Saturday, 26 December 2009

This Post is About...

Here is a nice and funny story I've read in P. Watzlawick's book "How Real is Real". It may be useful to describe the problems of intercultural communication, the various problems of "translation" that may occur when people coming from two different cultures are interacting. When a healthy meta-communication is lacking, misunderstandings like these may touch everyone.

During the last years of World War II, a great number of American soldiers stepped on the English soil. This event granted the occasion to better study the effects of the penetration of one culture into another one. Among the various aspects investigated in this study was the one of courtship. It is funny to read the results of the study since it appears that both the American soldiers and the English girls were claiming that the other party was too explicit and wanted to get to quickly to the moment of having sex. How is that possible that both were making a similar affirmation? Here is what was found after some time.

Apparently, in both cultures the models of courtship (from the first glance to the moment of having sex) consisted in a series of about 30 steps. These 30 steps were the same in both cultures, but the problem was that they were positioned in different ways. Thus, for example, the kiss could have been the fifth step for the american guy, whereas it could have been the 25th for the English girl. Therefore, when the American guy decided to kiss the English girl (thinking that it was an extremely innocent gesture), she would think something like: "This pig is already kissing me!" Anyway, at this point she had to decide whether to run away or to get ready to have sex. If she went for the second choice the American guy would probably think: "Jesus, these English chicks are dirty!"

Therefore that's why the two parties were blaming each other for being too "dirty". Can we blame any of the two groups? Of course not; it is the nature of the interaction that makes such things happen. If we make the error of taking one's point of view as THE point of view, we fail to understand a key point in how human beings should approach one another. Misunderstandings as the one described above do not necessarily happen only to people coming from different cultures. As I have mentioned at the beginning of this post, if meta-communication of any kind is missing the risk for mistaking others' intentions is always behind the corner. I am going to say something more about that in one of the next posts...

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

COP15: What do People Say?

COP15 has officially started. Great hope for what is being decided in Copenhagen. In the editorial office of the Lonely Donkey Blog I had a discussion with myself and decided that I had to post something about it. Everybody is jumping on the bandwagon! Actually , to be honest, I am not writing anything, only pointing at a couple of interesting links (in my opinion) discussing about the climate conference.

1. Is Copenhagen the Best Place for the UN Climate Change Conference? An article appeared on FastCompany where the author ask himself and his readers if Copenhagen is really the a good place to host the conference. Apparently Denmark is not that green; or maybe it is?

2. What is China saying in Copenhagen? A blog entry taken from Freakonomics Blog written by Stephen Dubner disussing the role of China.

3. The Copenhagen Climate Conference. Green Enough? A nice diary of what is happening at COP15 from The Economist website. Apparently the whole thing is less interesting that we would expect. (thanks to Simone Moriconi for the link)

4. Political ill wind blows a hole in the climate change debate A little piece written by Tim Harford criticizing the approach taken by the world leaders.

Enjoy Responsibly!

PS: a lot of noise is being made about this whole thing of lowering our CO2 emissions. Someone suggests that much cheaper and quick approaches are possible. I had written a post on this interesting approach. You can find it here

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Identity, Discourse and Organizations: Managism

In the last post I had promised to write a piece to make what I had written there a bit more concrete. Here I am! I want to discuss the implications of a certain type of discourse on managers’ identities. The managism discourse can be defined as:

An everyday discourse at the hearth of which is the belief that there is a distinctive managerial expertise based on a body of objective management knowledge which managers should apply to enable them rationally to design, maintain and drive organisational systems in the same way that expert engineers design, maintain and drive machines. (Watson, 2006)

Think about it: almost all management books, MBAs promotional material and similar stuff tend to advance a similar discourse. Let us analyze the possible implications. Watson calls managism an “operating faith”; he says that one function of it is to comfort people and basically give them the sense of security they need in order to cope with the complexities of the profession. Watson tells us how the rhetoric used by this promotional material works as many stories do: “it builds up anxieties in the reader and then implies that these anxieties will be overcome by the purchase of the product”. The product being the book or the MBA program.

