Here are a series of articles which illustrate the way in which business vocabulary has entered into our way of talking about ourselves and our relationships:
This is from Forbes magazine and suggests you treat yourself as a product and a brand.
This is from the Wall St Journal and shows a family who have pinned a mission statement to their fridge and have agreed targets for each other.
This is from the Daily Telegraph in the UK and advises people to treat their relationships like a business:
The advice is that you best show up for your relationship on time and stay awake in meetings. And here the progressive Guardian newspaper runs masterclasses on how to turn your personal blog into a brand: network and promote yourself. Charly Lester went on 30 dates before she was 30 then blogged about her experience, and now she can help you market your experience in the same way.
This is in addition to the panoply of words and phrases we take for granted: we want people to ‘buy in’ to the change we are proposing, having made the ‘business case’ for it, perhaps having done a cost-benefit analysis.
This blog takes an interest in complexity theory and organizing, and one of the key assumptions is the idea of the highly social self. We become selves because there are other selves, born at a particular time and in a particular place, forming and being formed by the particular groups we belong to. Our subjectivities are objectively formed, in Bourdieu’s terminology. So what kind of selves are we invited to be increasingly? How does this sense of self written about by Elias (2001) (1), experienced since the Enlightenment as more and more autonomous, internal, separate, find expression in the radically individualist tendencies of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, particularly in Europe and N America?
One of the first scholars to think about this and its relationship to the development of economic thinking was Michel Foucault. Foucault’s central intellectual project was to consider how power and discourse produce selves and regimes of truth. One of the insights which complexity thinking shares with Foucault is the idea that whatever we think of as ‘structure’, or global patterning, or the ‘system’ as people sometimes call it, arises simply and only because of how people are interacting locally, how they relate, how they talk to one another, how they practice.
In one of his last series of lectures at the College de France, Foucault (2008) (2) reflected on the development of economic thinking since the 17th C and how it impacted upon practices. He noted the way that the Austrian/German concept of Ordoliberalism, where markets are privileged but there is still a strong role for the state, transformed into neoliberalism, particularly in the United States, which still emphasized the importance of markets but developed a deep suspicion about the role of governments, the collective, placing the the autonomous, calculating individual at the heart of their thinking. Both manifestations of liberal economic thought reflect a moral position: Friedrich von Hayek and other members of the Mont Pelerin Society (which was formed to promote neoliberal ideas and also included the philosopher Karl Popper) were alarmed at the rise of both communism and fascism, which they believed were encouraged by the strong role of the state, and considered their own ideas to be a bulwark against these kinds of tyranny. They had a dread of the collective and the idea of government intervention. There is a rich literature on the development and spread of neoliberal thinking and the way that it has affected institutions, (3), (4) and (5) are examples, and scholars point to the phenomenon that now, rather than regulating markets, markets and financialized thinking have come to penetrate governments and all organizations no matter what sector of the economy they are in.
What interests me here, though, is the way that neoliberal thinking, which privileges markets and competition as the most perfect expression of human exchange, renders us subjects. Returning to Foucault, who was writing very presciently before Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan came to power, he reflected on the logical consequence of this way of thinking for human relations. Neoliberalism was about:
“…extending the economic model of supply and demand and of investment –costs – profits, so as to make it a model of social relations and of existence itself, a form of relationship of the individual to himself, to those around him, the group and the family. (2008: 242)
These economic ideas would not just affect the way the economy was run, but would come to affect the way we think of ourselves:
“The stake in all neoliberal analyses is the replacement of homo oeconomicus as partner of exchange with a homo oeconomicus as entrepreneur of himself.” (2008: 226)
The web pages I placed at the beginning of this post are examples of what Foucault had already begun to make sense of forty years ago. Just as he predicted we have become our own economic projects: we are encouraged to develop ourselves continuously, make ourselves flexible for the globalized economy, optimize and digitize ourselves with fitbits, perform to metrics and objectives we set ourselves, and claim that we are taking personal responsibility. notice, we do this to ourselves: it is not just ‘them’ who make us do it. We have personal goals just as we have performance goals at work. The political scientist Wendy Brown (3) argues that this is a way of depoliticizing the demos: if we have a scepticism about the collective then the only reason we are marginalized, poor or unsuccessful is because we haven’t taken personal responsibility and/or we have made the wrong choices. Looking for support from the collective is considered a form of dependency. This is a topic explored by the American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich in two books which look at how as cancer patient she was encouraged to stay positive and take ‘personal responsibility’ for her illness (6) and how ‘delayered’ middle managers, i.e. those made redundant, are told that their failure to find work is because they don’t want to be employed enough. Retraining for work involved her paying for endless makeovers of herself and her CV. (7)
