Taking the perspective of the airman and the swimmer – reflections on the ethics of organisational change

In order better to understand the unique flow of social life, Norbert Elias argues, we must adopt the perspective of both the airman and the swimmer. Unlike many objects in nature which are relatively unchanging, society is riven by tensions, disruptions and explosions. ‘Decline alternates with rise, war with peace, crisis with booms’. These disruptions are driven by the interweaving activities of highly social, interdependent people like ourselves competing and co-operating to get things done. Elias argues that it is only from perspective of the airman that we are able to gain some detachment, a relatively undistorted view of the order of the long course of historical changes and the way we are forming and are formed by them. These long-term historical trends are extremely hard to resist even by very powerful coalitions of people or groups. However, there is nothing inevitable about our actions and reactions to the processes in which we find ourselves participating. But only by adopting the perspective of the swimmer, who is obliged to take action in the moment itself, is it possible to see how varied are the different pressures that are brought to bear on the particular circumstances in which find ourselves acting, in order that we might create opportunities to bring about outcomes of a different kind.

I was reminded of Elias’ thoughts on how we might make sense of the social when I came to reflect on a session that Ralph Stacey and I had recently run together. We had been invited to talk to a group of senior university managers about how they might aspire to being ‘entrepreneurial leaders’ and to explain the role that insights from the complexity sciences might play in helping them understand the new demands that would be placed on them. One of the justifications for uniting the two ideas, entrepreneurial leadership and the complexity sciences, was illustrated with the usual two-by-two grid. According to the grid, entrepreneurial leaders were operating in the top right hand quartile entitled ‘complex and uncertain’. How might entrepreneurial university leaders act in complex and uncertain environments in order to unlock the entrepreneurial talents of the staff they led?

One way of understanding the whole exercise, from the perspective of the airman, is as another example of a trend, now three decades old, where a valorisation of transformational change and the supposition that leaders have a unique role in helping to shape it has become a largely unquestioned assumption. Additionally, all institutions are assumed to operate better if they work in a more ‘business-like’ way and change their ‘business model’, whether they are actually businesses or not. This kind of vocabulary is so extensive in ordinary speech that it is very difficult to oppose or to think about the particular difficulties that different organisations face in any other way. It is often the vocabulary of first resort.

Such initiatives take place within a broader narrative of competitive anxiety, repeated over and over again by business leaders, politicians and journalists, that unless we adapt and change the dominance of the West will be superseded by the ascendant BRIC countries. Narratives about the imperative for change and the need for a different type of leadership/management are much less likely to value what we might already be doing to bring about our successes so far, and tend to be relentlessly future-oriented. Business schools, and the academics producing books and journal articles play no small part in buttressing the idea that particular new conditions require particular new responses, and that managers and leaders are a uniquely qualified cadre of individuals to help us survive the necessary transition from our current undesirable state towards some new ideal.

As part of the preparation for our own session, Ralph and I were invited to attend the prior input conducted by a forum theatre group who specialised in working with companies, so that we would be better able to speak into some of the themes that arose from it. As co-participants in the forum theatre event, both of us were obliged in the beginning to play the usual facilitators’ games which I have written about elsewhere , and which in my view are designed to bring about participant obedience.

And the way this particular company practised forum theatre was to borrow an idea from one of the participants about something that was going on for her at work, in this case having to break bad news to an employee about merging two teams, and to rehearse the playlet over and over again demonstrating different ‘behaviours’ on the part of the person playing the manager, as well as trying to elicit particular ‘behaviours’ in the person acting the member of staff. The main idea adopted by the two actors from the company was that the managers in the room could also learn to be actors and could present as being charming, convincing and empathetic towards their staff so that they would accept the bad news that they had to give them. We even spent some time trying to encourage the ‘staff member’ to be sympathetic to the manager for having to break bad news. Inherent in this way of working was the idea of linear cause and effect: a particular behaviour by the manager was bound to elicit a particular response from the managed. Additionally, the person being managed was supposed not just to accept the idea of change, even if it was to their disadvantage, but to be pleased about it. This was unthinkingly management as manipulation.

