Working in groups – an overview of themes from the 2017 Complexity and Management conference.

This year’s Complexity and Management conference invited delegates to think about groups. In my response to the three previous speakers, Martin Weegmann, Nick Sarra and Karina Solsø Iversen I asked delegates to consider the importance of groups against a backdrop of an increasingly individualised age, where identification with groups, whether they be communities, trades unions, social movements or other vehicles of collective identification seem increasingly difficult to maintain. This is a phenomenon remarked upon by a wide variety of sociologists in different countries, for example by Robert Putnam in the United States in his book Bowling Alone[1], and to which I drew attention in last year’s conference summing up here. Last year I talked about the way in which we are invited to become ‘entrepreneurial selves’, a trend which Foucault was one of the first to identify as an inevitable consequence of the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism[2].

Screenshot 2017-06-10 15.35.57

Although this is a very powerful way of thinking, this isn’t experienced everywhere the same as I think the two contrasting pictures of train carriages show,  no matter how strong a global trend it is.

Screenshot 2017-06-10 15.33.58

But the phenomenon which Elias in particular described, where we are invited to think of ourselves as closed off from one another is widespread and amplified by modern technology and social media. Our devices are helpful for communication but may also amplify the tendency towards a sense that we are monads: technology can increase individualising and alienating social tendencies which are already emerging, as Sherry Turkle documents in her book Alone Together[3]. It is in this context that groups and groupwork become so important.

In a previous blog promoting this year’s conference I drew attention to a meeting in my own university when senior colleagues remarked up on the increasing incidence of psychological distress amongst undergraduates. This of course is directly related to the larger number of young people studying for a degree, and for some of them it is the first time to live away from home. Nonetheless, burdened by debt and seemingly less able to communicate and work together in groups, the broader pattern of social isolation and atomisation also shows up at my own university with consequences for teaching students and managing their engagement with others. Rather than frequenting communal spaces to meet each other, undergrads are just as likely be alone in their rooms communicating with each via social media or dating apps. Meanwhile employers complain that graduates do not have the basic social skills to work in groups.

More broadly in the UK there is an emerging pattern of psychological distress amongst the young, and particularly amongst young women. A national study reported in the Guardian newspaper stated that:

  • A record 1,180 students experienced mental ill health and left uinversity courses early in 2014-15, up 210% from 2009-10.
  • 87,914 students requested counselling in 2015-16, compared with 68,614 in 2013-14, a rise of 28%.
  • Most young people asked for help because of anxiety; the numbers doing so rose by 43% over three years. There was a 39% rise in students seeking counselling for depression over the same period.[4]

Meanwhile a report from the Office of National Statistics noted the way that these rising tides of depression and anxiety are gendered:

  • A quarter of young women in the UK have suffered from anxiety and depression.
  • Young women were “significantly more likely” than their male counterparts to recognise and admit being anxious or depressed, with less than one in six young men reporting similar symptoms.
  • The study also reveals that in the four years from 2009-10 to 2013-14, the number of young people saying their mental health had “deteriorated” rose from 18% to 21%.[5]

Here are some accounts of what young people say about their mental distress at university:

  • ‘It’s hard being a modern student, everything relies on money’
  • The taxpayer is subsidizing my presence here … how can I let people down?’
  • ‘As a mature student I felt a huge amount of pressure to be successful’
  • “On results day Facebook is full of posts celebrating firsts and 2:1s, but I have never seen a post celebrating or even just admitting a 2:2.”
  • “For this modern student, there’s no room for self-exploration or indulgence; excellence has to come first.”[6]

