Can leaders change organisational culture?: alternatives from a complexity perspective.
Whenever there is an organisational crisis, conventionally we come to explain what is unfolding in terms of failing leadership and/or inadequate organisational culture. This is a way of speaking about culture as a thing a discrete organisation ‘has’. It is assumed that culture exists within organizational boundaries and is a thing identifiable, manipulable and improvable by leaders and senior managers, sometimes even by politicians; it can be commanded, shaped and optimised, often at a distance. There are all manner of diagnostic tools and techniques available in management and organisational literature for analysing a deficient organizational culture which can then be remedied by taking a number of steps towards prereflected ends. There may even be metrics for measuring whether the culture change has successfully taken place in the transition between the current imperfect reality, and the often idealized prediction of what it ‘should’ be. During culture change initiatives there is often a grand appeal to values and the symbolic imagination.
This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will complement last year’s treatment of leadership by enquiring into the theme of organisational culture. We will discuss the extent to which the concept, in migrating from the discipline of anthropology, has been instrumentalised and trivialised. To what degree does the attempt to rationalise social life bring about organisational irrationality: the exact opposite of what is intended? If another way of thinking about culture is as the habitus, to what extent can this be manipulated and improved by anybody?
The keynote speaker in June next year will be Professor Ralph Stacey. Ralph is well known to many regular attendees at the CMC, but for those unfamiliar with his background he has worked in the construction industry, as an investment strategist in the finance industry, as a management consultant, a group therapist in the NHS and for the last 25 years as an academic. He has published many books and papers including Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations and The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity. Ralph will explore culture from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating between people who enact and re-enact culture in the present, interpreting the past and in anticipation of the future.
Next year’s conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. More details will follow in the New Year: the conference fee, when we agree it, will include all accommodation and food. It will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK: http://www.roffeypark.com .
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 →
The following is an abridged version of the talk given at the Complexity and Management Conference on 6th June 2010.
What would it mean for the practice of management education and research if we were to take up the ideas in the body of thought we are calling complex responsive processes of relating? How do the ideas in complex responsive processes of relating compare and contrast with critical management studies, for example?
Drawing on an eminent exponent of critical management studies (CMS) such as Mats Alvesson as an example, we would find that complex responsive processes and CMS share a lot in common. Both are concerned to engage in critical reflection on institutions; both resist the strong pressures of normalisation; both would entertain the idea that all knowledge creation is political, value-laden and interest-based. Alvesson’s ‘4 I’ framework (identity, institutions, interests and ideology) is a very helpful way for organisational researchers to think about the research they are undertaking (how are identities being constructed in this episode of organisational life; how are people engaged in thinking about the institution; whose interests are being served and what does this say about the ideological claims?). Alvesson encourages reflection and reflexivity as a way of producing complex and rounded accounts of organisational life, accounts which are ‘rich in points’. Continue reading →
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 →
Last summer a group of economists at the London School of Economics felt impelled to write to the Queen in response to her question posed the year previously when she was on a visit to the university as to what had caused the banking collapse.
The letter explains that there was a ‘psychology of denial’ affecting all those concerned, and in a touching note of humility drawing attention to the fact that many very intelligent people were caught up in this collective denial, the letter goes on to explain that “it is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris”.
“Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standard measures of success, they were often doing it well,” they say. “The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction.” (my emphasis added) Continue reading →
This post will try to engage with some of the ideas that Ralph has set out as a way of keeping the discussion going and as a further invitation to anyone else to join in. Of course, the thoughts below are only what struck me from his post.
Without actually using the word in this piece, I think Ralph is pointing to the ideological nature of the dominant discourse. By claiming that a lot of management is practised according to taken-for-granted assumptions which are unreflectively taken up there is an implied ideological hold. The dominant managerial discourse becomes pervasive by being taught in a variety of different edcational contexts and is replicated every day by managers who are graduates of business schools as well as by consultants who have been similarly educated. It permeates daily practice.
In trying to understand how the dominant discourse comes to dominate, how it becomes ideological, I have found the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s definition of ideology helpful when he says that ‘ideology is the mask worn both by the dominant orders and by order itself.’ So this helps explain something about the taken-for-grantedness of many of the management concepts which are so pervasive. In order to join the management club, to play the game, it is a requirement to demonstrate a fluency with the concepts and language of the contemporary management discourse. More and more management graduates make the game more widespread and pervasive. This leads to a kind of isomorphism: organisations which carry out very different types of work, be it public, private or voluntary sectors, begin to look and sound alike. A facility with the concepts allows for the kind of mutual recognition which enables more and more people playing the game to locate themselves in it, to find a way of participating with each other and to be successful in the game. If one begins to talk about management differently it can appear as though one is not taking the game seriously, or even that one is calling the game into question. There follows the charge of somehow being ‘anti-management’, an accusation that I have heard on more than one occasion levelled at the body of ideas we are calling complex responsive processes of relating. The moment one has a stake in the game it becomes much harder to call the game into question, as participants on the DMan course discover. Continue reading →