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.


Two takes on Organisation Development

Ray Guns, 2007 (oil on linen)

Jabob,D (2007) Ray Guns. Available at www.bridgemaneducation.com

James Traeger and I have been writing a book called Organisation Development: a Bold Explorer’s Guide and in a few months it will be published. We play with the idea of science fiction and how this might help us to understand organisations. Here are a couple of takes.

Take 1 ‘science’ and ‘fiction’ – science envy

Increasingly we have fallen under the spell of ‘science’; a hypothesis sits tightly wrapped in a specification or ‘Invitation to tender’ only to unfold months later to judge the success or failure of the learning.  In such a world there is little room for lucky learning and chance encounters that lead to sparkling conversations and new possibilities. Thanks to the likes of Burke Litwin and their models, PowerPoint slides now confidently show the causal links between ‘leadership’ and ‘Individual needs and values’, stopping briefly at ‘systems and values’. Here theory provides confidence that there is little to worry about, all we need is the application of scientific methods. This is a fiction; we know this to be untrue. However, we rarely speak of flair, art or knack of the experienced practitioner or others learning their craft. Working with people is anything but scientific. So why do we hold onto these ideas? The experienced practitioner uses them with a light touch, for example to communicate subtle issues to an anxious client. The practitioner new to OD clings onto these ideas like a child to a comfort blanket.

Take 2 ‘science fiction’ – enabling imagination

Suppose now we take ideas of OD as an art seriously. Here we can address full on different ways of knowing that pays attention to our experience of working in the moment, of making the best choices as confusing events unfold. This might include different ways of thinking about ethics, what does ‘right’ look like given the many people who might be affected by what we do. We might also need to think about who holds power and what our responsibilities are to those with a marginal voice. Also, we can think differently about how we describe progress, both planned and what has emerged through chance connections. How might we talk about OD in this way? One way is to talk about everyday experiences and examples. But what if we wanted to free ourselves of the context and limitations of the present? This is where science fiction comes in again. What if we were to use the future as a way to explore the now? How might this free up our imagination to make connections between people and ideas that we had not thought of before? Here science fiction enables of our social imagination as we share ideas and possibilities.

These different worlds are fascinating, not as discreet islands, but as they mingle together to shape the reflexive practitioner.


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.

Shining a light on critical action learning with the work of Pierre Bourdieu

pbA couple of years ago I became intrigued by the interaction between the theory of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the practice of action learning, a process of facilitated group coaching. In other words, how the theory of one might shine a light on the practice of the other. The aspects of Bourdieu theory that I was intrigued about was habitus and field. Habitus being a generative process of habit and repetition, but not one that implies an automatic reflex; instead it is a condition of practice that short cuts the numerous options available to the novice to a narrower range of reasonable contextual possibilities. This being dependent on field, an array of externalities and relations in which one has to move. Each player whose relations constitute the field of a particular practice has their own internalised expression of habitus. This gives everyone in the field an individualised sense of their next step, sensible or not, that needs to be reacted to by others. The field is therefore a complex dynamic affected by power, reputation, tradition, gestures and so on. In short, the ordinary goings on of organisational life of what we might see as common sense hitting a brick wall of unfathomable objection that makes us ask the question: why? Or as we have called it ‘social friction’, a process of noticing between our taken for granted practice and how this is reacted to by others who have their own assumptions and practice too.

Over the past year it has been great to work with Janet McCray and Douglas Board to explore these ideas drawing on interviews with nine medical consultants having gone through and action learning based leadership programme. Following a number of conferences (a notable highlight being the British Sociological Association’s first conference on Bourdieu last year) and workshops our work has now been published in Action Learning: Research and Practice.

To read our paper click here.

Reflexivity – some useful prompts in fiction


The cover of Tamara: Journal of Critical Organization Inquiry

For a number of years I have been intrigued with reflexivity, that form of deep personal reflection that entwines ongoing thought of one’s practice with the practice of thought.  And it is really difficult, particularly when we are part of a group at work that sees the world in a similar way and have been working together for many years. There can be very little to challenge us to see the world differently and our thought and practice as part of it. This is important, as the world shifts we need to be attuned to this and react, but we have seen with the likes of Kodak and Blockbuster that despite advantages in their sectors they were left behind and are no more.

So, what can we do that might enable us to be more reflexive? Or, what prompts might be useful? At a group level one can mix people up and encourage new and different people to join. Or, to make connections with other people, groups or sectors. Recently I have been interested in what an individual might do and what they might draw on. Yes, they can visit other organisations and meet new people, but I was intrigued in something deeper and more accessible. Many of us read novels and books and I was interested in how fiction might act as a ‘reflexive prompt’ to enable us to see the world differently and thus shine a light on our thought and practice.

Several years ago I had a particularly fraught meeting with some surprising twists and turns. Not that unusual, far from it. After writing a narrative of the events at the time I explored what had happened with three small excerpts from fiction – very different forms of fiction. What occurred surprised me. On the one hand I could easily have closed down that experience and ‘moved on’. But doing this enabled me to notice what I had not explored in any depth before: issues of doubt, uncertainty and contradictions that I was experiencing before and during the meeting. We don’t often talk about these things in organisational life. I found a way of exploring this in a contextual way that helped my practice and thinking further develop. It also enabled me to discuss the events to a few trusted friends and colleagues and as such offered the potential to expand the potential for noticing.

If you are interested in these ideas in more depth I have written a paper for the Journal Tamara: Journal for Critical Organization Inquiry and it is available here.

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.

Organisation Development (OD): tales of craft, style and making do

20160711_160754A few days ago James Traeger and I were sitting in a rather lovely room overlooking the lawns at Ashridge management college. Here we signed a contract to write a book together; a moment that focuses the mind!

We are writing a book on organisation development but one that pays attention to the ‘craft’ in different ways. Having worked in and with many organisations I am intrigued as to how things actually happen. I am less interested by the grand proclamations and planned activities that may appear in newsletters, company reports and ‘town hall meetings’; but instead I am drawn to the actual conversations that happen everywhere from boardrooms, corridors, phone calls, e-mails in what is a confusing world where we can only make the next sensible step with the information we have at hand. And with the constraints and enablers that we are aware of – those that we are not aware of soon become apparent! So how does the OD practitioner move into these spaces and conversations and to act ethically in ways that are in the best interests of the people that we call the ‘the organisation’ and those affected by it? This is the substance of the book, told with tales of the craft of how people make do with what they have to create interactions and understandings that are helpful. We are interested in the full gamut ranging from set piece events with flip charts and marker pens to chance (or carefully arranged semi-chance) conversations in car park or corridor.

We are aiming this book at the curious, the practitioner (and the occasional academic) perhaps frustrated with ‘how to’ explanations. Instead we are looking to share, show and build bridges of understanding that might be useful in:

  • Making enough sense of complex situations we find ourselves in.
  • Enabling wise choices to be made.

And in doing so how move forward with those around us.