Everyday ethics of relationships

The Constructors, 1950

Picture: BAL21431: The Constructors, 1950, Leger, Fernand (1881-1955) / Musee Leger, Biot, France / Bridgeman Images

Here is a different way of thinking about business ethics, one that focuses on relationships and how these change. In other words, those small decisions and actions that we take daily that over the course of time come to affect us and those that we work with. Sometimes the results have positive ethical effects, but sometimes not. Let us take two quite different examples, one a growing loss of voice, the other being caught by surprise by an important person.

You start working with an established team and it is clear to you that something is not right.  Members of the team sees the world in very similar ways. And when faced with bad news they back each other up to establish a more comforting view of reality. They disregard your views that there is a problem and back each other up with greater energy. Later you try to take a halfway position on another issue using language which they relate to and toning down the message. This gets a better reaction but is still rejected. You accommodate further and in doing so you find acceptance. You feel you’re having an impact with nods around the table but limited future commitment. Months later you reflect: what has changed? In fact, nothing has, apart from you.

You are supporting a senior director on a major change programme and over a short period of time you have built a relationship. She tells you her current thoughts over a quick coffee. She sketches out some ideas on a paper napkin, including a hastily drawn organisational structure. The implications of this short conversation may come to affect hundreds of people for years to come, the majority of which you will never know. Caught by surprise what do you say? How hard do you push, particularly if you believe the wrong course has been chosen? Sometimes these interactions can be rapid and decisions taken in the space of a couple of minutes – both by what is said, and not said. What time do we have to reflect and consider the implications?

What links both examples is the way that we can be drawn in and become changed. Here we see the effect of power relations of a group and flattery of an important person, but there are many others. We think it is helpful to draw attention to those small ethical dilemmas of relationships that often develop. To us this is just as important as those ‘big’ ethical and corporate responsibility questions that people in organisations face. They are important because they are so ordinary and yet often unnoticed.

April will see the publication of the book I have been writing with James Traeger called Organisation Development: A Bold Explorer’s Guide (published by Libri books) in which these and other ideas are explored.


Through the eyes of Imogen and Jas: what the future says about today

DL9LaBcWsAEjD-MTo be frank it was a mix of intrigue and scepticism that struck me when James first suggested science fiction. James Traeger and I have just finished the first cut of our book on organisation development.  It is aimed at the curious organisation development (OD) practitioner who asks themselves ‘is it me, or has the world gone insane’, particularly in their everyday work with people and organisations. It is a hopeful book, but not one with false promises. We give voice to the skillful muddling through that is much of our work, and in doing so we mostly achieve some positive effect but perhaps not exactly the one that we had envisaged. It is a response to a rhetoric of ‘we can get there only if we had the right model’ driven by what I see as OD’s science envy.

Back to science fiction. Last week we held the first event to talk about the book with fifty of us gathered in a large room overlooking London’s Hatton Garden. We set the scene in 2048 introducing two characters, Jas Porter, an aged OD practitioner who could remember the turn of the millennium, and a younger Imogen Sharp a person who was ‘more than human’. Despite widely recognised success both of them were curious and unsettled about their place in society, in organisations and indeed who they had become. And how these questions affected their practice and ideas of OD.

With flip charts dotted around the room displaying chapter headings of the book such as ‘how change happens’, ‘ethics and politics’, ‘the craft of OD’ conversations began. From quiet huddles to lively hubbubs discussions quickly gathered pace. Free from explaining the ‘realities’ of the here and now the future enabled our imagination to roam. And then having ventured far and wide to ask those questions: what will our world of work be like; how will be go about organising; what will it be like for us as individuals? A colleague of mine reminded me of Fredric Jameson’s (Jameson, 2005) observation that science fiction is always about the present, pointing out that: ‘… even our wildest imaginings are the collages of experience, constructs made up of bits and pieces of the here and now’ (pxiii). Having worked on the book with James and experienced the energy in the room I’m now convinced, science fiction is a great enabler of imagination both in our own minds whilst quietly reading a book but also in working with groups to get a collective sense of new possibilities.

Jameson, F. (2005). Archaeologies of the future : the desire called utopia and other science fictions. London and New York: Verso.

The educational tour and gift shop – No thank you!