These young people’s thinking is dominated by a sense of increased competition with other students, coupled with a pressure to succeed, which is then potentially laid bare by the confessional of social media. Students may be beset by highly abstract and idealized notions of ‘excellence’ (a theme introduced to the conference by Martin Weegmann) and success. These feelings are similar to the ones described by the young women freelance musicians I described in last year’s talk – they all felt individually responsible for whatever happens to them, and considered themselves entrepreneurs of the self[7]. In a neoliberal perspective of the world our social predicaments are thought to arise simply from our own individual choices. The journalist Barbara Ehrenreich writes about this phenomenon when she describes her experience in the American health system after she had contracted breast cancer, when a variety of health professionals told her that her condition must have arisen because of the poor choices she had made, and told her that she could choose to be positive about her subsequent health outcomes[8]. Equally, during research for another book she pretended to be unemployed and paid for a number of re-employment training programmes where she was assured that if she wanted a job badly enough, then she would find one. It was only her own attititude which got in the way of her success. [9]

This highly individualised point of view was also conveyed to me by a correspondent after I had drawn attention on the blog to the alarm my colleagues at the university were expressing about students’ inability to cope with ordinary student life. He informed me that we get exactly what we deserve: ‘Every organization has exactly the people it deserves, every university has exactly the students it deserves’.

There is a much longer discussion to have about what we might understand by individual responsibility, and I don’t doubt that we all approach the world differently, and this is partially constitutive of what happens for us. Pointing critically to Mrs Thatcher’s perspective that there is ‘no such thing as society, there are only individuals and their families’ does not at the same time deny individuality . Nonetheless, it is worth thinking about the intellectual assumptions underpinning this view of action, that we make the world from our own attitude to it, and to do so I draw on John Dewey and David Bentley and their book Knowing and the Known.[10] In it Dewey and Bentley set out three theories of action:

  • self-action,
  • inter-action,
  • trans-action

(I keep the hyphens in each of the words as Dewey and Bentley intended). The last of these, trans-action, is very close to the idea of described as transformational teleology in the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating[11].

Self-action, according to Dewey and Bentley, is a ‘pre-scientific presentation in terms of presumptively independent “actors’, “souls”, “minds”, “powers” or “forces” taken as activating events’. This kind of thinking is evident in the heroic leadership literature in organizational studies, where leaders are thought to be able to ‘create the conditions’ for any number of remarkable things to occur within organizations, even, in Frederic Laloux’s terms, a Teal mindset.[12] In organizational literature which draws on the complexity sciences the role of charismatic leaders are still invested with the power to ‘create the conditions’ where complexity is ‘unleashed’ for the good. In its extreme form it is expressed as idealism where the world only exists in our thinking about it. Positive psychology is a very good manifestation of the idea of self-action, as this video by a prominent positive psychology adherent demonstrates.

Screenshot 2017-06-12 12.48.59

In it Shawn Acher claims that only 10% of your external environment is predictive of your happiness. The other 90% is due to the way your brain processes the outside world, hence the importance of changing the way you think about the world towards positivity. So one might add ‘brain’ or ‘neuro-science’ as another magico-mystical factor in causing change ‘out there’ in addition to Aristotle’s ‘soul’. The rise of the influence of the ‘happiness industry’[13] might offer a partial explanation why jobseekers in the UK have been subjected to a form of positive psychology as coercive persuasion[14] similar to the one experienced by Ehrenreich. Here is an example of the kinds of encouragements one unemployed attendee was given on an unemployment training programme, which she recorded in a diary:

  • Go hard, or go home.
  • My only limitations are the ones I set for myself.
  • Failure is the path of least persistence.
  • Success is getting up one more time than you fall down.
  • It’s always too soon to quit.
  • Nobody ever drowned in sweat.
  • The sin isn’t falling down but staying down.
  • No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.[15]

Every social problem we have can be largely resolved with a positive state of mind.

