Category Archives: Norbert Elias

Complex responsive processes – 4 pillars of thought, 5 key insights.

Before starting this post, and for those readers interested in attending the next Complexity and Management Conference, next year it will be slightly earlier: 17-19th May 2019.


This post is the theoretical introduction to the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating, which I gave in the afternoon of the one-day workshop preceding this year’s Complexity and Management Conference. It informs a whole raft of publications written and edited by Ralph Stacey, Doug Griffin, Patricia Shaw and myself along with all the theses of graduates of the Doctor of Management (DMan) programme at the University of Hertfordshire, who now number 72 (60 doctorates and 12 MAs). The perspective has also been adduced by a wide range of consultants, scholars and graduates of other programmes. I mention this at the beginning of the post because I often get asked ‘what next for complex responsive processes?’, or ‘what or who constitutes the complex responsive processes community?’ I think the question is sometimes aimed at asking who decides what the perspective of complex responsive processes is, to which the answer must be, the original authors, everyone and no one. The glorious thing about ideas is that once published, they belong to everybody, irrespective of whether they are reproduced or developed in ways in which the ‘original’ scholars would recognise. And when other people develop the ideas in their own way, then this just leads to opportunities for further discussion. This is not to suggest that as far as I am concerned ‘anything goes’. The point about having an intellectual position is that you are prepared to argue for it, whilst acknowledging the perspectives of those you argue with.

The perspective of complex responsive processes rests on four pillars of intellectual tradition: it draws on insights from the complexity sciences; it is based in Norbert Elias’ processual sociology; it takes up key ideas from pragmatic philosophy, particularly from Mead and Dewey; and it borrows from the group analytic tradition as set out by SH Foulkes, particularly in terms of the working methods which we adopt on the DMan programme. What all four have in common is that they are concerned with phenomena in a state of flux and change over time, and they are focused more or less on how global patterns arise from micro-interactions, or how micro-interactions embody global patterns. Our particular interpretation reads paradox into the working of complex adaptive systems models (CAS), just as see paradox deployed by Mead, Dewey, Elias, and to a lesser degree, Foulkes. In other words, and in the perspective of complex responsive processes you can see Heraclitan dialectic running through our interpretation of CAS, in the work of the pragmatists and Elias, which draws on Hegel, and perhaps more falteringly in Foulkes. Elias and Foulkes are also informed by the thinking of Freud. There are links, then, between the four pillars of thought which underpin the perspective. Continue reading

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

Politics, impartiality, reflexivity – reflections on the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference

I promised to write up my presentation from the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference, which was entitled Exploring our Experience of Every Day Politics in Organizations. My task was to pull out a few themes which struck me, and to respond to the keynotes of Svend Brinkmann and Patricia Shaw. This post tries to identity common threads, lacunae and opportunities for thinking arising out of what our guests said and links these to reflections on what it might mean to reflect systematically on the politics of everyday life in organisations. Continue reading

Against Common Sense: managing amid the paradoxes of everyday organisational life

The following is the text of a talk given by Chris Mowles at the University of Hertfordshire on Friday Feb 13th as part of the MBA Masterclass series.

In this talk I try to cover four things:

I address why I think there is a problem with much contemporary management theory and explain why I think it is necessary to argue against what is taken to be common sense in management.Unknown

I introduce paradox and explain its roots in philosophy and point to how it manifests itself in the complexity sciences, as an alternative to some of the simplified assumptions and dualisms in much contemporary management theory.

I give some examples of how paradox manifests itself in everyday organisational life.

And finally I suggest some implications for managers for taking paradox seriously for what they might find themselves doing at work.

Why against common sense?

I am using the title of this talk, against common sense, to make a general critique of what we might think of as the majority literature on management, but also to highlight the meaning of the word paradox, from the Greek para doxa, or against what people ordinarily hold to be true. In using the term ‘majority literature’, I am not trying to suggest that all management literature suggests the same thing, or that all business schools teach the subject uncritically (this is certainly not the case at the University of Hertfordshire and on the MBA, for example). There is a flourishing substantial minority critical tradition in management theory.