In another exploration of the effects of thinking of oneself as an enterprise, Christina Scharff (8), a feminist scholar at King’s College London, interviewed 60 self-employed women musicians and noted how neoliberal ideas showed up in their sense of self and their predicaments. She noted how they had internalised the pressures that they experienced in finding work, were unable to notice structural inequalities such as gender bias in job selection, but rather blamed themselves for not being good enough. Meanwhile they were constantly involved in optimizing, trying to improve themselves, trying to ‘stay positive’, and blaming others for not trying as hard as they did. This is an example of how treating the self as entrepreneurial project leads to anxiety, self-doubt and insecurity. When Svend Brinkmann addressed the Complexity and Management Conference last year, he also noted, as a psychologist, the same phenomenon in Denmark, where there had been an enormous increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety. We cannot trust each other, we cannot look to the sate, we can only rely on ourselves: and yet we can never be good enough in a competitive world. In broader socio-economic terms, the German political economist Wolfgang Streeck (9) has noticed how public debts arising from spending on what might be considered public goods such as health and education, have increasingly been placed on individuals by governments of a neoliberal persuasion from the 1980s onwards. We become highly separate, anxious individuals with enormous debts, which increases the anxiety, and the stakes, for making our way in the world.
Let us consider how these ideas turn up again in organizational life, and education for managers with two very brief illustrations: coaching and the development of Business Schools.
Sam Binkley, an American sociologist, interviewed a number of life coaches to think about how neoliberalism affects our psychological life (10). He noted the way that life coaches were deeply sceptical of the talking therapies because they caused clients to dwell on their troubled pasts. He records two techniques that one life coach uses with his/her clients. One is called “A perfect world” where the client is asked to imagine how she would be different in a year’s time, how she would hold herself, what she would wear, what sort of relationships she would have, what her ‘energy’ would be. Then she needs to take the steps to achieve this in logical fashion. Scholars of strategy will note the resemblance between this and Ackoff’s idealized design strategy methodology where employees are invited to imagine an idealised future and then work backwards from there in logical steps.
Another exercise is called “I choose to’, or ‘what I need in my life right now is more…” where clients make choices and set goals for four areas of their personal life: physical, mental, career and emotional. They might choose, for example, to do more exercise in order to improve their health, or udnertake some other project of self-improvement towards their optimal self.
There is nothing wrong with people wanting to reflect on their lives, to get fitter, to change things which distress them, but in the cases that Binkley draws to our attention the emphasis is on an idealized future, the responsibility is with the individual to make good choices, and positivity is the norm. There is also the sense that the rich variety of experience gets reduced to a series of metrics and goals, and are therefore flattened in terms of their human significance. This, as Foucault warned, is the self as enterprise.
For the second example, there has been a lot written about the neoliberal university and how the values of the marketplace have come to dominate, (11) and (12) are examples. As with the project of the self, so the neoliberal university individualizes academic achievement with metrics for publishing, demands for income from research funding and expectations that even doctoral programmes will ‘wash their faces” financially. One way of thinking about the university is as the institutionalization of curiosity (13): another is that it is a place where we produce future employees with the competences to adapt constantly to the needs of the global economy. Here for example is the vision and mission statement of an anonymous business school in a university:
- Vision – Empowering students through transformational education and research
- Mission – Transforming students from learners to professionals ready to succeed in the global economy, by challenging them with teaching, learning and research that delivers tomorrow’s business ideas today
Notice the emphasis on functionality of education for producing successful professionals in an ideal future: their education is only as good as their relevance to the global economy and the ‘value’ that they bring. In contrast here is Adam Smith, one of the earliest champions of market activity, reflecting on the role of the economy in relation to other human goods:
“These are the disadvantages of a commercial spirit: the minds of men are contracted and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected, and the heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished. To remedy these defects would be an object worthy of serious attention.” Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms (14)
It seems to be taken for granted now in the UK that students are principally customers who are buying an asset to trade. It is part of their personal entrepreneurial development. This will affect their relationships in their institution, their fellow students and their teachers as education becomes commodified. As Smith once warned, there is a danger that the ‘heroic spirit’ of education is ‘utterly extinguished’.