Multiple shades of the Sussex countryside viewed from the Bothy at Standen House

I’ve got a confession to make. I don’t like reading management and leadership literature. Well, a lot of it. I should explain, my interest is in everyday experience and how we think, talk and write about it and how this might be of use to others. Sometimes this feels lonely, so it was wonderful to take part in ‘Voicing Experience: The 4th British Conference of Autoethnography’ conference at the University of Sussex this week. I know why kids complain when they are taken to stately homes and gardens, their hands tightly squeezed and marched along the most educationally economic route, to stand still in front of pictures and rooms belonging to long dead people. Look but don’t touch. And where lawns are not for running on. It seems to miss the point. I’m talking about my own experience here. And it is this that I react against in much management and leadership writing. As readers we get drawn predictably through introduction, methods, findings only to end up in the ‘gift shop’, that of the succinct conclusion. As writers (again I’m talking about myself) we are pushed to make our contribution clearer and clearer. In exploring experience, conclusions are often not clear, we have provisional ways forward that bring with them mixtures of hope and doubt. Sometimes we are just confused. Like a child I want to run about, play in the gardens, pick things up and bounce up and down on the sofas. I want to take fragments of insights gathered on my haphazard path and to relate these to my own interests and experience. This is perhaps why I am drawn to ethnography, a way of research that offers the textures and complexities of everyday life, from which we all might explore and rummage. The conclusions that we draw are tentative and created by ourselves with a gentle nudge and support from the narrator. I see this way of working most vividly in sociology and anthropology, but it has yet to fully catch on in leadership and management. A couple of things struck me at the conference: the variety of experiences we talked about; and, the variety of ways we talked about experience. What might management and leadership education be like if we adopted similar approaches? Perhaps being more tentative and less dogmatic might make management and leadership [development] less macho. It might also make us a little more reflexive of experience and keener to enquire of what we are doing and why. We might even be more cautious of articles in glossy journals that promise simple solutions to problems that we know are complex. We might even embrace poetry, filmmaking, storytelling and just experiment a little. And in doing so we might be more confident of finding our own leadership path.

Truth – the new reflexive duty that is all our responsibility

capture-final-picAs the year comes to an end I thought I would add a few lines on the one thing that has troubled me most – truth. By truth I mean dependable knowledge that enables people to form effective opinions and decisions. With the US Presidential Election and the vote of the UK to leave the EU it seems that the fragility of truth has become all too apparent to those of us who care. More worrying, those of us who care seem to be in short supply.

There is little I can do to affect global events, but at least I can look closer to home to make some sort of impact. I work with postgraduate and undergraduate students and delegates on professional development programmes. I have become intrigued as to what people count as dependable knowledge, more specifically how much critical thought is given to this.

We now have blogs (like this one), news aggregators, complexity delivered in 140 characters and so on. All of this amplified by virtual velcro, the means by which ‘news’ unknowingly sticks to people by what they ‘like’ and what ‘friends’ they have. In readymade communities anyone can say anything with the added double bonus of both instant credibility and a boost that brings forth further response; a rapid process that risks self-reinforcing groupthink.

What did we have before? Newspapers and books, both with some form of editorial process. Peer reviewed journals that sought to take a rigorous stance on what made it through. Professional and trade press again with editorial teams. None of these were perfect but all had editorial processes and people in place were invested in the long term. In other words, any claims on truth would be reconciled with the credibility they had developed and yet held hostage to future challenge. Of course we still have these sources, but like the patina of an antique they are outshone by the new.

I am not suggesting a rejection of these new sources. However, the new skill of the student, citizen, consultant, work colleague – all of us, is increasingly to establish the validity of those sources and to carefully explain them to those around us and to ourselves. In short to be a reflexive check to ensure we do not get sucked in. What questions might we ask? There are many, but I think the most important stem from: what is the network of relationships that this person is invested/nested in? People have a tendency to cite and draw comfort from like-minded individuals. What awareness do they have of this, and how overt is this? Do they make connections with people from other traditions and views? Can you draw a connection of thought back to ideas and areas that you relate with and you know to be valid?

This is not just a skill, but a set of skills. Firstly, there is the ability to work out these connections and to draw the messy map of relationships. Secondly, the knack of being able to critically connect any valid insights to one’s context and practice. And finally, and importantly, being able to stand up and to argue the case; this is important as in doing this we can shape the debate. By doing this we can be an informed consumer, contributor and curator of knowledge.

Through difference comes a deeper confidence

cropped-picture-of-dunes-2.pngThis week I was at conference in Bristol, UK on the ‘contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu’ where I presented my paper on the connections and opportunities between Bourdieu’s thinking and action learning. It was one of the best conferences I had been to drawing people from all over the world and importantly working with Bourdieu’s ideas in very different ways.

I have been deeply affected by his work which has influenced a number of my books, papers and thinking in general. But I have lacked confidence on two counts. Firstly, his life’s work was enormous, there are few who have a deep understanding of his work and the context from which it emerged. Secondly, appreciating the contemporary ways in which those ideas were being taken up by people at the conference. In other words, I was very aware that my interest was focused on a small area of a far wider moving project.