When used well forum theatre encourages a focus on experience, judgment, complexity and reflexivity. The participants do not come away with one lesson, one tool or technique, nor are they concerned to manipulate one another, but rather to find a way forward in often difficult circumstances which sometimes neither the managers nor the managed are particularly enjoying. Where good forum theatre is dialogic, this was monologic; where good forum theatre evokes richness, this was very single track. Forum theatre can often evoke a subtle ethical complexity which confronts all players in a particular situation and resonates strongly in the audience as they are called to reflect upon their own work situations and find similarities and differences.

It was clear that some of the participants felt uncomfortable, both with some of the lessons that we were supposed to be learning about how to behave, but also as the degree of manipulation became more and more refined. Nonetheless we all continued to participate, some enthusiastically, others out of politeness and from the constraint of not calling the game we were obliged to play into question. When it was possible to do so, Ralph and I beat a hasty retreat so we could ‘prepare our session.’

At the beginning of our session Ralph started by taking the perspective of the swimmer and talked about how he had experienced the previous event, as an uncomfortable lesson in manipulation. Talking about the origins of forum theatre, how one of its main proponents, Augusto Boal, had intended it to help the oppressed in Latin America better come to terms with their oppression, he noted how we had all just participated in practising it in exactly the opposite sense, as a way of oppressing others. This led into his talk about dominant, often taken-for-granted ways of speaking about management and some of the alternatives, drawing on the complexity sciences. We started a discussion about how particular ways of talking about the role of managers and leaders have come to dominate and how one strong theme of contemporary management discourse privileges change and overcoming ‘resistance’ to change. This is what we had spent the last session acting out and having reinforced for us. Luckily it was presented in such an extreme form that all of us could recognise what was going on as it was taking place, although none of us had found a way of disrupting it. We can link this directly to the daily experience of working in organisations where we are constantly called on to make judgements about how much to play the game and how much to call the game into question.

Ralph’s disclosure led to others being able to say how they, too had experienced discomfort during the previous session and enabled them to reflect on some of the difficulties they were facing in their own universities, whether these involved their facing challenges that might be linked to the theme of entrepreneurial leadership or not. Ironically, their experience of one extreme interpretation of leadership and management had allowed them to reflect upon the subtleties and nuances of their own situations in contrast. This allowed me to question with the group whether there is such a thing as entrepreneurial leadership and to explore what we think leaders and managers might be doing when they try to go on in circumstances in which they themselves feel constrained, and in which none of the options may be good ones.

The afternoon was a good example of what Norbert Elias was writing about, how longer terms social trends are hard to resist and work against. However,  if we are able to take the perspective of both the airman and the swimmer we may be able to gain greater detachment from our involvement and this may offer more opportunities for different outcomes. If we are more able to understand the historical development of processes in which we find ourselves caught up and are able additionally to pay attention to the particular pressures we face in a context, then there is no inevitability that things will necessarily continue the way they are. The experience also allowed some reflection on the ethical complexity of daily organisational life where not even the most powerful are able to act in unconstrained ways nor can they know with certainty how what they do will affect others.

10 thoughts on “Taking the perspective of the airman and the swimmer – reflections on the ethics of organisational change

  1. Chris Rodgers

    Excellent story, Chris. I can resonate strongly both with the themes you have outlined and your conclusions.

    Your choice of Elias’s airman/swimmer metaphor was interesting, though, given your/Ralph’s position on seeing immersing and abstracting (or involvement/detachment) as a paradox rather than a duality. Taking the perspective of the airman whilst immersed(!) in the swim of things presents quite a challenge.

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    It is and you are right to point this out. It’s hard to write about paradox without separating it out into a dualism because I am not sure we have the language to do otherwise. Without the ability to abstract I would not be able to write and reflect on the experience even while I am temporarily privileging the perspective of the swimmer. Thanks Chris.

  3. Toby Lindsay

    Really interesting post Chris, thank you. I hear lots being said about entrepreneurial leadership lately and have been asked to talk about entrepreneurship and my “real” experiences of it. What strikes me very clearly is that whilst in the position of “entrepreneur” in an organisation there was so much that I and others were unable to “do” or “call”.

    Having closed three business last year and with six months space and grace it is easy when asked “what would you do differently” to point at a great deal of themes and moments where it might seem now the “wrong” choice was made or not made.