Dewey and Bentley’s idea of inter-action, meanwhile, is equivalent to the billiards metaphor, where discrete units interact but are unchanged by the activity. The pragmatic organisational scholar Barbara Simpson notes that there are various formulations of this in the leadership literature, where it leads to thinking about fixed categories, or entities, such as leaders and followers. Agency is not just inherent in self-actors but is directed towards entities through routinized practices, or communities of practice. Simpson says: ‘the common ground in all inter-actional approaches to leadership is that entities come first, and the connections or networks which animate these entities are secondary.’[16] The sociologist Emirbayer notes that the theory of interaction underpins quantitative sociology where there is an assumption that fixed entities with variable attributes interact, in causal or actual time, to create outcomes, themselves measurable as attributes of the fixed entities.  Variable-oriented researchers employ a variety of quantitative methods to test their causal hypotheses, including multiple regression, factor analysis, and event history approaches.[17]

A good example of inter-actional thinking is to be found here:

Screenshot 2017-06-11 13.01.40

In the short promotional video the company claims to improve organisational culture, again through the application of neuroscience, by identifying eight factors which can be measured in individuals and then improved, including phenomena such as trust and openness. Their method is ‘fun, fast and engaging’ and involves sending three minute motivational videos to individual employees’ mobile phones. This is a classic example of the promise of ‘big data’, where an organisation is understood simply as an aggregation of the all of the activity of discrete individuals. The video also presents the idea that the high trust operating in one team is copiable to another, just as one would copy and paste a formula from one spreadsheet cell to another. The company supports the idea that improving the whole, the structure, means improving the discrete parts, the agents. Elias described this view of the world thus:

In other words, present forms of sociological analysis make possible the separation of interrelated things into individual components—‘variables’ or ‘factors’—without any need to consider how such separated and isolated  aspects of a comprehensive context are related to each other. At all events, the relationship appears to be an afterthought, an addition, tacked on later to intrinsically unrelated and isolated objects.[18]

To understand the third of Dewey and Bentley’s categories, trans-action, I am going to draw on the artist David Hockney refracted through Norbert Elias and SH Foulkes. The pictures take a simple idea, that of a group of card players, and then develops it over a series of canvases. Key to understanding trans-action is the idea of the game, a concept deployed by Elias, Foulkes, Mead and Bourdieu as an alternative to entity or structure.

Screenshot 2017-06-12 12.51.48Figure 1 The Card Players

In the first picture we have the perspective of the artist on a group of card-players who each have perspectives on each other and on themselves. As Mead reminds us, in order to play a game one needs to be able to imagine all parts of the game and the roles of the other players and one’s relation to them.[19]

As a way into exploring the way that agents co-operate and compete and gesture and respond to each other, Elias says of a game of chess:

“I have used a special type of game model in order to indicate that a move in the middle of the game — let us say the twentieth move in a game of chess — can no longer be explained only in terms of the plans and intentions of one or another of the two players. The interlocking of their plans and actions results in a pattern not intended and perhaps not foreseen by either of them. Yet, although not intended, this pattern and the game-process of which it forms part can, in retrospect, be clearly recognized as structured.” [20]

In other words, the game of chess/cards can only be understood in terms of the activities of all of the players and the history of theirs plays and counter-plays.

Screenshot 2017-06-12 12.53.27Figure 2 Card players no3

Hockney provokes us to think about role of the bystander, both involved and not involved in the unfolding game, who enters into the spirit of the game, and no doubt, with a view of two of the players’ hands, has an idea of what he would do in their place. In other words, he is able to take the attitude of specific others to himself and is affected by what they are doing, and may even affect them. Hockney gives us an increasingly complexified perspective: the view of the artist, the view of the players, the view of the bystander.

Contrary to the idea that culture arises from the aggregate pattern of individuals understood as individuals cut off from one another and interacting discretely, then, Elias understands society as a game of games as we each respond to the plays of myriad others:

“Imagine the interlocking of the plans and actions, not of two, but of two thousand or two million interdependent players. The ongoing process which one encounters in this case does not take place independently of individual people whose plans and actions keep it going. Yet it has a structure and demands an explanation sui generis. It cannot be explained in terms of the ‘ideas’ or the ‘actions’ of individual people.” [21]

Elias here explains that we are formed by society at the same time that we are forming it, influenced as Hockney shows us in the next painting, by our history of being together:

Screenshot 2017-06-12 12.55.00

Figure 3 The Card Players photography on dibond.

