Systems of Labels

An Achilles Heel in systems thinking?

By John Higgins & Mark Cole

The systemic perspective has been a regular framing for making sense of the social world in an inter-connected, dynamic way. Its strength being to allow for the vitality of how organizing happens to be seen, escaping from a world of pre-configured, hierarchical machine modelling built around simplistic causes and effects. It helps explain why seemingly unimportant and minor actors and actions in the world can bring about consequences that outweigh their apparent significance.

It enjoys a significant presence in corporate discussions presently, especially in the context of health and social care. Although this systems approach is offered as a panacea, it is a slippery term that presents in a range of manifestations. There is a sense in which it is possible to argue that a room full of systems thinkers are each likely to be thinking something different to one another in terms of systems. And, as ever, with the application of an idea into a field of practice, there is some slippage in terms of its meaning as this translation (or clumsy transliteration) happens.

In most organizational contexts, then, the application of systems thinking is fatally flawed. Its attention is too often on the roles and titles within a social system, from Chief Executive to Chief Bottle Washer, and ignores the specific qualities of relationship that exist between flesh and blood individuals going about their work. This seems to occur despite the fact that orientations towards structure and towards system are seen to be discrete, with the former seeking to describe formally how things should get done and the latter providing insight into how they actually get done.

Systems thinking has inherited the flaw of much social thinking over the decades, privileging the label over the relationship and the individuals who are in that relationship. Hence, it is important to steer away from the “individualism” that is so central to neo-liberal thinking about organisations; instead, we should focus on the relational, which can be described thus:

Relating is a constructive, ongoing process of meaning making, through language, in multilogue.

Dachler & Hosking (2013) The primacy of relations in socially constructing organizations realities. In Hosking, Dachler & Gergen (Eds) Management and organisation: Relational alternatives to individualism. Avebury Books: Aldershot. p6

In John’s coaching work with people working at the sharp end of the pandemic he is struck by the collision of world views, between people who see the world through labels and those who engage with the world of inter-personal connection and relationship. So his client ‘B’ cannot help himself; he’s a natural empath who connects with fellow clinicians, non-clinicians and patients as a matter of course. As a result, he’s invited into all sorts of spontaneous conversations and meetings because he is liked professionally and personally – he’s a man of enlivening character and judicious insight. Meanwhile his more label minded colleagues and managers see him as a nuisance, an active disrupter and threat to their formally established roles and the approved chain of command.

When we try and understand a world as a system of labels, we engage with it at a bloodless level, through a lens of detachment which brings some clarity in terms of a pure bureaucratic Weberian ideal, where everybody is inter-changeable and the task can be uncoupled from the person, their history and the web of relationships. The linguistic theories of De Saussure recognised the distance between the signified (the mental notion of a thing about which we speak) and the signifier (the way in which we speak about that thing) but preserved a linkage; the post-structuralists pursued this to its logical conclusion and broke that link, so as philosophically to allow the signifier to float free. And, in our corporate worlds, we have allowed those labels to dance on stage behind the proscenium arch, ethereal and uninterested in bursting out of the fourth wall.

This allows for an ever-changing body of people to attend meetings and make decisions, so long as the pre-requisite roles and functions are represented – a world view that would lead that great commentator of the human condition John Cooper Clarke to ask: “Speaking as an outsider, what do you think of the human race?” If we were minded to market models – and we are not – we’d generate a graphic that articulated a timeline of the meetings that occur in response to the arrival in corporate life of a newly proposed initiative: a function like HR will initially be represented by a Director, who will delegate at some point to a Deputy Director, who will drop it onto a Head of, who will likely find a team member of acceptable – but not too vertiginous – elevation in the hierarchy to turn up to keep the seat warm.

This notion explains why meetings simply end up reproducing themselves and never really playing proper host to meaningful conversations. Similarly, it underscores how just the act of meeting reinforces the wearisome presence of hierarchy in our organisations. Lastly, it demonstrates how “organisation” manifests in a “system of labels”, rather than in the practicalities of what it is that people are coming together to try and do in this particular corporate container,

Our sense is that this framing hides the real dynamics of any social system, the flesh and blood of human affection and antagonism, love and jealousy, freedom and domination. It is these dynamics that explain why one particular group of people can come together to achieve amazing things, while a different group who look the same on paper, with all the same titles and quantities, achieve nothing but confusion and acrimony.

In much of John’s work, he emphasises the importance of titles, how they shape who gets heard and who doesn’t. Now we want to go beyond simply taking titles as a given and pay attention to what happens when all that we see are people’s titles, and lose sight of the individual and their relational qualities.

Some people with socially constructed low status titles enable and achieve great things, while others with all the titles and status in the world achieve nothing beyond the horizons of their self-regard.

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