    However, I suppose the luxury of that distant view was not one that I enjoyed when swimming in the ever stickier sea! Although I think if pushed and with coaches etc I could identify “issues to be addressed” however, did not really do so – or not even write this way suggests an autonomy that was not really how things “we” were in the organisation.

    What’s also clear is that set of behaviours that may now “look” wrong perhaps isn’t that different from behaviours when things went “right” – maybe? I am hoping to explore this more…

    I think its clear it would be very easy to retell the story in the context and prevailing discourse of business and management – the influence of which offers an opportunity to draw parallels where perhaps there really are none.

    Other things I was struck by in your writing were the “conditioning and manipulation” of the particular session – feels very reminiscent of some work I did with a theatre group – almost all the participants spent the evening cross and bothered about the wasted day – yet all participated and some eagerly.

    And then writing about paradox.


    I’m struck now that in responding to your post I’m really not entirely sure what I am writing about – or perhaps I sense I am writing about a number of things and the temptation to clear it all up and redraft is strong!



  4. Richard Hosking

    Not sure how to follow Toby’s comment. I was busy writing my comment, which now looks nice and neat and tidy (see below) when I read Toby’s and it brought home to me how messy everything really is. It made me realise how often my ‘neat’ ideas are brought to an abrupt halt when they encounter life’s mess. Thank you Toby.

    What does it mean to “work differently”?

    In my work as an organisational consultant, over the past few years, I’ve been thinking in terms of “how does one ‘apply’ the theory of complex responsive processes”. This, despite the fact that in conversations, Ralph Stacey and Bjorner Christenson have suggested to me that it is not something one “applies”. I think I now see what they mean. The theory of complex responsive processes as it relates to organisations tries to describe the reality of what is actually happening.

    The more appropriate question is that posed as the theme of the Oslo Complexity Conference in 2007: “What does it mean to work differently?” And this is where I have found Chris Mowles’ latest two blogs helpful, and shall be interested to see what happens as I continue to explore what it means to work differently.

    For me, at this time, the exploration means trying not to be completely caught up in the content and emotion of the conversations, but at the same time to observe and reflect on and be more open to what is happening in the room, – the conversations and the patterns – and reflect on my reflections (this will probably happen afterwards, it’s difficult enough to do the former). I found the reflexivity blog very useful in helping me to think through this. And the ‘airman and swimmer’ blog I also found very helpful. To explore the experience of myself and fellow conversationalists as ‘swimmers’ in the ‘game’ and at the same time to take the detached ‘airman’ stance. Detached involvement. None of this is easy.

    Paradoxically, the more I accept myself as a co-worker in the ‘game’, the more I seem able to have some element of detachment.

    My twin aim at present is to carry out this exploration, and also to introduce the complex responsive process concepts to interested managers/leaders.

    I think that the question: “What does it mean to work differently?” is another slant on Rob Warwick’s question (which I found very interesting): “How has the deeply reflexive process changed and how does it continue to change your leadership?”

  5. Toby Lindsay

    Cheers Chris, I sincerely hope to and cheers Richard – for your kind words re “messiness” and your interesting question “what does it mean to work differently” – a good un’ look forward to discussing further!

  6. metisexploration

    Richard and all,

    A couple of days ago I was running a workshop with Alison Donaldson (another graduate of the programme) at Cass Business School with an array of professors, medics and academics. As you might imagine I felt quite nervous about this. One way of managing this would have been to suggest lots of ‘activities’, ice breakers, times slots etc. Instead we invited one of the participants to start a conversation with her experience of an initiative that we could all relate to. At the start I suggested that we were all invited to notice themes that struck us that we could then take up. This was offered in the sense that we all had a ‘responsibility’ to each other. What Alison and I did was to offer some prompts, mainly in terms of timing and offering our own thoughts as to what we were starting to notice (including how we were working together). It was not ‘unstructured’ but it was, to use my phrase in the invitation, ‘to work differently’, particularly compared to how I used to work in order to manage my anxiety. The workshop was a success and will hopefully lead to more work and further conversations.

  7. Pingback: Wu Wei Coaching – Inner Practice « Fractal Sauna

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