The game of three players in front is contrasted with a painting on the wall, and both are conveyed through the different media and styles, photography and painting, realism and naturalism, reminding us that we have a history of relating in different contexts. Styles of painting, being together, and what we consider to be art, evolve.

Here is how the founder of group analysis SH Foulkes thought about the analogy of game-playing in relation to group dynamics:

“Already when two people form a relationship, they create a new phenomenon, just as when two people play chess together they create a new phenomenon, namely the game of chess which they produce. When a group of people, by which for our purposes I mean a small number of persons, form intimate relationships, they create a new phenomenon, namely the total field of mental happenings between them all. In this context I have spoken of ‘transpersonal processes’, that is mental processes, which, like X-rays in the bodily sphere, go right through the individuals composing such a ‘network’.” [22]

Both Elias and Foulkes describe the phenomenon of the one and the many, how society arises from the dialectic of self and other in the Aufhebung of paradox. The process of engagement, one with another in a group, has the potential for transforming both the individual and the group. There is no standing outside the game of social life, even if we are less active: we may still participate imaginatively in what transpires and are changed by it.

On the first morning of the conference Martin Weegmann reintroduced us to Anthony Giddens’ concept of structuration theory[23] which is an attempt to grapple with the same idea, the one and the many, or as it is expressed in sociology, structure and agency. In the kind of relational sociology that both Elias and Foulkes are suggesting here, ideas of agency as separate from structure disappear. As the sociologist Emirbayer argues:

The relational point of view sees agency as inseparable from the unfolding dynamics of situations, especially from the problematic features of those situations…It entails concrete transactions within relational contexts (cultural, social structural, and social psychological) in something much like an ongoing conversation.[24]

In other words, it is impossible to conceive of ‘agents’ as somehow separate from the contexts in which they are acting: from a trans-actional point of view there are no autonomous agents on the one hand, and the social ‘structure’ they produce on the other. Nick Sarra and Karina Solsø Iversen gave us a very striking example of an episode of consultancy which had some very problematic features, just as Emirbayer describes, where actions and reactions created an evolving crisis in a group. Rather than focusing on inter-action, as Dewey describes it, where  in contemporary research one might be looking for variables of the agent or for the context, what becomes more important in trans-actional theories of action or transformational teleology in the vocabulary of complex responsive processes of relating, is understanding what is going on in terms of power, practical judgement and ethics in the midst of uncertainty.

As for the first concept, Elias reminds us that power describes the quality of interdependence between people:

“The concept of power [is] transformed from a concept of substance to a concept of relationship. At the core of changing figurations—indeed, the very hub of the figuration process—is a fluctuating, tensile equilibrium, a balance of power moving to and fro. . . . This kind of fluctuating balance of power is a structural characteristic of the flow of every figuration.”  [25]

Fluctuating power relationships are at the heart of evolving social situations, (and also produce, knowledge according to Foucault). Practical judgement is called out in response to the particular qualities of the situation in hand which demands a particular response. According to Martha Nussbaum it demands a deliberative imagination:

“Instead of ascending from particular to general, deliberative imagination links particulars without dispensing with their particularity.” [26]

I think the demand for practical judgment was very evident in Karina’s narrative about her work with a second tier management team and the crisis that her way of working provoked. Having unwittingly provoked a crisis (and from the Greek word krisis we derive the word critique) there was no other course but to stay and work through the consequences. In other words, staying in relation also involved prompting all those present to critique their taken-for-granted assumptions about what was going on and what is important.  An integral part of phronetic knowledge is this process of critique, of dealing with particulars at a specific place and time. It also involves being able to cope with uncertainty, with the anxiety of not knowing how things might unfold.