Anyway there is also a potentially dangerous side in the managism Discourse: it creates the idea that managers are very rational, cool, calculating and visionary leaders (better if equipped with an MBA from a top Business School). Managers are presented as heroes. This Discourse can therefore raise the level of expectations to an unattainable level making it very difficult to keep up with them. “And, of course, it demands [managers] that they prove themselves all the time by achieving more demanding ‘results’ ” (Watson, 2006). The results of not being able to cope with these expectations can be tragic (e.g.: stress, depression, suicide).

Sveningsson and Larsson (2006) suggest and interesting and alternative way in which managers may end up coping with the Discourses (of leadership): fantasy. In their article, they describe the interesting case of a middle manager whose actual inability to lead in a transformational way is compensated with a sort of “identity immune system” which makes him think that he is actually a transformational leader, despite what others think and say. Reality is compensated with fantasy. In describing the manager way of seeing himself Sveningsson and Larsson wrote: “self-identity as a transformative and visionary leader has taken on the quality of fantasy, understood as an idea that is disconnected from current reality […]”.

We have therefore briefly discussed the implications of the managism Discourse on managers’ identities. Of course, one should also understand that, luckily, there is space left for choice. In fact, as discussed in the last post, there are many contradicting and competing discourses on which we can draw. People are still active agents and therefore are not completely constrained in their actions. As Watson (2006) writes “there is a mixture of choice and constraint”. Different people make sense differently of such texts, depending on their identities, past experiences, etc… Since there are many different Discourses, there is room for choice, but sometimes the space may not be enough we could say. In fact, I think that it may be very difficult to step away from certain Discourses when living in a certain world (e.g.: business world) where they are so dominating. The managism Discourse is probably the strongest one and, I have to admit, that I also tend to be trapped in it when I think of the implications of undertaking a career in business.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Identity, Discourse & Organizations

Common sense – derived from a strictly modernist understanding of the world - describes the individual as a fixed entity with a certain given and stable personality. In fact, identity has been classically conceptualized as a well defined and stable construct: the idea being that it stabilizes itself and never changes, except in exceptional circumstances, once one reaches adulthood.

A post-modernist approach would instead suggest that the individual is rather, using George Herbert Mead words, a “parliament of selves” or, using another metaphor taken from Karl Weick, an “ongoing puzzle that is undergoing continuous redefinition”. A process of never ending negotiation, of struggle is what therefore characterizes the “identity work” we need to engage in, in order to try to reach the necessary sense of perceived stability.

In fact, we try to make sense of who we are by drawing on various cultural/linguistic resources such as narratives and discourses. The assumption here, as discussed in another post, is that language shapes the ways in which reality is constructed. This last point is easily understood if we consider how "we cannot know, think about or analyse the world without using concepts, language, [categories] and "frames of reference", which come from the social world that we are part of" (Watson, 2006).

For example discourses - understood as the historically contextualized collection of texts, logics and assumptions about something - can a have a more or less strong influence on the way we can plausibly think, or talk about a certain subject, on the way we enact reality and therefore make sense of ourselves. Various competing and contradicting discourses coexist at the same time and, almost certainly, none is going to offer a sufficiently strong grip in order to guarantee to the individual the comfort of a sense of coherence and stability. In fact, as humans we are better understood as strategic and situationally oriented: the specific context, the various ongoing projects, the competing discourses present at a given time and many other factors are going to influence the current sense of self and consequently how we make sense of reality.

From an organizational point of view this is interesting because this continuous struggle to define one’s identity is going to influence and, at the same time, to be influenced by organizational life. For example, people’s work orientation – the meaning and attitudes toward work – are going to change over time together with what an individual is going to be willing to exchange with the organization: the inputs, the physical and mental effort, the responsibilities, willingness to accept risk-taking, acceptance of managerial control and so on and so forth.

Moreover understanding people in this more process-relational way may help us understanding how there is actually a limit to the extent of control that a manager can reach over the people working in the organization: it is in fact impossible to herd the cats, or to control the uncontrollable.

To conclude, I think that the practical implications of this paradigm shift in how we conceptualize individuals are not to be underestimated. In fact, as we know, theories in social sciences tend to have the property of self-fulfilling prophecies: “If men define situations as real they are real in their consequences.”

In the next post on this theme, in order to make what I have explained here a bit more concrete, I am going to analyze the implications of a certain discursive approach to management.

PS: Most of Ideas for this post were taken from: Tony Watson (2006) Organizing and Managing Work. Financial Times/Prentice Hall