But overwhelmingly, orthodox management journals and books assume that managers are in control, can predict and design organisational futures and organisational culture, can purpose transformation and innovation. Even when the majority literature identifies contradiction or paradox as a phenomenon, it argues that managers can control this too, often suggesting that paradox can be ‘unleashed’ for the creative good of the organisation, or can be brought into dynamic balance.[i] Continue reading

On organisational culture change

There is a great deal of discussion in contemporary organisational life of the need to ‘change the culture’ in organisations. This is a way of talking that assumes that organizations do have discrete cultures and that they are manipulable, although the discourse can have it both ways with the term: on the one hand culture is known to be symbolic, intangible and abstract, on the other it can be the object of conscious and rational redesign and reframing. A good example of this way of talking about organisational culture can be found in the 4th edition of the eminent management scholar Edgar Schein’s book Organizational Culture and Leadership[1].

Usually a prime role is assumed for leaders or senior managers in making the changes to organizational culture because they are considered to have the necessary abilities and skills to diagnose what is wrong with the current culture and to design a better one: one which fits better with the environment. Schein states this very explicitly in his book: ‘In this sense culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved and ultimately manipulated by leaders’ (2010: 3).  As a result of their leaders’ efforts, employees will be obliged to commit to a fresh set of values, or reaffirm an existing set which are thought to have become moribund, as well as demonstrating a suite of required ‘behaviours’ or new procedures. The new values and procedures are then set ‘at the heart of everything we do’, are vigorously communicated and disseminated and form the basis of widespread training programmes for staff, and are then subject to regimes of inspection and performance management. Such change programmes can consume weeks and months of organizational time and resources.

The whole process is a good demonstration of the systemic assumptions behind organizational realignment: values, behaviour, systems, procedures, training, communication and quality regimes are all supposed to line up and fit over each other and form a coherent whole. The emphasis is on integration, stability and alignment. It is a huge reduction of the complexity of what is at stake when attempting organisational change.

A book recently published calling for radical change in the NHS is a refreshing attempt to explain why ‘culture change’ in organisations is likely to be highly problematic. [2] Instead of assuming that whatever we might mean by the term culture is contained within one organisation, even one as big as the NHS, Ballatt and Campling, an ex-senior manager and psychotherapist within the NHS, explain why the institution reflects much wider conflictual social processes, as well as provoking profound questions about what it means to be human. That is, they try to bring together society-wide trends in social patterning in the UK and beyond in terms of their impact on changes in the NHS, and they wrestle with the profound human difficulties and dilemmas involved in professionalising the often spontaneous and improvisational human response of caring towards another human being in need. Though written specifically about the NHS, I think the book also raises important questions for anyone thinking about what is involved in processes of organisational change and echoes some of the themes from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. There are some key differences, however, which I will also explore below. Continue reading

Acting into organizational complexity: comparing and contrasting relational leadership and complex responsive processes of relating

At the Complexity and Management Conference 2013 our guest speaker, Ann Cunliffe, described her ideas about what she terms relational leadership, which are also set out in an article in Human Relations here. In her conference presentation and in her article Ann Cunliffe responds to what she understands as a crisis in leadership education and practice. In the news we are presented with example after example of failures of leadership which also point to an impoverished moral understanding on the part of leaders about their responsibilities, she argues. Cunliffe sets out her alternative by drawing on Bakhtin, Ricoeur, Heidegger and Shotter whom she adduces to develop her argument that leadership work is to be found in the everyday conversational activity of people trying to achieve things together. Her ideas turn on the idea of inter-subjectivity, that we are formed by others just as we form them, which she argues has implications for the way we think about our relationships. We should, she says, develop better anticipatory awareness about what matters in those relationships and the moral consequences of our responsiveness, or lack of it, to others. Responsibility arises, Cunliffe argues after Ricoeur, by recognising oneself as another.[1] Continue reading

Trust in Organisations

A search of Google Scholar indicates that books and journal papers to do with trust, organisations and leadership numbered a few hundred per annum during the 1960s, jumping to the low thousands during the 1970s, and approaching 10,000 per annum in the 1990s. During the early years of this century the number of publications has numbered around an average of 40,000 per year. These numbers indicate a major increase in, and concern about, the presence and role of trust in organisational life, including the exercise of leadership. In this note I want to give a brief indication of how this issue is approached in the management literature and how it is approached in the sociology literature. To aid in the comparing and contrasting I will draw on Hosmer’s[i] classification of four different approaches to understanding trust:

