Category Archives: Business ethics

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. Continue reading

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’.

Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference 8th June 2012

The June 2012 Complexity and Management Conference entitled: Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics now has a payment page here.

The leaflet for the conference, which includes a programme and a form for those wishing to pay by cheque can be downloaded here:  CMC June 2012 Conferencev2.

2012 Complexity and Management Conference

Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics

from 7pm on 8th June to 2.30pm on 10th June 2012

AT ROFFEY PARK MANAGEMENT INSTITUTE

(For location see Roffey Park website)

About the conference

The ninth annual Complexity and Management Conference will take place at Roffey Park starting at 7pm on Friday 8th June 2012 and ending after lunch on 10th June. This event is a very informal conference where prepared papers and presentations are minimal and serve the purpose of introducing themes for discussion amongst conference participants.  In organising this conference we seek to maximise the possibility of conversation. The purpose is to provide an opportunity for leaders, managers, consultants and academics who are interested in our work on complexity and emergence in organisations, as well as past, present and possible future participants on our MA/Doctor of Management programme, to discuss their experience and ideas with one another.

This year’s theme

The financial crisis has provoked a great deal of discussion about fairness, reward and the ethics of management. This is a welcome change from the usual focus on managerial instruments, tools and techniques which can often crowd out ethical concerns. But at the same time as the inadequacy of the way our organisations have been run has been made very stark, so has the inability to engage in ethical discussion. It is clear that leaders and managers are largely at a loss as to what to do and how to behave, and sometimes even how to begin discussing ethical questions. Everyone is feeling their way forward in the struggle over whose narrative of events predominates, and are relearning how to engage with each other in discussions of the good and the right. There are very few models which will be of any use to help navigate unique and highly uncertain times. This makes a complexity perspective, complex responsive processes of relating, particularly relevant to this theme.

In this year’s conference we will be drawing on both complexity and critical management traditions in trying to make sense of the situation we find ourselves in, particularly in relation to the theme of ethics. We are delighted to have Professor Hugh Willmott from the University of Cardiff, (Oxford Handbook of Critical Management Studies (with M. Alvesson and T. Bridgeman), Oxford University Press; Critical Management Studies: A Reader (ed. with C. Grey) Oxford University Press; Introducing Organization Behaviour and Management (ed. with D. Knights) London: Thomson) accept our invitation as  keynote speaker, who has chosen as his topic:

The Financialized Corporation: Moorings Lost and the Crises of Legitimacy

There will be parallel sessions following the keynotes, where conference participants will be able to explore themes which have struck them as being important in conversation with others. Between now and June we will be uploading posts on this site to talk to the theme and to provoke discussion in advance of the conference. Anyone wishing to put forward ideas for parallel sessions is welcome to do so.

We will be posting more details about the conference soon including how to pay.

Prophets for profits

In previous posts Ralph has been talking about the way that contemporary theories of management take for granted the idea that a manager needs tools and techniques in order to achieve organisational ‘success’. In this post I want to begin describing what I see as the appeal to the religious imagination that leaders and managers are also required to make, and which usually accompanies the more instrumental focus on grids and frameworks in many management books. At the same time as using the right managerial tools managers and leaders in today’s organisations are required to be ‘passionate’, ‘positive’, ‘inspirational’ and ‘visionary’. Managers and leaders are expected to be prophets as well as experts, preachers as well as technicians.

On the one hand there is something very important about the appeal to affect and ideals. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, collective promise-making is a very powerful way of disposing of the future as though it were the present, of beginning things anew and imagining a better world. Unfortunately very often the appeal to the religious imagination in turn becomes schematised and reduced and is understood in a highly individualised way as a ‘tool’ of management. There is a great potential for manipulation. For example, there are training courses on visionary and inspirational leadership and endless management books offering advice on the same. Currently it would be impossible to apply for a job in many fields without claiming to be ‘passionate’ about whatever the job on offer is. Although being passionate and visionary are regarded on the one hand as exceptional requirements, they are demanded routinely in everyday situations. Noble sentiments have become banal, another tool in the toolkit of aspiring managers and leaders. The proliferation of advice on how to be authentically passionate and succeed in management testifies to the fact that authenticity is difficult to fabricate – you have to practice quite hard at it. Continue reading

Continuing the discussion on complexity – guest contribution by John Tobin

The following post is by guest contributor John Tobin. John has served for many years as the CEO of a community hospital in the US. He earned a Doctor of Management at the Business School of the University of Hertforshire in 2003 and remains interested in the ongoing work of the Complexity Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and the challenges of bringing that perspective into everyday management practice in a community hospital setting.