In his presentation on Saturday morning Martin Weegmann told the story of joining a group in his first psychological placement as a qualified clinical psychologist. His then boss told him that in a group there is ‘nowhere to hide’.  Later in his talk Weegmann suggested the idea of the clearing, drawing on Heiddegger, a space where wanderers in the wood can see the sky and each other. A number of delegates pointed out the importance of not idealizing the clearing, just as one should not idealize the group. In the clearing one is also vulnerable. Nonetheless,  the idea of visibility was picked up and amplified further by Nick Sarra who drew on Hannah Arendt’s concept of the public realm[27], which also has an important ethical dimension. It is in the public realm where people become visible to one another and can begin the process of deliberation and negotiation. During the weekend conference and on a number of occasions we joined together in a big group, an uncomfortable experience for some, but one where, according to Arendt, we are able to:

“…throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better or worse, who they are and what they can do.” [28]

Over the course of the weekend we talked about groups, and we experienced what it is like to face each other . In order to understand what it is we are doing together, and why this way of working might be important, we found ourselves taking a different focus, prompted by our speakers Weegmann, Sarra and Solsø Iversen. Rather than assuming a world inhabited by sometimes powerful individuals who can command the experience of others through their charisma or the power of their brains to remake the world (self-action), or inter-acting but closed agents which bounce off each other like billiard balls (inter-action), we found ourselves wrestling with Dewey and Bentley’s idea of trans-action, or transformative teleology in the terms of complex responsive processes of relating. To understand the world trans-actionally means to pay attention to power relations, practical judgement and critique, and ethical engagement with particular others at a particular time. As uncomfortable an experience as it might sometimes be, because we are also testing our ability to cope with uncertainty, we found ourselves paying attention to each other  with nowhere to hide, inviting the possibility of transforming ourselves with and through the other.


[1] Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster.

[2] Foucault, M., (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, New York: Basic Books.

[4] accessed 10/6/17.

[5] accessed 10/6/17.

[6] accessed 10/6/17.

[7] Scharff, C. (2015) The Psychic Life of Neoliberalism: Mapping the Contours of Entrepreneurial Subjectivity, Theory, Culture & Society, 0(0) 1–16.

[8] Ehrenreich, B. (2010) Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, London: Granta.

[9] Ehrenreich, B. (2010) Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low Wage America, London: Granta.

[10] Dewey, J. and Bentley, A. (1949). Knowing and the Known, Boston: Beacon Press.

[11] Stacey, R., Griffin, D. and Shaw, P. (2000) Complexity and Management: Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking?, London: Routledge.


[13] Davies,. W (2015) The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing, London: Verso.

[14] Schein, E. (1999) Empowerment, coercive persuasion and organizational learning: do they connect?, The Learning Organization, Vol. 6 Issue: 4, pp.163-172.

[15] Friedli, L. and Stearn, R. (2015) Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes, Critical Medical Humanities, 41:40–47.

[16] Simpson, B. (2016) Where’s the agency in leadership-as-practice? In Leadership as Practice, Raelin (ed), London: Routledge.

[17] Emirbayer, M. (1997) Manifesto for a Relational Sociology, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 2 Sep: pp. 281-317.

[18] Elias, N. (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press: 116.

[19] Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society from the Perspective of a Social Behaviorist, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[20] Elias, N. and Dunning, E. (1986) Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process,  Blackwell: Oxford: p52.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Foulkes, SH. (1973/1990) SH Foulkes, Selected Papers, London: Karnac Books: 224).

[23] Giddens, A. (1984) The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[24] Emirbayer, M. (1997) Manifesto for a Relational Sociology, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 2 Sep: pp. 281-317.

[25] Elias, N. (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press: 131.

[26] Nussbaum MC (1999) The discernment of perception: An Aristotelian concept of private and public rationality. In: Sherman N (ed.) Aristotle’s Ethics: Critical Essays, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 145–181.

