On Being Managed. Ethics as conflictual process.

In going about my work doing organisational consultancy for the healthcare community,I have recently been struck by increasing references to managing as some kind of self evident right as if the term itself was incontestable and represented a quasi divine ordering of things reminiscent of the feudal .

Last week I was asked by managers to engage with three separate 
situations in which this right was apparent at the outset of the conversation.

In the first I was told,

‘nobody in this day and age can say that they don’t need to be managed’.

In the second and third situations I was offered the explanation that team difficulties were caused by,

‘not being used to being managed’

and that

‘they have got away with doing their own thing for far too long’.

These explanations of extremely complex situations were all offered as total definitions and delivered with the type of increased eye contact which invited either unqualified agreement  or else the possibility that a difficulty in the relationship could occur. I was thus presented with an immediate ethical dilemma of how to speak in a situation where difference was not invited and yet it was important to explore matters in greater depth which could and did raise the interpersonal tension.

In all of the above situations the term management was being taken up as ‘making sure that things get done’ which meant not only the implementation of organisational directives but also the tacit acceptance of a particular status quo in relations of power ie the authority to initiate disciplinary process. The problem as I saw it during last week, lay in the thinness of the description of the managerial task which was often framed in a superficial manner around implementation.

What of course was not up for discussion was the protection above all of the status of the extant power relations without which (those who had something to lose might say)  chaos would ensue. The emergent  ethics of these situations are worth some consideration. What to me seemed to be at stake were not primarily the successful implementation or not of organisational policy but the maintainance of a particular attitudinal disposition towards management as a type of divine right representative of the eternal order of organisational relations.

Since roles are of course embodied, the manager may find him or herself in a struggle which can feel profoundly personal.He or she may find themselves trying to maintain the required attitudes from others that sustain the idea of and therefore the viability of, the role. Thus the stage is potentially set for an intense political drama in which acrimonious conflict is often a major theme.

In the effort needed to sustain the required attitudes,difficulties may arise through an attempt to foster a natural order through relations of dependency. The manager may be  depended upon for direction and guidance, for ‘leadership’, for largesse , approval, security and promotion. Besides rendering the role vulnerable to all the projections of the parental imago, the truly interdependent nature of workplace relations can be masked. Despite the rhetoric of consultation and engagement with difference, the preservation of managing as a natural order of things leads to bitter conflict as people use their interdependencies as opportunities  for power and leverage in the situation.’Going off sick’, allegations of bullying and harassment, constructive dismissal, working to rule, gestures of exclusion through gossip and innuendo are frequently put to use. These counterploys are not only used to subvert the idea of management but symptomatic of the feelings of alienation and resistance which arise when ideology is presented as a natural and inevitable order.

I am not here trying to inflate some idea of autonomy as an alternative natural order.Neither am I suggesting that we need to get rid of managers. Rather I am  pointing to the inevitable ethical challenges (which should require intense personal participation)that arise through managers engaging with their workforces as they negotiate these complex patterns of interdependencies.

If one just accepts this idea of management as a natural order then,I suggest, there is not much to be thought about.People should just do as they’re told and get on with what they’re paid to do. ‘I cant understand why they just cant get on with it’ is a frequent managerial lament.

However if one takes the view that there is no natural order and that we are continually and politically cocreating the social patterns we call organisations with their artefacts, buildings and technologies then the question of ethics must arise as a central and ongoing question. Central and ongoing because of the interdependency of all relations and therefore the need to attend to the nature of ones own participation and practice as we go about sharing the world with others who are like but always different from us. Therefore an ethical question in this situation might be ‘what is it that we find ourselves doing together’.

There is a tendency for groups to gain their own sense of self esteem at the expense of others and to rationalise the protection of hegemony and group resources. Managers play an important part in mitigating problems arising from these group processes in organisations but are themselves vulnerable to them as well.

The question of what people find themselves doing together is a difficult and challenging one. Many if not most people can become anxious about reflecting on their own interactions particularly in the ‘here and now’ as this draws attention to and potentially exposes the quality of their participation. Issues of power are generally taboo to discuss and rationalised away or otherwise avoided. Groups have no difficulty in talking about events elsewhere or people outside of the room but can struggle to take responsibility for and engage reflectively with  developing the movement of their ethos. This movement, in my view, requires an engagement with conflictual process in which the ethical dilemmas revolve around how conflict is engaged with and how responsibility can be developed interpersonally.

Nicholas Sarra

February 11, 2012

3 thoughts on “On Being Managed. Ethics as conflictual process.

  1. ben

    Nicholas – I imagine that your blog is very interesting, but I find the language that we, you use, difficult to penetrate, which seems a shame. One thing did pop into my head – if we are part of a social process similar to Hegel’s notion of it, one which encourages reasonable behaviour in us all (as Elias went on to talk about) – then how do we overcome what might seem ‘reasonable’ in a managerial context, in a game that imagines managing and prescribing to be very reasonable indeed? How do you communicate this paradox to managers, entangled in that very game? Is it by talking about ethics, or power, or the need to be reflective?

    Thanks for the blog though, made me think.

  2. nick sarra

    Hi Ben. Thanks. In what way do you think Hegel and Elias encouraged ‘reasonable behaviour’ ? My view is that reasonableness is a quality we negotiate (or not) together in the context of power relations. ‘Reasonable’ is a reciprocal agreement dependent upon us both agreeing that our mutual perceptions make sense to us. That our perceptions might be understood very differently by others seems obvious but in practice causes all kinds of crises in relationships.Therefore questioning the ‘reasonable’ threatens people’s sense of who they are and how they see the world and the virtual or real territories they ‘reasonably’ occupy.So I don’t personally think this is a question of ‘overcoming’ which would be to replace one idea of what is reasonable with another but more how we enter into the ethical struggle of difference with others and for this there seem no easy decontextualised solutions.There is of course always the courage to engage reflexively with one’s own practice.


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