Doug, in your first post, you touched on an issue that I find both fascinating and disconcerting, –the increasingly close ties between public officials and special interests, and the mostly unacknowledged role of public policy in creating the current financial mess, a dysfunctional health care system, and other problems.  This interconnectedness is by no means limited to business CEOs and high ranking government officials.  Anyone familiar with the political process in Washington knows that the place is actually run by platoons of bright, ambitious twentysomething congressional staffers.  The staffers become the focus of lobbyists’ attention because they know specific issues better than the Members themselves.  Many of these staffers will go on to careers as lobbyists or elsewhere in government, reinforcing those linkages.  In my home state, legislators are closely tied to the public employees’ unions (the Speaker of our House of Representatives was an organizer for the Service Employees’ International Union before being elected Speaker).  Organized labor is supposed to balance the power between workers and business owners and the professional managers who represent the owners’ interests.  In a government setting, this worthy purpose is corrupted when the workers become the managers, and no one truly represents the owners’ (taxpayers’) interests.  Getting government spending under control becomes next to impossible. Continue reading

The importance of the complexity sciences for management and leadership

I want to continue with two more postings about the deepening crisis of leadership and ethics, and thought that I would put this up first for those who might not be familiar with the how we are motivated by the complexity sciences in our research on managing, leading and organizational change at the University of Hertfordshire as opposed to others who are directly importing concepts from the complexity sciences into understanding human social interaction.  Richard Bernstein makes the point in his recent book The Pragmatic Turn that thinkers like Mead and Dewey were far ahead of their time.  We would argue with Bernstein that the time is very much now and further argue that the complexity sciences have made an important contribution to opening the way to rethinking the uniqueness of human communication and local interaction.  This is very different from those who seek universal laws of complexity which can be applied, continuing the instrumental rationalism of the currently dominant paradigm.  The natural sciences, including many of those appealing to the complexity sciences, face the challenge of rethinking their metaphysics of the laws of nature as an important key to a radical shift in how we think about ethics in the social sciences.  The following is taken in part from the preface to Ralph’s Stacey’s recent book Complexity and Organizational Reality, which works out in detail some of the main ideas we will be presenting in these blogs posts.

Most management consultants and people in organizations, including senior executives, the vast majority of textbooks, business school programs and research projects around the world, most professional management and leadership development programs in organizations, all talk about how organizations should be governed, all making the same taken-for-granted assumptions. There is a dominant discourse in which it is assumed, without much questioning, that small groups of powerful executives are able to choose the ‘direction’ that their organization will move in, realize a ‘vision’ for it, create the conditions in which its members will be innovative and entrepreneurial, and select the ‘structures’ and ‘conditions’ which will enable them to be in control and so ensure success. Continue reading

Speaking of managers and leaders being ruthless: The deepening crisis of everyday ethics in business

In this posting I would like to contribute to the discussion of making sense of the current crisis in the financial sector as it has been taken up in recent postings by Chris Mowles and Karen Norman, and especially by Ralph Stacey in his recent book Complexity and Organizational Reality: Uncertainty and the need to rethink management after the collapse of investment capitalism.  Specifically I would like to respond and add to Ralph’s argument that we need to rethink the nature of communication and social interaction if we are to get at core crisis of ethics, particularly as it has been emerging in Western thinking.

 There is great deal of horror and astonishment being expressed about the greed, ruthlessness and lack of even any pretence of professionalism in the conduct of managers and leaders in the financial community.  Chris Mowles mentions the reaction of the English Queen in his post.  This reaction is in a sense surprising since the Windsors have been key figures in the shifting political and ethical culture of English society and the London business community and must have noticed and reflected to some degree on the radical changes of the last decades which they themselves will have experienced as an important stakeholder.  Michael Lewis in his book The Big Short gives a detailed description of the almost complete lack of professionalism and ethics in the financial sector, focusing on Wall Street.  But Lewis resorts to humor and a ‘cocktail party’ air of detachment from the events, presenting in detail the moves of those who, beginning in 2007 (or earlier) saw the crisis coming and began not to call for reform or appeal to reasserting basic values, but rather to bet against the doomsday scenario they perceived as inevitable and to amass sizable fortunes for themselves and their hedge fund investors.

 The ethical crisis is grounded in the way we have formalized ethics and divorced it from everyday life.  As a consequence this reduction of ethics to universalist and principled thought before action, actors, or perhaps better players, for instance in the financial sector, feel no responsibility for negotiating the ethics of the game as it now rapidly changes, with the emergence of new communication possibilities and innovative new technologies reshaping the politics of everyday interaction.  To the contrary, one is deemed as rather stupid if not involved in gaming the system before newly emerging loopholes are discovered and perhaps brought under regulation.  But the very political leaders who would be the ones to enact reforms are now moving quickly and easily between high level ministerial positions and the activism of receiving exceedingly high remuneration by lobbying for special interests, as has become evident in the long debate over health care in USA, the current scandal in the UK labor government over former ministers racing to take up lobbying jobs, and Schröder and Fischer in Germany moving immeditately not to the tedious politics of opposition but rather to lobbying positions after their tenure in government.

 I would like to suggest that one factor in the crisis of ethics is that there is something especially about leadership which we have a hard time talking about; namely, that it is, as a matter of fact, if it could be separated from being embedded in the everyday politics in which it emerges, ethically ‘neutral’.  Many authors, in major works on leadership, speak in introductory chapters, about this, but then quickly move on to basically looking at leadership as good in itself, as a ‘simple’ ideal. But of course one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.  Gangster families also have leaders who plan, with those who recognize them as leaders, the best strategy for the survival of their organization.  Bullies work together with those who subserviently recognize them to further the aims of their organizations. We need to think about how these ethics are embedded in the everyday political negotiations in our societies if we are going to seriously take up the crisis of business ethics. Continue reading