Over the three days it was great to see the myriad of ways that people were working with his ideas. Some I was deeply drawn to, attracted by the interaction between excellent empirical work and theory. Others like Lisa Mckenzie’s work on the working class in London made me wonder what sort of world we had created. But others took Bourdieu’s work and applied multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) and other quantitative techniques that left me cold wondering what Bourdieu would have thought. Similarly, words and phrases such as ‘technique’, ‘tool’, ‘using’, ‘framework’ were applied to some of Bourdieu’s concepts in a way that just seemed to miss the shifting, relational, emergent qualities of his ideas reminding me of his comment: ‘Everything conspires to encourage the reification of concepts, beginning with the logic of ordinary language, …’ (Bourdieu, 1973, p62). Despite these differences and affinities my thinking was being challenged.

Through these differences and talking with those people who saw his work from other angles I became more confident about my areas of interest, that of reflexivity and the ‘friction’ between his concepts of habitus and field. This was not an arrogant confidence; I knew that I had something that was worth saying but with a humility to explore other ideas and how these were being taken up.

What implications does this have more generally? It is by being with other people of differing views and exploring their ideas that we become more confident and curious about our own position and how that position might develop. But that is not what I see around me. Politicians talk of building walls (metaphorically, literally and implied in their ‘dog whistle’ speeches), or they just talk and don’t listen. Perhaps we do the same; we surround ourselves with likeness amplified by our interaction with Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Here I am suggesting a different type of deeper confidence. I am not talking about an arrogant confidence that is defensive, inward looking and is brittle to challenge. I am talking about confidence that is open to the development of thought and keen to engage others with differing and challenging views. I think Bourdieu himself would have had views on this …

Bourdieu, P. (1973). The three forms of theoretical knowledge. Social science information, 12(1), 53-80.


The ‘bus test’ for our academic work


Source: Wikimedia – Arriva436

Several weeks ago I was asked to review an academic paper that was to be presented at a leading management conference. I read the title and it made no sense to me whatsoever. It was only half way through the abstract that I got an inkling. Towards the end of the introduction I had got it, just. And once I had waded through the paper and read it again it said something that was interesting and relevant. The authors were playing a tightly woven game with a small group of fellow researchers interested in a focused area of organisational life using a particular methodology.  Now I appreciate we all have our shorthand, jargon and people we want to impress. That said we must be mindful of the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts –people who are struggling to make sense of their organisational lives.

In my review I made the following comment: ‘If your paper was left on a bus and picked up by a busy manager what would they make of it?’ In other words, how might it shine a light on their practice, which may at times may seem unfathomable to them.

So I propose a test, which I will call ‘the bus test’. Before we send of our papers and books off for review we should hand our efforts to someone facing the areas of research we are interested in. They should at least be able to understand the title and abstract. Better still that they can relate to what has been said. That is not to say that they should agree, but at least they should be able to form an opinion from which a conversation could occur. Only then can the authors dive into their focused arguments, literature and methods.

As an aside, much has been has been said about Open Access in academia where citizens have the right to have access to research material. To my mind this is a part of a similar debate particularly in the field of leadership and management.

Building trusting relationships – our report

TrustOur report on trust has just been published (Donaldson and Warwick, 2016). It was a year ago when Alison Donaldson and I started our project, financed and supported by Roffey Park. Trust is an increasingly important subject in organisations, particularly as relationships are more fleeting as people go from one employer or project to another.  We were interested in taking a different tack from the routine academic examination of the subject that tends to be overly ‘thoughtful’ and analytic.  What if we were to gather a number of stories, conversations and insights from literature and use these as a way for people to connect with the whole gamut of feelings as they go about developing relationships? That is what we have done, paying attention to: vulnerability, hope, risk, disappointment, calculation, the unfathomable, the dynamic between individual and group, of power and so on. We have not come to any snappy conclusions. Instead we hope that we have come up with some useful insights and resources that people might read, discuss with their work colleagues and friends. And in doing so be jolted into noticing the development of trusting relationship in a slightly different way.

If you would like to read more about our approach and the Capturemethods we wrote a short paper titled Trust and the Emotional Bank Account for Croner-i  in their strategic HR series. Here we also outline the implications for organisational development and HR practitioners.

Over the next few months expect to hear more in terms of more workshops (for example click here) that we are running and further articles.

Donaldson A and Warwick R (2016) The Emergence of Trusting Relationships: Stories and Reflections. Horsham,  Available from: http://www.roffeypark.com/research-insights/free-reports-downloads/the-emergence-of-trusting-relationships-stories-and-reflections/.