To sum up some of the key features of the self understood as enterprise. It is one contemporary manifestation of the long term individualising process which Norbert Elias was written about extensively, coincidental with the the development of economic thought. It is now taken for granted in everyday speech and in the ways that we discipline and engage each other that economics encapsulates the individual as much as it applies to the state: indeed it applies to all aspects of human endeavour. This results in a flattened discourse about the self involving metrics, future-oriented thinking and positivity. Just as there is an aspiration within certain traditions of organizational theory that management should be a science, relying on best practices and evidence, so the self becomes a measurable project for improvement: we employ life coaches, we digitize the self, we make ourselves brands. The entrepreneurial self is likely to be an anxious self, suspicious of the collective, shy of dependency, only as good as their last project of improvement. These individualizing tendencies, as Sherry Turkle from MIT has identified (15), are amplified by technology, as we become tethered to our phones, losing the ability to engage with each other in the messy, disturbing process of staying in relation with each other. Some families Turkle interviewed, would rather send each other e-mails after a dispute than talk it through face to face.
What kind of alternatives are there for this way of thinking? And what might this mean in practice for managers working in organizations to engage with the challenges of our highly individualized times and reduced ways of thinking? How might we take complexity seriously?
In this year’s Complexity and Management Conference we had two presentations which explored the difference that taking organizatonal complexity seriously can make for the kinds of activities people undertake together. In the first, Prof Karen Norman, Prof Henry Larsen, and Mark Renshaw (together with their colleague Paula Tucker who was not present) explored an initiative to reduce falls in a hospital on the south coast, which had resulted in a significant reduction. In the second, Dr Pernille Thorup talked about how she had begun a strategy process by first engaging with her own senior management team, and how this small initiative had amplified over time to engage the whole organization, and then the organization’s clients. There isn’t space here to go into the detail of these initiatives except to say that a paper written by Norman, Larsen, Renshaw, Tucker and Mowles can be accessed here PINC 2015 – final: and a blog post on the experience of working with complexity in Denmark can be viewed here.
What I take from these two examples is the following.
Firstly, both are examples of the determination not to reduce experience, but to explore it in all its messy complexity for as long as time will allow. The appeal to metrics, best practices and quantification is also a moral argument of a kind, as Theodor Porter has noted (16). Why should we place trust in the arguments of perhaps self-interested experts, when instead we can place trust in the commensurability of numbers? Metrics, then, are an appeal to the universal, to truth. Paying attention to our experience of being together is a further exploration of the degree to which those universal ‘truths’ are relevant for what we are doing together in the here and now, as we undertake this complex social activity. We would be foolish to ignore best practice, but equally foolish to assume that it gives us everything we need in this particular circumstance, with these particular people at this particular time. Management practice is as much art as science, bringing together both the universal and the particular as paradox, involving what Aristotle termed phronesis, or practical judgement.
Secondly, in both cases set out at the conference, those caught up in trying to undertake complex activity are encouraged to think about themselves in relation to others, to become reflexive. So the question asked of nurses involved in an incident where a patient has fallen are asked: ‘what did you expect would happen’? This involves an imaginative leap, a renarrating of experience where we are actors, but so are others in our story, just as we are actors in their stories about themselves, which the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre considered involves the moral imagination (17). It encourages what the founder of group analysis S.H. Foulkes termed ‘psychological mindedness’ (18): we have a mind and so do those with whom we interact. Nurses are encouraged to ‘widen their circle of concern’ as Martha Nussbaum has put it. (19) Encouraging reflexivity, focusing on the relationship of self to other selves, makes it possible to discern our habits through the encounter with otherness. Rather than assuming, as does much contemporary management literature, that we can somehow scrutinize ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, we can learn and adopt the ‘habits of an improver’, encouraging group mindedness draws on the resource of the encounter with otherness to come more fully to understand ourselves. Foulkes expresses this eloquently about the group therapeutic context when he contemplates the effects of groups on individuals, which is like the effect of water on paper flowers:
“The individual out of the group, in isolation, is almost like such a Japanese flower before it is in water. Only in the group situation can he spread himself out, show himself as what he is, what his symptoms mean; what he can do and what one can do for him”. (1984) (20)
What Karen, Henry, Mark and Pernille are doing is not therapy, but they are drawing attention to same social process: how we only become more fully who we are in relationship with others.
