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The Paradox of Consensus and Conflict in Organisational Life

Today’s dominant thought collective[i] of practitioners, consultants and academics concerned with leadership, management and other organisational matters is characterised by thought styles[ii] which, in a completely taken-for-granted way, equate success with positives, sharing, harmony and consensus. Leaders are called upon to communicate inspiring, compelling visions of desirable futures shorn of all problematic features. Followers are to be converted to sharing the vision and committing to the mission so that everyone ‘is on the same page’, ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, ‘climbing on board’, ‘on the message’ and ‘a team player’. This whole raft of idealisations is taken even further when it is accompanied by a relentless emphasis on the positive aspects of all situations. There seems to be a scarcely-concealed dread of ‘negatives’, such as conflict, and a half-expressed conviction that success can only be achieved when all share the same view, with breakdown as the consequence  of not doing this. If conflict is noticed it is immediately followed by calls for the practice of ‘conflict resolution’ or approaches which rapidly move people from anything negative to a focus on the ‘positives’. A popular example of the prescription for positive consensus is provided by Appreciative Inquiry. Proponents[iii] of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) point to how the dominant approach to leading, managing and changing organisations focuses attention on problems, deficits and dysfunctions. They argue that this approach is demoralising and ineffective in bringing about change and call, instead, for a focus on opportunities and what is working because focusing in this appreciative, positive way raises  morale and promotes generative inquiry. It is claimed that AI generates spontaneous, transformational action on the part of individuals, groups and organisations which leads to a better future. Critics[iv] of AI problematise the focus on positiveness, arguing that positive and negative feelings are intimately connected and conclude that AI is a method whose proponents show little self-reflection or evaluative critique of what they are proposing. In response, Gervase Bushe of the Segal Graduate School of Business has published a paper titles ‘Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About the Positive’.[v]  Bushe agrees that AI can become a form of repression when it suppresses dissent and focuses on the positive as a defence against the anxiety of dealing with reality. However, he then immediately goes on to say that when AI is used in appropriate ways, which he does not identify, then people do not wallow in mutual pain but tell each other uplifting stories instead, which sooth tensions and release energy. Instead of focusing on conflict, bridges are built between conflicting groups.  In his view, people who want to talk about what they do not like should not be stopped from doing so but they should not be asked to elaborate on these matters. They should be encouraged, instead, to talk about what is missing, what they want more of and what their image of their organisation ought to be. He talks about small group meetings where everyone reads the same story together. Much the same points can be made another positiveness movement called Positive Deviance which is basically an idealised form to ‘benchmarking’ and a sanitisation of ‘deviance’.

This unrelenting emphasis on the positive, on harmony and consensus functions to cover over conflict, difference and real-life attitudes towards deviants because to bring these matters out into the open is to reveal patterns of power relations,  the dynamics of identity-forming inclusion and exclusion and the ideologies sustaining current power figurations. As a consequence, public discussions of organisational life take the form of a kind of rational, positive fantasy that focuses our attention on only a small part of what we ordinarily experience in our daily organisational lives. People continue, as they always have done, to disagree and subvert what they disagree: organisational life is characterised by ongoing conflict in which, at the same time, people normally manage to achieve sufficient degrees of consensus, tolerance and cooperation to get things done together. In order to understand what we are ordinarily engaged in during the course of our daily organisational lives we need to avoid thinking in terms of a duality of consensus and conflict, where we can decide to move from the one to the other, and think instead in terms of the paradox of consensus and conflict: we engage in, we are heavily invested in, organisational games displaying the paradoxical dynamics of consensual conflict or conflictual consensus. Continue reading

Complexity and Management Conference June 7-9th 2013

This is to give you advance notice that next year’s Complexity and Management Conference will be on the second weekend in June, 2013, Friday 7th – Sunday 9th at Roffey Park Management Centre near Horsham in Surrey, UK.

In the last three years we have hosted Prof Mats Alvesson, Dr Ian Burkitt and Porfessor Hugh Willmott. We are currently in conversation with potential speakers and will let you know whom we have secured in the near future.

As usual the conference will be informal and will involve some input from speakers as well as lots of opportunities for lively discussion in groups based on participants’ own experiences of organising with others.

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

On feeling safe – paradoxes of group life

A frequent complaint to be heard in many group situations is the remark ‘it doesn’t feel safe here’.

So common is this utterance that I wanted to give some time to exploring its implications for the dilemmas we face in working with groups of all types.

The remark is most likely to be heard openly voiced in the experiential setting of training and psychotherapy groups . However I suggest that it is a common phenomenon in the politics of all groups, often expressed more covertly as an internal dialogue or within a subgroup, which configures before and after meetings.

The questions raised through this complaint are therefore also relevant to the politics of the workplace as well as to the challenges of experiential group work. The remark concerning safety in the group setting is often spoken with a tone of admonition as if responsibility for feelings of safety lay elsewhere and outside of the participation of the speaker and often, although not exclusively, with some figure of authority such as a course leader, therapist, chairperson or parental imago.

The implication is that if only the ‘feeling of safety’ prevailed that full and uninhibited participation in the group’s activities would ensue. Continue reading

CMC Conference 8th-10th June 2012

This is just a reminder to those of you who are considering attending the CMC conference, 8-10th June 2012, that the early bird discount finishes on Friday 21st April, i.e. in just over two weeks’ time.

The theme of the conference is Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics and the guest speaker is the distinguished critical management scholar Professor Hugh Willmott.

UH has now set up a payment page here:

As usual there will be lots of opportunities for discussions throughout the weekend.

