Acting into organizational complexity: comparing and contrasting relational leadership and complex responsive processes of relating

At the Complexity and Management Conference 2013 our guest speaker, Ann Cunliffe, described her ideas about what she terms relational leadership, which are also set out in an article in Human Relations here. In her conference presentation and in her article Ann Cunliffe responds to what she understands as a crisis in leadership education and practice. In the news we are presented with example after example of failures of leadership which also point to an impoverished moral understanding on the part of leaders about their responsibilities, she argues. Cunliffe sets out her alternative by drawing on Bakhtin, Ricoeur, Heidegger and Shotter whom she adduces to develop her argument that leadership work is to be found in the everyday conversational activity of people trying to achieve things together. Her ideas turn on the idea of inter-subjectivity, that we are formed by others just as we form them, which she argues has implications for the way we think about our relationships. We should, she says, develop better anticipatory awareness about what matters in those relationships and the moral consequences of our responsiveness, or lack of it, to others. Responsibility arises, Cunliffe argues after Ricoeur, by recognising oneself as another.[1]

We would do so by examining our own assumptions about other people and by better understanding how these play out in our relationships with them, and by becoming more self-reflexive. Self-reflexivity for Cunliffe, unsettling notions of the self, is distinguished from reflexivity more generally, which may just involve denaturalising ideas or concepts we take for granted. Moreover, we would encourage, in her terms, open dialogue with others to encourage a polyphony of voices. I take Cunliffe to mean dialogue in the Bakhtinian sense[2], i.e. not necessarily as something either positive, or a special way of speaking, as the term has come to mean with some scholars, but as a means to explore similarities and differences. This involves an enhanced ability to be responsive and to notice and surface diversity and frame this for others. For Cunliffe being responsive to others also means acting with integrity in ways that people can count on us, as well as giving reasons for the decisions we take.

Leading others, then, involves paying attention to and being thoughtful about conversations in the living present and being guided by an orientation towards relationships in everyday settings. This is one way of leading and making sense with others amidst complexity and remoralising the practice of leadership as a practical activity, and as something which is taught in business schools. Academics also have a responsibility for they way they teach and reflect upon leadership with their students.

Thinking about what Ann said from the perspective of complex responsive processes it is clear that we share a number of things in common. Both perspectives take relationships with others seriously and have a theory of inter-subjectivity: we are not buffered, isolated individuals cognitively making sense of the world on our own, but come to know others and ourselves in our relations with them. We share an interest in the everyday and the mundane, not least because the ordinary often turns out to be extraordinary. Neither perspective is interested in what Dewey[3] termed spectator theories of knowledge, that we can come to know social reality from a privileged position outside of it. A relational perspective is interested in intensifying experience from within the experience itself. Equally, both a relational perspective and complex responsive processes would agree that reflection and reflexivity do not necessarily produce knowledge to be ‘applied’ but rather lead to insight. Both perspectives take an interest in the ethical implications of working with difference and taking the attitude of others to oneself.

There are some clear areas of difference between the two perspectives as well, which might be worth exploring in the spirit of Bakhtinian dialogue and in recognition of the otherness of others.

The first difference concerns the notion of inter-subjectivity, which from a complex responsive processes perspective is far from frictionless. It is also predicated on an understanding of power, our relative opportunities in relation to others with whom we find ourselves thoroughly interdependent. So, according to Elias, self-formation arises from both harmonious and harmful social processes, leading to what he describes as ‘rising tides of guilt and shame’ within highly social individuals[4]. In other words, the socialisation processes leaves scars and these come into play semi-automatically as our desires and aspirations collide with social reality. Our ability to become more detached about our involvement is always a struggle and is often painful, as we run up against others also struggling with their semi-automatically operating anxieties and drives. Power is at the heart of Elias’ understanding of movement social movement: the figuration between people is ‘a fluctuating, tensile equilibrium’[5] and it is the competitive struggles between people which keeps the web of interdependence in motion.

Mead expresses the same idea slightly differently in Mind, Self and Society when he refers to the conflict between the asocial and social aspects of the self (both of which are socially derived), which relate to the I/me dialectic.[6] On the one hand, he argues, we are oriented towards co-operation because of our interdependence with all other individual selves and our identification with the wider society, and which is the basis of all our ethical ideals. And on the other hand and at the same time we have asocial feelings of superiority, independence and individuality towards other individual selves, which is the basis for ethical problems in society. Mead does not make a simplistic distinction that the social aspect of the self is good and the asocial bad: the latter is the most precious part of us, he argues and it makes us who we are. However, the degree of conflict experienced by the individual is directly related to the extent to which s/he can integrate their behaviour towards others in situations where they might be members of very different, and perhaps antagonistic social groupings. The difficulty facing all of us is how to bring the asocial aspects of the self over into the social.

From both Elias and Mead we can derive the insight that the inter-subjectivity is a paradoxical process which depends on social and asocial processes, competition and co-operation, individuation and shared understanding as being as important as each other in creative/destructive social interplay. Trying to stay in relation with others, then, can be a very bruising process of mutual adaptation and compromise, as many contemporary accounts of every day organisational life will testify.

