On taking text to task

We find ourselves in organisational life surrounded by texts that serve to shape the warp and weft of our work place and our everyday experience of it. I am using the term “text” in its widest possible sense here, encompassing any formalised capture of policies, strategies, protocols, and procedures. Hence, this can include formal documents as well as posters, leaflets and infographics that articulate such things. It also stretches out to include the theories, models, techniques and approaches that are common place in this context – and upon which we might end up relying in our work as OD practitioners.

One key theme that runs through a more radical approach to OD (and to our more general and individual engagement in organisational life) is the need to engage critically with that around us that seems familiar and largely unquestioned. (It is worth noting here that one of the central arguments of the book that John Higgins and I have written, which will be published this year, is that leadership practice in corporate life simply neglects the headwaters of management thinking, preferring instead to splash about in the shallows downstream.)

The reason we need to engage critically is simple: such common sense and common place notions are inscribed with power and hence act as conduits for that power – and, if we take our role of truth-telling seriously, then we need to call that out wherever it might manifest itself.

In a recent practice workshop conversation around the use of deconstruction to unravel unchallenged texts in corporate settings, the group came up with five key observations that might help us to use this type of approach in our day to day work.

Applying a critical eye

We should begin by asserting quite simply: “Don’t take anything you read as read.” (Particular thanks to Sebastien for this brilliant starting point.) Everything is open to exploration and interrogation, regardless of how familiar – or indeed comforting – it might feel to us.

Our countercultural potential

OD is laden with potential to be counter-cultural…and we need to explore within ourselves the extent to which we actualise that potential in the course of our actual practice. As practitioners, we are invited to work at the surface…but our practice takes us into the underneath; we are very often commissioned to work on epiphenomenal issues, whilst our work allows us privileged access to the impressions, reactions and thoughts of the wider workforce. We can either keep those two realms separate (to their mutual disbenefit) or consider how best to create a bridge between the two.

One aspect of this – and these are the sorts of disparities that we need to consider calling out as we go about our OD work – are the mantras of organisational life, such as “Be diverse! (But like this)” or “Be agile! (But like this)“. (These exquisite examples of the sorts of unwritten “text” that needs critical exploration were offered to us by Alastair.)

Challenge notions of “rebellion”

Throughout this sort of endeavour, we need to be mindful that critical engagement is often speedily categorised in organisational life as dissent. In another conversation earlier this week with Megan Reitz, in response to a well-considered question from the “floor”, we touched upon the way in which corporate life tends to react to what it perceives as unacceptable truth-telling, which is to cast it as rebellion.

This allows the truth-teller to be pathologized, as if there’s something wrong with them so they shouldn’t be listened to…or sometimes to be cast in the role of the jester, allowed to say the unsayable but in a context where the sting is seen to have been taken out of it because it is veiled in humour. And, as someone from the floor suggested, sometimes that person just gets sacked.

Watch your language

Focusing in on deconstruction as a way to consider engaging with text critically may be useful in regard to orientation to the work – but the term resides in a wider philosophical superstructure from which some of the people with whom we work may be driven away. The fact that this undergirding sees language as cut free from any connection with something that might be described as “reality” sets up a particular challenge for people like us, trying to work conceptually with the aim of generating practical outcomes.

In some ways, this type of criticality perhaps owes more to phenomenology, where you are invited to focus in on what it is that is in front of you – and you just attend to that thing, in and of itself. This ongoing investigation of the phenomenon that confronts you urges you to steer away from detailed technical descriptions; it also nudges you to avoid emotional attachments that might arise for you in respect to the phenomenon at which you are looking.

However, it remains the case that deconstruction is concerned with allowing a text to expose its contradictions; to reveal the binary oppositions that are located within it; and to acknowledge the way in which its position has incorporated, excluded, or simply silenced other voices that exist. Moreover, it invites the text to reveal the quality and affect of the metaphors used – and, importantly, it announces that the text – once created – is free of its author, and so is actively rewritten with each and every reading.

Hence, while we may not wish to speak openly of “deconstruction”, we need to hold onto these sorts of key qualities that sit in this way of understanding the world, not least because all of the above speaks volumes about power, which is a chief area of concern for us in the practice of radical OD

Find ways to do the work

In light of the above, we can instead speak about encouraging people to engage a different quality of attention to the texts that surround us in the workplace. Sebastien spoke of viewing a statue in an art gallery, where we apply a different scrutiny to that which we might observe in our everyday settings. Hence, we walk around it; we might be captivated by the light and the way it strikes it at certain points (and at particular times of the day, perhaps); and we will take contrasting views of it when we see it from a distance – and when we’re close up.

Above all in this respect – as Pauline and Barbara usefully discussed – we should aim to undertake this type of work not simply for the sake of it, deconstructing in order simply for the sake of disrupting the organisation; instead, we should engage in this sort of exercise appropriately in regard to addressing specific pieces of work. So, their starting question was, “What is the task that we’re looking to work on together?”

This then generates a picture of the texts that might serve to constrain or limit that collaboration – and hence gives permission to people to explore them critically, in the ways that have been described here.

Getting underneath

So much organisational life is conducted at a superficial and unengaged level. Modern managers are transfixed by the gewgaws of the thought leaders and gurus of the business world, rarely questioning the underpinnings of the circumstances in which they find themselves. As Francoise pointed out in the discussion, these managers are challenged constantly in corporate life to offer up evidence of having thought differently in order to support change and improvement in terms of overall effectiveness. But the line is drawn there: different thinking is innovative, whilst critical thinking is cast aside as disruptive.

We have to recognise that we – as OD practitioners – are oftentimes similarly hypnotised by the new and all-encompassing, so need also to attend to the head waters of thinking in our field. We need to be exemplary in our practice, interrogating everything that we take for granted – and thereby supporting others to do the same.

Ultimately, though, this is not merely an intellectual exercise – and it needs to be located in the fabric of our work as opposed to the foundations of our ethics. By finding ways of applying this way of thinking to the work that we are invited to do, we are encouraging this type of critical thinking to become part of the organisational practice of everyone in the workplace.

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