So was it right that he was sacked or not?
Those of you who are not cricket fans, or not UK residents (or both) may not have heard that Kevin Pietersen, England’s best but most unpredictable and unreliable batsman, has been told that he no longer figures in the plans of those managing the England cricket team. This follows a disastrous tour of Australia where the team lost all of their matches in the annual grudge series with the Australian team known as the Ashes. (The competition is called the Ashes following England’s shock defeat to Australia in 1882, when the Sporting Times printed a mock obituary stating that English cricket had died and its ashes had been sent to Australia. Every year since then the England team has struggled to wrest them back).
What is interesting about the sacking is the soul-searching it has provoked in the press well beyond the sports pages. This is not just because sport, to bowdlerize Clausewitz, is war by other means (or if you like, and after Elias, the civilising of our aggressive instincts in highly interdependent societies), but because it appeals to our sense of identity, our ‘heroic we’. Pietersen’s sacking has provoked very strong emotion in a wide variety of people, not all of them avid cricket fans. Clearly, it’s not just about the game.
Long before theories of complexity became established in the natural sciences, the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about social development as the complex evolution of ‘blindly operating’ processes. Greater interdependence in increasingly highly differentiated societies has led to longer and longer chains of people who are functionally interdependent with others. In other words, and without drawing on complex adaptive systems models, Elias noted how we are formed by, and at the same time we are forming the social processes of which we are part. It is not adequate to ascribe social change to the actions of highly charismatic individuals, on the one hand, or to mystical descriptions of emerging ‘wholes’ realising some kind of archetypal order, on the other. Instead, he argues, society evolves through the interweaving of intentions, a patterning which simply produces more patterning. Our plans and strategies form a tissue, an intermeshing web of actions and reactions, which are very difficult to interpret and to predict. There are trends in the patterning of social relations, and these tend in a particular direction. But the direction is not always forwards, and the consequences not always good. Development, or developments, are not always positive but are likely to both create and destroy. Continue reading
In previous posts I have drawn attention to some of the enduring paradoxes of organisational life. Organisations are sites of both stability and change, innovation and habit, creativity and destruction. Even in every day activity employees are confronted with paradoxes of the individual and the group, of the ‘I’ in the ‘we’, and the need to both compete and co-operate with others to get things done. And when reorganisations happen there are likely to be both winners and losers from the changes, employees will feel both recognised and misrecognised, included and excluded from the new arrangements. The ordinary paradoxes of every day life in organisations often call out strong feelings in employees, which in turn may provoke anxiety in managers as they grapple with what they might do to alleviate the discomfort, both their own and that of the people they manage. 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
‘He who would do good to another’, wrote the poet William Blake, ‘must do so in the minute particulars’. I was reminded of this quotation when undertaking some work recently in an NGO, which, like many NGOs has an explicit moral mission, and where this mission is adduced by managers in support of various schemes of management. Such and such an initiative is being undertaken because of our commitment to be accountable to the poor and marginalised, or this particular change is needed so that we can demonstrate our accountability to our beneficiaries. As we have noted in previous posts, these broad, idealised values are very important and make us who we are. In this case there is an attempt to broaden the circle of empathy beyond the ambit of our immediate acquaintance to include the poor and excluded about whom it is easy to forget in the hurly burly of our privileged lives.
However, my suspicion is always aroused when senior managers justify certain actions with an appeal to such broad and abstract idealisations, particularly if in so doing they then end up by treating people badly in their immediate organisation. An appeal to values or a moral mission is also a form of social control. The initial moral impulse is used to justify subsequent actions which can themselves be questionable. It is good to be reminded of our commitments to what in international development is known as the majority world, but empathy and compassion towards a collective is not separable from empathy and compassion towards the people I am immediately working with, it arises out of it. It is hard to maintain a commitment to a generalisation, which is why human interest stories in the media and in charitable fundraising material makes more concrete what it is that moves us about the human experience of others like ourselves. In the philosopher GH Mead’s terms, it enables us to take the attitude of the other – we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Continue reading
I have been working for a while with some health service managers and we have been discussing the Initiativitis that they suffer which is triggered on a daily basis by senior managers, local and national politicians. Some of these are well thought through and follow causally and coherently from the last initiative, others are whimsical, unintelligent or brutal. This leads to rounds of review, organisation and re-organisation. Things never stand still. Sometimes initiatives cut across each other, sometimes it looks as though drastic service reductions are being planned.
So in order to protect patients for whom they feel responsible, and colleagues whom they are managing, this group of managers I am working with try to take up each initiative, and as they do so find they are involved in acts of political lobbying and engagement, even subversion. One might make the case that they would not be doing their jobs properly if they weren’t. They get engaged in discussions about how this or that particular service ‘improvement’ might be carried out in practice, and they begin to steer it this way and that, according to their ability to influence the managers with whom they are engaged. Their ability to influence their manager will depend a lot on the way their manager manages them. So those who have shouting bullies as managers who demand that things are done their way, pronto, there is very little wiggle room. In these cases difference might only come about through defiance or lying. With more open, democratic managers there is usually greater possibility of compromise, of hybrid outcomes which can keep the spirit of what is intended at the same time respecting the integrity of what exists already.
As peer managers they discuss together what might be best to try and achieve, but these discussions are often hidden from the more public fora in which the explicit struggle is taking place. Equally, those provoking the initiative are themselves engaged in formal and informal discussions about what they intend, what they are prepared to say publically about what they intend, and how they will dress these ideas up for more public consumption. What actually transpires will be an interweaving of all these different intentions, with the more powerful having a greater effect on the outcome than the less powerful. Equally, there will be unintended consequences, both unwanted and unexpected, for which no single group will be responsible . Their are public transcripts about what is happening alongside multiple hidden transcripts.
On what basis is it ethical to engage in acts of subversion at work? What any group of managers brings to the service that they manage is a grounded understanding of what they are responsible for, which will have arisen out of their practice over time. They will usually understand their domain of service much better than the managers who manage them: what they might lack, however, is an understanding of the broader, more abstract thinking that is behind the wider organisational initiative. So by negotiating with peer managers about what would be best to try and preserve as well as change in their particular area of operation at the same time as negotiating with more senior managers about the broader implications of what is being proposed, managers are trying to make wider organisational generalisations, abstract propositions, more particular. And in doing so they can make the difference between a poor or a better implemented initiative. Their group of peers will exercise a discipline on the discussion about what they might and might not strive for. Together they try to work out how to engage, and the quality of this discussion will be critical for informing how managers then engage with the broader political process of change.
One might make the case that in order better to bring about better grounded organisational initiatives one should actively encourage political engagement and acts of subversion. This is an idea which would run counter to the dominant way of understanding politics in organisations which would suggest that politics and conflict should be ‘managed’. Perhaps managers would have a formal and informal job descriptions. The informal job description might read as follows: X manager is required to find ways of quietly or even actively subverting the worst excesses of senior management and government initiatives so that patients and colleagues can be protected from ill-thought out policies. In order to do so the manager will engage intensely in political processes within the organisation in order to find allies to work with, and will talk through with peers how best to work in difficult circumstances. In doing so they will recognise the need to change some practices as well as the need to preserve others, continuity and change arising in paradoxical relation at the same time.