[27] Arendt, H (1958) The Human Condition, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[28] Arendt, H. (1968) Men in Dark Times, San Diego: Harcourt Brace: viii.



3 thoughts on “Working in groups – an overview of themes from the 2017 Complexity and Management conference.

  1. gecko1000

    Reblogged this on gecko1000 and commented:
    Are we finding it harder to work in groups? And is the atomisation of society responsible for increases in mental illness? And are individuals being increasingly held responsible for the situation they find themselves in? There is something spookily Orwellian and dystopian in the examples cited from this summary of the Management and Complexity Conference.

  2. David Hurst

    “For double the vision my eyes do see,
    And a double vision is always with me:
    And twofold always. May God us keep
    From single vision and Newton’s sleep!”
    William Blake

    From an ecological (complex adaptive systems) perspective there are dual logics that spiral throughout our existence as individuals, families, communities, organizations and societies and throughout our history as a species. This spiral has grown in complexity as our cultures and our institutions have grown more complex. Like the twin arms of double helix it also coils through philosophy in general and the history of management thought in particular.

    Dual Logics

    The first and primary logic (on the left) is the existential logic of identity, purpose and meaning: Who am I (are we)? Why do I (we) matter? What’s my (our) mission? In his book After Virtue, moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre underlined the importance of such questions: “…man is in his actions and practice, as well as his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal…I can only answer the question about “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior questions, “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”…The unity of human life is the unity of a narrative quest.”

    The second, subsidiary logic (on the right) is the instrumental, utilitarian logic of consequences (cause-and-effect): What do I (we) want? How do I (we) get it? How much will it cost? What will I get in return? One of the primary means of getting anything is the use of power so the logic of consequences may well be backed up by threat: “Do this – or else.” This quantitative, transactional logic of ways and means has been the dominant logic in the Anglo-Saxon world ever since the end of World War II.

    Depending on context, either one of these logics can dominate the other, but not indefinitely. During World War II America came together out of the long hunger of the Depression into a common narrative of identity led by Franklin Roosevelt. The result was a triumph of American resources, technology and industrial genius. For two decades after the war America was the only major industrial nation whose infrastructure was intact. The emphasis was on productivity and efficiency to produce ‘more of the same’. Driven by a baby boom, the economy with its logic of consequences took over from the narrative of identity in what appeared to be the realization of the American Dream. Now, fifty years later, that narrative has collapsed; the American Dream is no more. The consumption-led economy has proved unsustainable and tribal identities have returned led by those whose communities were by-passed by general prosperity.

    Similarly during World War II, most notably during the Blitz, Britons came together into a single narrative of identity, admirably articulated by Winston Churchill. When the war ended and the context changed that narrative collapsed and class identities reasserted themselves. At times during the post-war period under leaders like Harold Macmillan (“You’ve never had it so good.”) the material logic of consequences gained the upper hand, but only for a while. Sooner or later the existential logic/s of identity reasserted themselves. As is now the case, when the logics of identity return there is not guarantee that they will take the form of a single narrative. Indeed, absent an existential threat like a war or natural disaster, it is unlikely that they will. It is much more likely that they will be fragmented. See David Brooks’ NYT column here:

    In The Secret of Our Success evolutionary anthropologist, Joe Henrich writes “Over time, history suggests that all prosocial institutions age and eventually collapse at the hands of self-interest, unless they are renewed by the dynamics of intergroup competition.”

    Looks as though the latter has arrived…time for Double Vision!

  3. yfoweb

    Reblogged this on Your Future Options and commented:
    I find the ideas of Ralph Stacey and the Chris Mowles on complexity, enlightening and thought provoking. Here they talk about the recent conference (I so wanted to attend, but not this year) and ideas about how well we work in groups. Can’t help making the connection with the comments of Dr Bruce Petty I recently tweeted about, who was also talking about relationships and how these are being impacted by modern life. These writers encourage us to look deeper than quick fixes and simple management tools, to our deeper complex selves, and how we influence each other.


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