Emotions in group life – insights from political turmoil in the UK

For those readers of this blog outside the UK, and who may have a less detailed understanding of what has been happening here, contemporary British politics offers some perfect examples of individual and group behaviour at the extreme. This drama could be of great interest to organizational scholars, particularly in this exaggerated form because it gives the lie to the perspective that we are all rational, calculating individuals capable of calmly working out what is in our best interests and that of others, and that we are always in control. Rather it has been a story of manic action and reaction, no doubt accompanied by very strong feelings[1], which has mirrored a particularly bloody episode of Game of Thrones.


The whole circus has been amplified because it takes place in the public gaze and is subject to minute by minute commentary by media and social media, and is not subject to the usual smoothing over by public relations techniques which imply that everyone knows what they are doing and has a plan. In many ways the amplification is a classic example of what Anthony Giddens meant by the ‘double hermeneutic’[2] – observations, interpretations of what is unfolding get taken up by the actors themselves, and so shape as well as describe what is happening, forming and being formed. Continue reading “Emotions in group life – insights from political turmoil in the UK”

The Paradox of Consensus and Conflict in Organisational Life

Today’s dominant thought collective[i] of practitioners, consultants and academics concerned with leadership, management and other organisational matters is characterised by thought styles[ii] which, in a completely taken-for-granted way, equate success with positives, sharing, harmony and consensus. Leaders are called upon to communicate inspiring, compelling visions of desirable futures shorn of all problematic features. Followers are to be converted to sharing the vision and committing to the mission so that everyone ‘is on the same page’, ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, ‘climbing on board’, ‘on the message’ and ‘a team player’. This whole raft of idealisations is taken even further when it is accompanied by a relentless emphasis on the positive aspects of all situations. There seems to be a scarcely-concealed dread of ‘negatives’, such as conflict, and a half-expressed conviction that success can only be achieved when all share the same view, with breakdown as the consequence  of not doing this. If conflict is noticed it is immediately followed by calls for the practice of ‘conflict resolution’ or approaches which rapidly move people from anything negative to a focus on the ‘positives’. A popular example of the prescription for positive consensus is provided by Appreciative Inquiry. Proponents[iii] of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) point to how the dominant approach to leading, managing and changing organisations focuses attention on problems, deficits and dysfunctions. They argue that this approach is demoralising and ineffective in bringing about change and call, instead, for a focus on opportunities and what is working because focusing in this appreciative, positive way raises  morale and promotes generative inquiry. It is claimed that AI generates spontaneous, transformational action on the part of individuals, groups and organisations which leads to a better future. Critics[iv] of AI problematise the focus on positiveness, arguing that positive and negative feelings are intimately connected and conclude that AI is a method whose proponents show little self-reflection or evaluative critique of what they are proposing. In response, Gervase Bushe of the Segal Graduate School of Business has published a paper titles ‘Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About the Positive’.[v]  Bushe agrees that AI can become a form of repression when it suppresses dissent and focuses on the positive as a defence against the anxiety of dealing with reality. However, he then immediately goes on to say that when AI is used in appropriate ways, which he does not identify, then people do not wallow in mutual pain but tell each other uplifting stories instead, which sooth tensions and release energy. Instead of focusing on conflict, bridges are built between conflicting groups.  In his view, people who want to talk about what they do not like should not be stopped from doing so but they should not be asked to elaborate on these matters. They should be encouraged, instead, to talk about what is missing, what they want more of and what their image of their organisation ought to be. He talks about small group meetings where everyone reads the same story together. Much the same points can be made another positiveness movement called Positive Deviance which is basically an idealised form to ‘benchmarking’ and a sanitisation of ‘deviance’.

This unrelenting emphasis on the positive, on harmony and consensus functions to cover over conflict, difference and real-life attitudes towards deviants because to bring these matters out into the open is to reveal patterns of power relations,  the dynamics of identity-forming inclusion and exclusion and the ideologies sustaining current power figurations. As a consequence, public discussions of organisational life take the form of a kind of rational, positive fantasy that focuses our attention on only a small part of what we ordinarily experience in our daily organisational lives. People continue, as they always have done, to disagree and subvert what they disagree: organisational life is characterised by ongoing conflict in which, at the same time, people normally manage to achieve sufficient degrees of consensus, tolerance and cooperation to get things done together. In order to understand what we are ordinarily engaged in during the course of our daily organisational lives we need to avoid thinking in terms of a duality of consensus and conflict, where we can decide to move from the one to the other, and think instead in terms of the paradox of consensus and conflict: we engage in, we are heavily invested in, organisational games displaying the paradoxical dynamics of consensual conflict or conflictual consensus. Continue reading “The Paradox of Consensus and Conflict in Organisational Life”

An invitation from Rob Warwick for the June conference 2012

An invitation – to discuss the impact of the DMan on your practice and leadership

Douglas Board and I are two graduates of the DMan programme, graduating with our doctorates in 2010.  Since then new avenues have opened up for us both.  One joint piece of work is a book commission from Palgrave Macmillan: it is likely to be called The Social Development of Knowledge and Leadership

At this year’s CMC conference we are looking invite you to a conversation around the following: for those people who have experienced the DMan programme (current, past and even prospective) how has the deeply reflexive process changed and how does it continue to change your leadership?  Linked to this we are also interested to explore how your developing leadership has affected those whom you work and interact with.  And, what does this say about our knowledge of organisations and what we all do together in the process of organising?

