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.
As 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.
This 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.
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.
Our 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 methods 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/.
Lately I have been turning my attention to the subject of ‘purpose’. My friend Pete Burden and I are busy drafting a paper for a conference dedicated to ‘Organisations with Purpose’; in short what might our response be to corporate scandals and a lack of ethics in business.
It seems that people are all too happy to craft a few crisp words about what they want an organisation to be and to label this as a ‘purpose’, into the mix you could add ‘vision’, ‘mission’ and the like. Now I know that people hold strong views on this, carefully drawing distinctions between them. All well and good but that does not interest me right now. Instead I want to focus on how we might pay attention to these words in the face of conflicting and confusing situations we find ourselves in, often with little information. In other words the entanglement between pre-thought gestures of ‘purpose’ and the messiness of life.
It was Michel DeCerteau, the French Jesuit monk, social scientist and philosopher as well as meticulous commentator on the mundane of routine life who pointed out:
The characteristically subtle logic of … ‘ordinary’ activities comes to light only in details. And hence it seems to me that …, as its bond to another culture is rendered more explicit, will only be assisted in leading readers to uncover for themselves, in their own situation, their own tactics, their own creations, and their own initiatives (DeCerteau, 1984, pix).
What I think he is getting at, in the introduction to his book The Practice of Everyday Life, is how relevant and the interesting people’s accounts are as they try to navigate their way around day to day challenges and opportunities they face. A short account, well written or told, captures attention and puts us in the melee, allowing us to run through the dilemmas faced. In other words, although each of our stories is dripping with context and is unique, we can imagine ourselves there, facing those issues. And it is this that has worth in terms of developing our practice.
Like the Roman god, Janus, who looks both ways into the future and the past, it seems that we need a similar knack when it comes to purpose. In short, to develop the ability to both communicate in snappy soundbites and to talk richly of how we bring those to life in our daily work. A friend reminded me of Wittgenstein’s (1969) later thoughts when he noted:
Not only rules, but also examples are needed for establishing a practice. Our rules leave loop-holes open, and the practice has to speak for itself (para 139).
We do not learn the practice of making empirical judgements by learning rules: we are taught judgements and their connexion with other judgements. A totality of judgements is made plausible to us (para 140).
The question is: for those of us that have been involved in crafting an organisation’s purpose, how much time have we given to enabling those richer conversations to occur to make connections between hoped for ‘purpose’ with the routines of everyday life. And then how those routines of conversation might be sustained to nurture any growing sense of purpose.
DeCerteau M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Shotter J (2005) Understanding Process From Within: An Argument for ‘Withness’-Thinking. Organization Studies, 27(4), 585–604.
Wittgenstein L (1969) On Certainty. Anscombe G and von Wright G (eds), New York: Harper Torchbooks.
This week I had a great conversation with Toby Lindsay. Toby is looking to do a PhD and we were discussing his various options. The subject of Toby’s interest is: why do enterprises fail, using his own vivid experience as a source of the research. Businesses fail every day, it is an ordinary event and one that carries much hurt. However airport bookshops are littered with the stuff of success, heroic stories often ending up with a few insights neatly packaged for the newbie entrepreneur. Actually, more can be learned from mistakes, particularly when explored in detail as to how people made decisions in the shifting context that they had to cope with. There is very little about entrepreneurial failure, even less that takes the experience seriously from an individual’s view with all the confusion of hurt, sensemaking and recovery that goes on. Failure offers the learning for future success which is why these ordinary and upsetting events are so important. Thanks Toby for allowing me to share our conversation.