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

Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management

In this blog I hope to develop some of the points made in previous blogs on the tools and techniques of management. What is generally meant by the term ‘tools and techniques of leadership and management’ is ways of applying instrumental rationality to solve problems and control outcomes. In fact, in an ambiguous and uncertain world none of these tools and techniques can do what is claimed for them but they do constitute the techniques of disciplinary power which enable leaders and managers to control the bodies and bodily activities of
people in the organization. All of these tools and techniques take the form of rules, procedures and models. However, there is a difference between competent performance, on the one hand, and proficient, expert performance, on the other.
The difference is that following rules, procedures and models may produce competent performance, but proficient, expert performance requires moving beyond the rules, procedures and models. Management tools and techniques of
instrumental rationality may promote competence but the development of expertise is beyond them. Experts are unable to articulate the rules governing their performance because they simply do not follow rules; instead, as a consequence of long experience, they exercise practical judgment in the unique situations they find themselves in. Through experience they are able to recognize patterns, distinguishing between similarities with other situations and unique differences. The patterns they recognize are the emerging patterns of interaction that they and other people are creating. In other words, they are recognizing the emerging themes in conversation, power relations and ideology reflecting choices. The key resource any organization must rely on is surely this expert interactive capacity in the exercise of practical judgment
by leaders and managers. If we cannot identify rules, procedures and models  as ‘drivers’ of expert practical judgment, does it follow that we can say nothing about practical judgment and have to leave it as a mystery?

I do not think there is anything mysterious about the exercise of practical judgment and we can inquire into the exercise of practical judgment and explore whether it is possible to identify any ‘techniques’ of practical judgment. Continue reading

Some thoughts on the 2011 CMC conference

I wanted to write about some of the themes  at the CMC conference this year as an invitation to further discussion, and perhaps as a way of involving others. There were a number of things which happened during the weekend which I think made a strong case for the methods being developed by the Complexity Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and the importance of paying attention to the experience of every day life.

So I was struck by a quite ordinary intervention by Iver Drabaek in the final plenary of the weekend. This was a session convened to explore what different conference participants were doing in their work and to ask whether insights drawn from the complexity sciences, or from complex responsive processes were proving helpful in what people found themselves trying to do. There had been a number of diverse observations about what was going on in the group: that the discussion didn’t seem to be leading anywhere, or that it wasn’t easy to speak into the big group, as we struggled to make sense of this particular way of meeting together. As Nick Sarra has pointed out, there often is a struggle in big group discussions, and sometimes this struggle is about avoiding the discomfort of recognising each other in this kind of context.  Iver pointed out that for him it was different. It wasn’t that he was holding back but that every time he went to speak into the group he found that he had changed his mind about what he wanted to say, depending on what the last person had said. This for me was a very good example of what we are trying to describe on the faculty at Hertfordshire when we are drawing attention to the transformative potential of everyday interaction. Iver was displaying a patient attention to everyday experience, his own experience of the group, which then raised ideas of recognition, mutual recognition, identity and ideology for me. In drawing attention to the way that he was responding, to what was going on for him in the moment and articulating it, he provoked me (without of course realising it) into recognising myself in what he was saying. I would expect that for others it called out an entirely different response, or perhaps no response at all, but in that moment I came to understand my own participation in what was going on, recognising myself in the other, differently. Continue reading

Leadership as the Agency of Disciplinary Power

In 1977, Zaleznik published a paper drawing a distinction between managers and leaders. According to Zaleznick , managers differ in motivation from leaders and in how they think and act – they emphasize rationality, control, problem solving, goals and targets. They co-ordinate and balance conflicting views and get people to accept solutions. They are tactical and bureaucratic. Leaders work in an opposite way. Instead of limiting choices, they develop fresh approaches and open up new issues. They project their ideas into images that excite people. They formulate visions and inspire others to follow them. It is also generally thought to be the role of an organization’s leaders to shape its values or culture, understood to be the deep seated assumptions governing the behavior of the individual members of an organization. One of the most influential writers on leadership and organizations, Schein , said that the primary function of leadership was the manipulation of culture. An equally influential writer, Senge , talks about the building of a vision, purpose and values as the ‘governing ideas’ of the organization. In successful companies, leaders are supposed to deliberately construct values and teach their people in training sessions to act according to them. The leader forms a personal vision and builds it into a shared vision through ongoing dialogue in which people suspend their assumptions and listen to each other. So we now think in terms of a distinction between leaders as the top people who articulate visions and provide direction and a hierarchy of managers who implement what is chosen by their leaders, all in the interests of shareholders. According to this dominant discourse, the leader is presented as an unconstrained, autonomous individual with the ability to choose what happens to an organisation, while managers are presented as highly constrained individuals who must be aligned to the leader’s direction and implement the actions required to follow it.

Since the 1990s, there has been an increasingly rapid growth in the provision of leadership development programmes, provided not just by the elite business schools and consultancies but even more by the education and development departments of most organisations. Leadership academies and programmes have been established by governments and others to provide for leadership development, for example: the International Leadership Association, the Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK, and programmes for the military, defence, health and higher education. Even academic researchers at universities are invited to go on a leadership programme. This trend is not confined to the UK but is as much in evidence throughout Europe and North America. Such programmes are now common throughout the developing countries too. Participants on these programmes are introduced to one or more of the leadership theories indicated in the previous section, usually presented in a ‘model’ claimed to be specific to the sector mounting the programmes. It is quite common for participants to be presented with: exercises using various games; experience of the theatre, for example, actors and directors may interpret the leadership qualities of, say, Shakespeare’s Henry V; conducting an orchestra; engaging in various outdoor activities such as trekking through the wilds and dealing with hazards such as mountains and river crossings. The aim is for participants to have the experience of leading teams in addition to understanding the theories of leadership so that they will be more likely to apply them in practice. Also participants are often asked to identify the leadership qualities of great leaders, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, so that they might imitate them in order to improve their own leadership skills. Continue reading