Thirdly, presentations emphasize the role of narrative as central to the research method of taking complexity seriously. These might be written narratives, as Pernille has used them, or they might be theatrical plots, as used by Henry in his theatre work, where actors emplot, then replot their activities with others, exploring subtleties, nuance and how very different outcomes can arise from sometimes very small changes in interaction. There is a rich literature on narrative and its appropriateness for conveying the rich hinterland of human activity within a complex understanding of time, and here are some examples (21) (22) (23).
The fourth thing to notice about both examples presented to the conference is the way that the shadow of organizational life is made more visible. So some of the inevitable gossiping in the corridors, the rebellions in the car park are now allowable in public: occasionally we can discuss our grievances and not just feel obliged to stay positive. As a working method, taking complexity seriously tries to depathologize conflict as a requirement for making sense of who we think we are becoming and what we think we are doing. In this sense it also reestablishes organizing as a political activity and the centrality of emotions in learning to live with each other. Rather than appealing to best practice, or placing trust in numbers as a way of covering over contestation and the feelings of discomfort which are always present as we engage with each other, both examples show how important it is to grapple with what we mean by what we say, and to explore power relationships, and to pay attention to, and sometimes to discuss our feelings about what is going on. What is it that inhibits, or enables the exploration of what we are doing together? What are our differences?
The fifth thing to draw attention to is the notion of redundancy as opposed to the appeal to efficiency, the latter an everyday organizational trope which is borrowed from economics. In both presentations we see actors narrating, then renarrating, developing a theatrical plot of an incident, then replaying it, thinking about something out loud, then thinking some more. In the search for meaning there is no end to the process of inquiry. (24) I am using the concept of redundancy here from the domain of complex adaptive systems models (CAS) which rely for their evolution on agents adopting experimental and exploratory strategies which sometimes prove to be dead ends. A CAS where there is no redundancy has no future, just as a human heart which beats with perfect regularity, rather than the paradoxical motion of regular regularity, is a sick heart. Peter Allen’s CAS models of fishing fleets (25) most aptly demonstrate how strategy emerges between large boats, medium sized boats and small boats in relation to growing or dwindling stocks of fish as a series of experiments, divergent behaviours and responsiveness to other actors, none of which could be described as efficient in the economic sense.
The next thing to say about taking complexity seriously is that in example after example, and not just in the two presentations, participants in the conference talked about acting into conditions of uncertainty, then trying to make sense of it, both making sense in the moment and latterly. As the sociologist Andrew Pickering has expressed this, in practice hand often precedes head (26), and not as we have come to think of it in Western society that we have to think out and plan everything in advance before acting. Action prompts reflection and inquiry which prompts action.
And lastly, both presentations brought sharply to the fore the discussion of ethics and the impossibility of knowing in advance what a good outcome would be. Organizational activity, which involves politics, negotiation and compromise is also a discussion of what we take to be the good in any particular situation. What is at stake is our values, where we experience an enlarged sense of self. At the beginning of her presentation Karen showed us a picture of her as a young nurse having been chosen to represent all nurses in a graduation and procession in Westminster Abbey. I was struck by her angelic features and how she symbolizes all nurses (we refer to them as angels in the UK). In Mead’s terms (27) she became a social object and cult value , embodying all that is best in nursing. Similarly, one way of thinking about Paula Tucker, the nurse involved in working directly with nurses trying to reduce falls in hospital, is that she became a social object for other nurses, the embodiment of all that is best about nursing practice. She was able to provoke their moral imagination so that they could begin to renarrate their own stories in relation to their discipline and to each other.
