbert Elias in relation to these topics. For Elias the very structures of our personalities have arisen from the social processes which we form and are forming us at the same time, and affect is likely to arise strongly in our relationships with others as a direct result of the way our personalities are formed.

Elias has written about the civilising influence of increasing numbers of people  trying to coordinate their actions as well as compete, which has  lead to a move away from settling disputes by means of the immediate expression of affect, or even violence. Greater advantage is to be gained by increased self control. As societies developed, more and more people became more dependent on each other more of the time. The diminishing of the external threat of violence and the need for greater mutual attunement led to a change in personality structure towards an internally-generated form of self control operating both consciously and unconsciously. Increasing social interdependence can only function if the individual can control herself in her relations with others, and this is a mechanism that begins to be instilled in us as social beings from a very early age through parenting and education. It operates both self-consciously and blindly as a part of our social conditioning in ways over which we only have limited control. Continue reading

Forms of social control and shaming in organisations

The task of being a manager is not easy and there are a variety of ways of encouraging people to work in the way that you would like them to. There are both direct and indirect ways of exercising social control in organisations, and ones which have the potential for provoking strong feelings in those one is managing. Some direct ways of encouraging people to work can involve some kind of overt form of humiliation. Meanwhile indirect ways can invite conformity with a group ideal, what GH Mead termed a ‘cult value’, and potentially trigger people’s guilt, embarrassment or shame. Humiliation involves a public naming of a supposed guilty party, an overt setting apart. The invitation to conform, however, provokes at the same time the strong possibility of self-censorship through guilt or embarrassment that arises for an individual faced with potential exclusion from the group. In group situations the invitation to conform can be experienced as more or less oppressive. Continue reading

Violence in organisations

I recently submitted a book for publication and went through the usual delays while the chapters were sent out to reviewers. The reviews came back mixed, broadly two in favour, two against and one indifferent. One reviewer in particular, a declared academic teaching in a business school, had difficulty with what I was writing about and the way I was writing about it. The flavour of what I wrote can probably be gleaned from previous posts. S/he took exception to the fact that I was critical of the ubiquitous grids and frameworks that compete for space in the market place, was despairing that I was not prepared to tell managers what to do, and was scathing of the literature that I drew on, in particular philosophy and sociology. S/he deemed what I had written to be more worthy of a sociology department than a business school, and probably not even that.

One particular phrase in one of the chapters seemed to irk her/him. I had described an incident when a group I was facilitating took such exception to my encouraging them to negotiate what we might do next in the workshop that they turned on me and began to question my professionalism. What kind of a facilitator was I if I couldn’t keep to the agreed timetable and ‘deliver the outputs’ that we had agreed? There was an enormous amount of anxiety about ‘delivering the outputs’ even though we were to spend four days together and noone was quite sure what the outputs might look like at this early stage. Thereafter I felt so cowed by the experience of being ganged up upon that I spent the next three days asking my contractor on a regular basis what she wanted me to do and how she wanted me to do it. I did my job mechanistically, without any joy or imaginative engagement, but in order to complete the contract and survive. In the book I described this as a form of  organisational violence. Continue reading

Being transparent

windowIn the world of international development the concept of  ‘transparency’ is what the philosopher GH Mead called a cult value. On the one  hand, Mead said, cult values are part of our heritage and make us what we are: so our belief in fairness, for example  has played an important part of how we think of ourselves and how our society has developed. However, cult values are idealisations shorn of all constraint and describe states which we are very unlikely ever to achieve. They become cult values in Mead’s terms when there is a threat of exclusion for those who express disagreement with or dissention from the value. In the United States it is a serious charge to be thought of as being anti-business, in the UK it is a serious accusation to be thought of as cheating. So in the world of international development it would be hard to make a case against being transparent.

Predominantly transparency has been taken up as an issue between those governments and donors from the North and institutions in the South who receive money from them.  In other words, donors require those they are donating to, to be transparent with what they are doing with the money. More recently the theme of transparency has become more reflexive as staff in donor agencies have begun to think about how they can make their practices more transparent to their partner agencies in the South and those communities ultimately they aim to benefit. In general, those likely to be the least transparent are those large and powerful institutions who are making demands of transparency of others.

On the one hand there is clearly a lot to commend the idea of opening up our practices to those we work with, and for them to do so to us so that we might increase trust and the quality of our working relationship. However, to believe that this is always possible, or even desirable in all cases is to ignore the power relationships between people which constrain total openness. Equally,  day to day secrets and partial disclosures are necessary to maintain organisational life. Even with long term and trusted colleagues there are sometimes areas of the relationship which are difficult to address and it may not even be productive to do so.

I was recently supporting two teams who had been working together on a project and who had met together to discuss how this had gone. The discussion seemed to me, as a sympathetic outsider, to be very frank and open, but then found myself being drawn into side conversations by staff from one team or another about what they thought was really going on. To a certain extent this is inevitable and may even sustain the more public conversation which is taking place. It was not a way of plotting against, or decrying members of the other team, but a way of making sense of what was being said and rehearsing and testing out how open and transparent to be.

So it is between organisations, often in the South, who receive money and those who donate it. When one side is in need of money and the other side has it there is automatically a relationship of power which will condition the way that transparency is practised. There will be all kinds of situations where both sides will be wrestling with what transparency actually means in the day to day engagement: how much to say, how much to leave unsaid and how much actively to cover over. To do so is a requirement of generative relations. Those in less powerful situations have a lot more to lose by being fully transparent and are also exposed to greater humiliation and shame, particularly if the transparency is unequal.

In situations where there is an accusation of a ‘lack of transparency’ there is often a lot more going on than simple dishonesty. As an ideal transparency can only be particularlised in particular situations between particular people who will have their own evolving history of engagement. And it takes a lot more negotiation seriously to understand what might be going on.