  • Trust as an optimistic individual expectation, focusing on expectations that others will perform in competent and morally correct ways.
  • Trust as an interpersonal relation, focusing on the dependence of the trustors on the trustees to respect the trustors’ interests. The relationship is one of vulnerability for the trustor.
  • Trust as a rational decision to  do with protecting one’s interests made after risk analysis or a calculation in terms of economic transactions costs (which I will not cover in this note).
  • Trust and social structure. Continue reading

Thought collectives and the role of critique

As a way of adding to the discussion started by Ralph in the last post I want to offer some observations, additions, and questions to the idea of the thought collective and thought styles. I would like to reflect more on the stable instability of thought collectives and the way that they are at risk from transformation from within and from without. I want to suggest that they may be powerful and enduring, but they are never rigid being subject to their own ruptures. Although thought collectives undoubtedly try to exclude patterns of thinking which do not conform to a particular orthodoxy, and can sometimes do so with some violence as we will explore below, this orthodoxy often has its own indeterminacies and internal contradictions, and challenges to it are likely to occur regularly and in every day ways both from ‘within’ and from ‘without’. Together the gesture of critique and orthodox response incorporate each other and produce a movement through which other ways of theorising are made possible.

I want to expand further on how the processes of domination and resistance are mediated by power relations and will draw on some of Foucault’s thinking to inquire into the social relations of ‘truth telling’. That is to say, as well as considering the way that orthodoxies dynamically maintain themselves by excluding and denying, it is also important to think about how resistance is mounted, and by whom. Having done this I will question whether the discussion pattern that Ralph points to between systems theorists and their critics could ever thought to be ‘stuck’, although it may feel that way from a synchronic perspective, what I referred to in a previous post as the perspective of the swimmer. Continue reading

More thoughts on Critical Management Studies

In the last post I began to outline some of the similarities and differences between complex responsive processes and critical management studies (CMS) following Hugh Willmott’s keynote at the CMC conference. I have chosen to engage with Alvesson and Willmott’s book Making Sense of Management, while at the same time as recognising that CMS is a broad church and that this book is a primer in CMS. Nevertheless, in this post I will continue the discussion.

Complex responsive processes shares with CMS a critique of the individualising tendencies of modernity and argues instead for a radically social view of human beings and their activities. However, I think this is different from what Alvesson and Willmott term ‘radical humanism’ as an alternative.  From our perspective we would side with both Mead and Elias in arguing that human beings are social through and through: there is no society without individuals and no individuals without society. Following Mead, mind, self and society all arise in social processes involving other social selves and our increasing abilities to take the attitudes of others to ourselves. This is not to deny any individuality but to emphasise how individuality is only possible in relation to other socialised individuals: i.e. society makes individuality possible. Continue reading

Values and Norms: insights from Norbert Elias (Part 2)

In my first blog in this series, I introduced a research narrative from “Max” about conflicts that were arising as three teams came together in a newly merged organisation.  These arose as the values and norms of those involved were being renegotiated in their interactions with each other.  I introduced some ideas from Norbert Elias (1996) as a way of making sense of what might be happening in the narrative.

Max’s narrative also highlights another point made by Elias about norms and the way they are portrayed by some writers and how they conceptualise norms in a highly idealised manner, allowing the reader to see only those functions which they wish them to have and block the perceptions of those functions that they do not wish to perceive. So for example, the norm in Max’s narrative regarding not exposing disagreements in meetings, whilst serving some desirable functions, at the same time may block the potential to explore different perspectives in a way which could lead to something novel and creative to emerge. (Noting this too is not a panacea – as any norm suggesting conflict of this kind is “a good thing” which can only lead to positive outcomes is to misunderstand what Elias is pointing to. Something new and different does not always mean it will be better, and of course the judgement on this will vary from differing perspectives of those involved.) Thus any norm will have within it the same paradoxical features to which Elias is pointing – so a shift to a norm that encourages open contradiction and conflict in meetings as a generalised rule could at the same time block some of the benefits arising from failing to disagree, such as the ability to maintain a sense of civilised order and conduct in a way that enables groups to try to listen to each other. Continue reading