One of the central themes of organisational life from a complex responsive processes perspective is how power is exercised between competing and co-operating social selves. This will always involve negotiation, compromise, and agonistic struggle and the daily exercise of politics: we discuss, we are polite and impolite to each other, we reveal and conceal, we pull rank and delegate, we take decisions alone as well as asking others for their points of view. Politics involves, for the political philosopher Hannah Arendt[7], the proper exercise of power in public space and can lead to the greatest of human civilising achievements. When the daily political process breaks down, however, and there is no longer a potential for negotiating how we might go on together, there is the potential for violence. One of the dangers of leaving out power relations in our account of organizational life is the tendency to idealise and to assume that our intentions of acting for the good will necessarily bring about the good.

One other aspect of the inter-subjectively formed self is the role of prejudice as an important guide to action, as written about in her as-yet unpublished thesis by DMan graduate Fiona Yung, drawing on Gadamer[8]. What we pre-judge, our habits of thought, are not necessarily conscious to us without the encounter with the otherness of others precisely in the kinds of daily political engagements that I have been referring to above. There is a suggestion in Cunliffe’s work on relational leadership that we can enter into relation with others armed with an intention not to prejudge others: an alternative way of understanding this phenomenon is that it is only through our encounters with others that we become aware of our assumptions and prejudices, which may, by the way, serve us well. We realise ourselves not by recognising ourselves as another, according to Ricoeur, but by coming back to ourselves through the encounter with the other, an idea informed by Hegel and developed by Honneth[9].

Turning to Ann Cunliffe’s reflections on the importance of teaching methods which address the centrality of relationships and ethics in leadership education and the responsibility of academics, it may be time for a short consideration of what we think we are trying to do in the Doctor of Management (DMan) at the University of Hertfordshire. The DMan is group-based and encourages participants on the programme to engage with their practical problems at work. It is a community of inquiry and we are concerned with ethics as a practical discipline. The conversations we have together in small groups and large is primarily a common search about open questions, starting from things vaguely perceived and understood, trying to define both the problems and their resolution, both the questions and the answers in ways which are practically helpful and appropriate to the situations which they address. We try to work deliberatively, in Eikelen’s terms, drawing on Aristotle[10], towards the kind of theory that is aimed at greater insight about us and who we are, theoria, rather than to derive theories which are to be applied to something in nature, theoresis. We encourage people to take note of the language that we use, including acknowledging our taken-for-granted assumptions as we encounter them, which may be a process or re-remembering what we already know, or noticing how our acquired habits are hampering us in making progress. Sometimes the only way to notice is by being negated by others, and it can be a painful process as we consider our relationships of power. To a degree being a participant on the programme is an exercise in critical thinking, dealing with both the particular and the general, and noticing how conversation and experience are mutually constitutive, much as Cunliffe suggests. Being a member of the community of inquiry involves trying to pay attention to the paradoxical formation of the I in the we, of the relationship between competition and co-operation, and the creative/destructive tension arising between interdependent people.

To sum up some of the principal similarities and differences between what Ann Cunliffe calls a relational leadership perspective and complex responsive processes. Cunliffe is interested in everyday relationships which we form and are formed by through conversational activity. She is concerned to discover difference, to encourage polyphony, and to value the moral obligations which arise from our commitments to each other. In her educational work she does much to encourage her students to make note of what they take for granted and to reflect on their everyday practice by becoming ‘philosopher leaders’. She is committed to developing insights from within experience rather and an assumed position of advantage which is somehow outside of it. In these there are many points of similarity.

Where we begin to differ is in our attitude to the centrality of power and politics in every day encounters with others, the paradoxical dynamic of social and asocial aspects of the self, the co-existence of co-operation and competition which keep social relations evolving. The perspective of complex responsive processes is equally concerned about values and ethics, but would argue that a full discussion of ethics is impossible without an investigation of figurations of power, and some investigation of affect, which is often provoked strongly in organizational life. From a complex responsive processes perspective we cannot assume that we can notice our prejudices by reflecting on them, or that they necessarily inhibit us, or that paying attention to relationships necessarily leads to the good. There is no need to describe a relational ontology, which is tautologous from a Hegelian perspective: amongst thoroughly social, interdependent human beings, what other kind of leadership is possible?

From a complex responsive processes perspective a good leader or manager is someone who, through their process of socialization, has developed an enhanced ability to take the attitudes of many others to themselves. They have a capacity to act and/or to articulate this in ways which both represent and change the situation they are acting in to, both at the same time. Leaders/managers enable colleagues to recognize themselves in what is being said or done, as both leader/manager and those they work develop an enlarged understanding of what they take their community to be. This will inevitably bring about changes in the relations between people, an adjustment in the figuration of power. But there is always risk involved and an enlarged sense of community is not always for the good.


[1] Ricoeur, P. (1994) Oneself as Another, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Bakhtin MM (2002 [1981]) The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Holquist M (ed.), Emerson C and Holquist M (trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

[3] Dewey, J. (2005) The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action, New York: Kessinger Publishing.

[4] Elias, N. (2000) The Civilizing Process, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Elias, N. (1978) What Is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press, p131.

[6] Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp 323-324.

[7] Arendt, H. (1970) On Violence, New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

[8] Gadamer, H. (2004) Truth and Method, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[9] Honneth, A. (1996) The Struggle for Recongition: Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[10] Eikeland, O. (2008) The Ways of Aristotle: Aristotelian Phronesis, Aristotelian Philosophy of Dialogue and Action Research, Bern: Peter Lang.


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