In this blog post I have tried to identify some of the pressures that we face in contemporary society to think of ourselves as highly individualized, regarding ourselves as entrepreneurial selves cut off from other selves. It arises partly from the application of economic thinking to all areas of human life. For some this may be liberating, and as Chris Rogers pointed out in the final session, it is exactly the same social processes which produce discourses of the entrepreneurial self as produce the alternatives, such as a broad critical approach within which complex responsive processes would be located. Although I have set them out in this post as though they are separate, it would be a mistake to think that it is possible to choose one without having the other, as though we could just choose to be good and not have what Mead refers to as our asocial selves also present. (27) Perhaps, though, it is possible to bring one more into focus than the other because the danger of failing to develop alternatives is that as we become sites of continuous improvement rendering ourselves more and more fit for the market, more efficient, more optimized, as students, as academics as managers, we provoke both anxiety and depression with no resource to talk about it. It is my view that the economization of everything leads to a widespread distrust in organizations of groups, of reflection, or talking with no particular end in view, of our interdependencies. We turn instead to metrics, to the idea of best practice, to our computers and phones as ways of avoiding contestation and difference and the messy ambiguity of staying in relation with others.
The 2016 Complexity and Management Conference provided an opportunity of one set of responses to these conditions, a different vocabulary and focus, one which values the group and our interdependencies, emphasises questions of power, values and difference, and thinks of management as a practice involving the exercise of practical judgement.
(1) Elias, N. (2001) The Society of Individuals. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.
(2) Foucault, M., (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
( 3) Brown, W. (2015) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York: Zone Books.
(4) Crouch, C. (2015) The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life, Cambridge: Polity Press.
(5) Davies, W. (2014) The Limits of Neoliberalism: Authority, Sovereignty and the Logic of Competition, London: SAGE Publications.
(6) Ehrenreich, B. (2010) Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, London: Granta.
(7) Ehrenreich, B. (2010) Nickel and Dimed: Undrecover in Low Wage America, London: Granta.
(8) Scharff, C. (2015) The Psychic Life of Neoliberalism: Mapping the Contours of Entrepreneurial Subjectivity, Theory, Culture & Society, 0(0) 1–16.
(9) Streeck, W. (2014) Buying Time: the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Captialism, London: Verso.
(10) Binkley, S. (2011) Psychological Life as Enterprise: Social Practice and the Government of Neoliberal Interiority, History of the Human Sciences, 24 (3): 83-102.
(11) Parker, M. (2014) University Inc: Changing a Business School, Organization, Vol 21 (2): 281-292.
(12) Alvesson, M. and Spcier, A. (201 (Un)Conditional surrender? Why do professionals willingly comply with managerialism?, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 29 No. 1: pp. 29-45.
(13) Thanks to my colleague Prof Emma Crewe for this insight.
(14) In Meek, R. L., Raphael, D. and Stein, G. (1978) Lectures in Jurisprudence, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 538-41.
(15) Turkle, S. (2015) Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, New York: Penguin Press.
(16) Porter. T.M. (1995) Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and
Public Life, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
(17) MacIntrye, A. (1984/2013) After Virtue: a Study in Moral Theory, London: Bloomsbury: p216.
(18) Foulkes, S.H. (1964) Therapeutic Group Analysis, London: George Allen and Unwin.
(19) Nussbaum, M. (2001) The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(20) Foulkes, SH (1984) Therapeutic Group Analysis, London: Karnac. I am grateful to Jane Campbell for drawing this section of Foulkes; work to my attention.
(21) Bruner, J. (1991) The Narrative Construction of Reality, Critical Inquiry, vol 18, no1: 1-21.
(22) Ricoeur, P. (1990) Time and Narrative, vol 1, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
(23) Taylor, C. (1979) Interpretation and the Sciences of Man, in Interpretative Social Science: A Reader, (eds) Rabinow, P. and Sullivan, W. , Berkeley: University of California Press.
(24) Misak, C.J. (2004) Truth and the End of Inquiry: a Peircean Account of Truth, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(25) Allen, P. (1998) Evolving complexity in social science, in Altman, G. and Koch,
W.A. Systems: New Paradigms for the Human Sciences, Berlin: Walter de
(26) Pickering, A. (1993) The Mangle of Practice: Agency and Emergence in the Sociology of Science, American Journal of Sociology, 99(3): 559–89.
(27) Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: Chicago University Press.