It would be great to share narratives or ideas on this, even before the CMC conference is underway.  Please feel free to post your thoughts here and to get others involved, or to drop me a note directly, particularly if you would like to hear more of our ‘project’. 

I can be contacted at: robertjwarwick@gmail.com, @smilerob, www.metisexploration.com, or for a conversation at +44(0)7711 447059.

Reflexivity and experience

In previous posts discussing tools and techniques, Ralph has been drawing attention to the way in which the practice of management becomes reduced to instrumental rationality. One way of taking up insights from the complexity sciences in organisational terms is, similarly, also by using a two by two grid to decide if what you are dealing with is simple, complicated, complex or chaotic. So, simple means the domain of the known where cause and effect are well understood; complicated is the domain of the knowable, but with multiple sometimes competing components and where expert knowledge is required; complex is the domain of the unknowable where patterns are only discernible in retrospect, and chaotic is where there are no discernible patterns or order. The manager or leader should then decide which of these four quadrants they find themselves in and behave accordingly.

Aside from the difficulties arising from this loose interpretation of the complexity sciences, as usual with these matrices and frameworks it is assumed that it is the rational, autonomous, choosing manager standing outside the situation they are evaluating, who determines which quadrant s/he is in and takes the appropriate action. Under the guise of being rationally purposeful, this way of thinking appears to me to be radically subjective and splits thinking off from action, and the manager/leader off from those they manage. We have not moved very far from assumptions of predictability and control which are present in much contemporary management literature. Continue reading “Reflexivity and experience”

Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management

In this blog I hope to develop some of the points made in previous blogs on the tools and techniques of management. What is generally meant by the term ‘tools and techniques of leadership and management’ is ways of applying instrumental rationality to solve problems and control outcomes. In fact, in an ambiguous and uncertain world none of these tools and techniques can do what is claimed for them but they do constitute the techniques of disciplinary power which enable leaders and managers to control the bodies and bodily activities of
people in the organization. All of these tools and techniques take the form of rules, procedures and models. However, there is a difference between competent performance, on the one hand, and proficient, expert performance, on the other.
The difference is that following rules, procedures and models may produce competent performance, but proficient, expert performance requires moving beyond the rules, procedures and models. Management tools and techniques of
instrumental rationality may promote competence but the development of expertise is beyond them. Experts are unable to articulate the rules governing their performance because they simply do not follow rules; instead, as a consequence of long experience, they exercise practical judgment in the unique situations they find themselves in. Through experience they are able to recognize patterns, distinguishing between similarities with other situations and unique differences. The patterns they recognize are the emerging patterns of interaction that they and other people are creating. In other words, they are recognizing the emerging themes in conversation, power relations and ideology reflecting choices. The key resource any organization must rely on is surely this expert interactive capacity in the exercise of practical judgment
by leaders and managers. If we cannot identify rules, procedures and models  as ‘drivers’ of expert practical judgment, does it follow that we can say nothing about practical judgment and have to leave it as a mystery?

I do not think there is anything mysterious about the exercise of practical judgment and we can inquire into the exercise of practical judgment and explore whether it is possible to identify any ‘techniques’ of practical judgment. Continue reading “Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management”

Some thoughts on the 2011 CMC conference

I wanted to write about some of the themes  at the CMC conference this year as an invitation to further discussion, and perhaps as a way of involving others. There were a number of things which happened during the weekend which I think made a strong case for the methods being developed by the Complexity Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and the importance of paying attention to the experience of every day life.

So I was struck by a quite ordinary intervention by Iver Drabaek in the final plenary of the weekend. This was a session convened to explore what different conference participants were doing in their work and to ask whether insights drawn from the complexity sciences, or from complex responsive processes were proving helpful in what people found themselves trying to do. There had been a number of diverse observations about what was going on in the group: that the discussion didn’t seem to be leading anywhere, or that it wasn’t easy to speak into the big group, as we struggled to make sense of this particular way of meeting together. As Nick Sarra has pointed out, there often is a struggle in big group discussions, and sometimes this struggle is about avoiding the discomfort of recognising each other in this kind of context.  Iver pointed out that for him it was different. It wasn’t that he was holding back but that every time he went to speak into the group he found that he had changed his mind about what he wanted to say, depending on what the last person had said. This for me was a very good example of what we are trying to describe on the faculty at Hertfordshire when we are drawing attention to the transformative potential of everyday interaction. Iver was displaying a patient attention to everyday experience, his own experience of the group, which then raised ideas of recognition, mutual recognition, identity and ideology for me. In drawing attention to the way that he was responding, to what was going on for him in the moment and articulating it, he provoked me (without of course realising it) into recognising myself in what he was saying. I would expect that for others it called out an entirely different response, or perhaps no response at all, but in that moment I came to understand my own participation in what was going on, recognising myself in the other, differently. Continue reading “Some thoughts on the 2011 CMC conference”