Tag Archives: paradox

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

Working with the paradox of theory and practice

In this post I will discuss some of the similarities and differences between scientific method in the natural and social sciences and question what it might mean to be scientific about the social. I will focus particularly on the nexus of theory and practice. This is important in the field of management where theories proliferate but where much less work is done to understand how these theories play out and evolve in organisational life, no matter what the strength of the prior claim that they have been empirically tested.

I doubt that anyone would want to make the case that what we are lacking in management is enough theories. Just to take the domain of leadership as an example, we are assailed with contradictory and competing theories, such as trait theories, behavioural theories, theories of transformational leadership, servant leadership, distributed leadership, and more latterly agile and sustainable leadership. An enormous amount of work goes into elaborating theories which are supposed to be ‘applied’ to organisations, accepting implicitly the dualism between theory, assumed to be the most important work, and practice, a lesser activity which has to be brought into line with theory. This distinction reaches back to the dispute between Plato and Aristotle, who disagreed as to the relative importance of each, with Aristotle arguing that in the field of human action, theories are necessary but insufficient:

[phronesis]is not concerned with universals only; it must also take cognizance of particulars, because it is concerned with conduct, and conduct has its sphere in particular circumstances. That is why some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.[1]

For Aristotle phronesis, or practical judgement, will always involve the interplay of the particular and the general, a broad idea about what one is engaged in tempered by the particular circumstances of the forum in which one is acting.

In the Academy, however, the majority side with Plato about the importance of universals, and much greater esteem is accorded to theorising about management. Doctoral researchers in organisational studies who embark on traditional PhDs are expected to make a contribution to knowledge, which can be narrowly understood as the development and testing of a new theory. This is considered to be a close parallel to the methods used in the natural sciences – anything else would be ‘unscientific’. However, scientific method and insights are not monolithic and there are specific differences between the natural and social worlds. In the next section I will rehearse how the analogies from the complexity sciences, which have informed the perspective of complex responsive processes, come to problematize the idea of theory-generation about the social. Continue reading

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

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

Systems thinking and complex responsive processes – can they be integrated?

In a recent paper written by Luoma et al (Luoma, J., Hamalainen, RP. And Saarinen, E.  (2011) Acting with systems intelligence: integrating complex responsive processes with the systems perspective, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 62: 3-11.), the authors argue that there is very little disagreement between systems thinking and complex responsive processes of relating, the body of theories set out in this blog. What’s more, the authors put forward the idea that a complex responsive process approach could be integrated within their own method, which they term ‘systems intelligence’.

Systems intelligence (SI), according to the authors, is when a subject engages ‘successfully and productively with holistic feedback mechanisms of her environment.’ SI is exhibited by an individual operating in ‘systems settings’, and is influenced both by the positive psychology literature and by systems thinking. Thus SI ‘looks for positive opportunities and personal improvement actions’. According to the authors a system does not have to be an abstract ‘thing’ with a boundary. It might be ‘the context’, ‘the situation’, or ‘the environment’, amounting to ‘an integrated whole on a time axis in the process of becoming’. ‘System’ for the authors, is a meaningful unit of analysis worthy of attention, which calls out intelligent engagement. The authors claim a ‘liberal, broad and general interpretation of the notion of a ‘system’’, and not one that necessarily conceives of the subject in any way ‘outside’ the system. The broad notion of system is a helpful conceptual tool and human beings are natural systematisers: indeed, being able to systematise makes us human, according to the authors. Continue reading