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 was reminded of the importance of anxiety and the idea of emotional contagion the other day when I sat with a group of not-for-profit trustees who were being given a presentation by an auditor from a big corporate firm of accountants. The auditor had been asked to present on his experience of auditing other not-for-profits to identify what other organisations were concerned about and how they were dealing with it. The trustees saw it as a way of ‘benchmarking’ the field so that they could be reassured that they were focusing on the right things as they undertook their roles and developed a new strategy.
What transpired in the meeting made me think about how certain ideas about leadership and management are spread partly because they have emotional valency, and thus are more likely to be taken up without being challenged. For the presentation was not just an overview of the sector but also carried a strong ideological message wrapped in an anxiety narrative. This was that adopting a particular approach to organisations and management based on an especially dominant orthodoxy is a way of belonging to an in-group in especially turbulent times. To emulate others would mean ameliorating anxiety about not keeping up, not being professional and not being alongside the people who really know. Continue reading →
I was recently invited to fill out a questionnaire for a colleague who was being assessed for a 360 degree appraisal concerning her leadership abilities, although I did not work for her organisation. I was being invited to offer an ‘outsider’s’ perspective. To the best of my knowledge this colleague does not lead a large team, although she has a very senior position. I understand this questionnaire to be a reflection of many organisations’ preoccupation with leadership and their need to quantify and assess the leadership potential of their employees, whether they are in leadership positions or not. It is part of a much wider discourse about leadership and a widely accepted supposition that it is a critical determinant of organisational success.
This particular questionnaire comprised 40 or so Likert scale questions with four discursive questions at the end asking about the colleague’s principle strengths and weaknesses. The questions divided roughly into eight main themes. Continue reading →
Over the last few years I have come across a number of examples of the way in which the current managerial preoccupation with abstractions, often expressed as policies, procedures or putatively comprehensive ‘systems‘, severely inhibits managers from discussing and dealing with important organisational events which occur right under their noses. This is not to mount a case against having policies and procedures, but is a warning about the false sense of security and comfort that can arise from talking about things in the abstract rather than paying attention to organisational experience. Continue reading →
Recent press stories about low standards in some NHS hospitals, where up to 12 hospitals have been judged inadequate by the semi-autonomous body Dr Foster’s, have once again raised questions about targets, inspection and standards. We have been treating similar themes in this blog (see below The Tyranny of Targets and Performance Measures). The discussion has become much more animated in a context where standards of hygiene and care have more than just nominal implications, but can make the difference between life and death for patients. The debate seems to swing between two poles: on the one hand, the argument goes, it is no longer enough to rely on self-assessment, since some of the failing hospitals judged themselves excellent. Therefore the right approach must be more stringent, on-the-spot inspections. This is an argument for adding to the bureaucracy of inspection. The more free-market argument is to encourage the public to vote with their feet, and to stop using hospitals that fail to meet basic standards. As consumers we are encouraged to exercise our right to ‘exit’ the service. Neither approach seems to ask what kinds of work practices allow highly trained professional staff to ignore what must be very obvious to them in terms of low standards. To what extent does the practice of government ‘naming and shaming’ and the anxiety that this evokes in top NHS managers encourage them to prevent staff pointing out the obvious for fear of jeopardising the hospital’s reputation? How possible is it to speak out in hospitals even if what one has to say is unpalatable? Neither inspection nor consumer exit deals with the ethical responsibility of staff in situ, both managers and health professionals to find ways of talking about and dealing with the difficult situations they find themselves in together.
I was working with some teachers in a school the other day when the conversation turned to inspection and evidence. The new UK school inspection regime is based much more clearly on teachers’ and managers’ assessments of how they think they are doing – they have to fill in what is called a SEF, or self-evaluation form – which is then offered to incoming inspectors as the primary basis for their inspection. According to the Department for Education, evidence has to be rigorous, has to be written down and has to demonstrate ‘impact’. The inspectors then judge not just the quality of teaching and learning in school, but also the quality of the SEF. The idea is that the inspection becomes an assessment of teachers’ ability to assess themselves in the given form of the SEF.
Since I have taken a long-term interest in encouraging reflection and reflexivity in the posts in this blog , I was interested to note my own resistance not to the idea of self-evaluation but to the way it was being put forward and the ideology of relentless improvement and scrutiny that it implies. Continue reading →
I recently undertook some work with someone whose job it was to support her senior management team put together the organisation’s next ten year strategic plan. This had resulted from an 18 month planning process which I had joined at various points along the way, having been invited to attend some of the workshops and join in the conversation. I was quite surprised to have been invited because when this colleague had originally asked me for support I had argued that I probably was not the best person to do so since I had conceptual difficulties with strategic planning, particularly 10 year plans. Nonetheless, I had been invited along partly because of my critical attitude and the grist that I might provide for such an activity. I found this a very open minded approach and was encouraged to join in. Continue reading →