John Higgins & Mark Cole
We all of us are in some fashion dependent on other people. We rely upon the support and solace of loved ones and close friends. We each of us bring something distinctive to a group of people – and, in turn, recognise what others are bringing. Only perhaps when those rich social connections are denied us do we begin to acknowledge their centrality; as Otis Redding reminded us back in 1965:
“But now that you left me/
Ooh, how I cried out, I keep crying/
You don’t miss your water/
‘Till your well runs dry.”
It would seem to be the case that dependency is an essential character of the everyday relations that we forge in our lives. So, it seems particularly nefarious that this core facet of our humanity should be seized upon and crudely mobilised in the service of instrumental leadership in organisational life. Indeed, at the heart of this notion – which we will take time to expand upon later – is the active promotion of dependency as a means of social control in the workplace. Let’s explore this a little further.
We take the view that there exists a perversion of the Bionesque basic assumption of dependency (BAD) in such settings, a pervasive social habit playing out in nearly all organisations, large and small. It is an orienting principle that results in a compliant workforce, forever in thrall to whatever it is the great gods of leadership would have them do. A useful introduction to this aspect of Bion’s work is offered by Jon Stokes (2004).
Compliant, passive, dependent employees find themselves putting up with whatever madness the executive elite bounce them into, from the perpetual need for corporate reorganisation… to the glorification of the external advisors (who talk of the wider, non-executive, organisation as little more than a stage army, to be redeployed, re-educated and retired as necessary)… and the justification of egregious ‘incentive’ programmes for those who are already handsomely rewarded and cost control for the fungible masses.
It is important to stress here that this is not a productive dependency, such as that which might be said to undergird so many of our more life-affirming social and work relations. It is a forced dependency, one that seeks to ensnare us in its conceit, the better to ensure our compliance and docility. It derives from what can reasonably be said to be the false notion that the workforce in some way depends upon the tiers of leadership that squat on their collective backs. Importantly, it is a dependency that is not built on reciprocity.
Instead, it is founded on the ideological notion that organisations need leadership, which is an assertion ripe for contestation, in a world where the notion freely circulates without any sort of challenge and is advanced by the way in which it is weaved into a wider context of the how and why of organisations. For instance, much is made in business literature about the symbiotic relationship between leadership and followership. Indeed, from a philosophical perspective, the former cannot be said to exist without the latter. You only get to position yourself as a leader if I – and others like me – surrender our agency and assume a subaltern role. And I am compelled to follow only if I acknowledge your position over me as something called a “leader”.
So transfixed do we become by this tautological circularity that we allow a discourse to assert itself wherein the very notion of whether the position of leader and follower is meaningful in human relations is disappeared, let alone whether these concepts are beneficial or deleterious in terms of people coming together to get things done. One way of understanding how that discourse is formed is to recognise that:
‘Leadership is a concept that starts from an assumption of authority, that there must be some people in organisations that give orders, make decisions, and expect obedience. Without the acceptance of authority, there is no way to ensure that orders are taken seriously or that people will be persuaded to do anything.’Casagrande & Rivera (2020) Leadership and authority. In Parker, Stoborod & Swann [Eds] Anarchism, organization and management: Critical perspectives for students. Abingdon: Routledge. pp111-122
Our view extends beyond this notion of authority, which is grounded in a traditional perspective on the topic, discernible in the early discussions by Goldhamer and Shils (1939) about power in organisations and the way that it asserts itself through the granting of status to the leader by others. Instead, we look to this power-soaked manifestation of Bion’s BAD, where the relations in the workplace hinge upon this practice of dependency. Here, the leaders foster the idea and live out the psychological experience that the organisation (and all of its associated notions, such as effectiveness, productivity, efficiency, well-being, culture, to name but a few) is dependent on there being leaders doing something called leadership.
The idea of organisation without this form of authority does, however, have a long history. In 1897, Malatesta opined that:
‘…organization which is, after all, only the practice of cooperation and solidarity, is a natural and necessary condition of social life; it is an inescapable fact which forces itself on everybody, as much on human society in general as on any group of people who are working towards a common objective. Since humanity neither wishes to, nor can, live in isolation it is inevitable that those people who have neither the means, nor a sufficiently developed social conscience to permit them to associate freely with those of a like mind and with common interests, are subjected to the organization by others.’
We therefore argue that being subjected to organisation by others is to cede to modern notions of leadership in corporate settings. It is to accept the discursive assumption sown deeply into the material of our daily organisational lives that there are leaders and their followers – and that the former are deserving of their status, notwithstanding the fact that their contribution to the business of the business is extremely difficult to discern.
The alternative, as we see it, is time to call out most modern, senior leadership for what it is – an expensive, self-regarding elite who in practice often actively distract from the ability of the wider organisation to deliver on its primary task… assuming that task is not to meet the ego, status and control needs of big leadership.
In that regard, Julie Cousins’ resignation note to a supervisor who she felt had demeaned her on the basis of her supposedly lowly position as a cleaner at HSBC is a powerful act of public defiance. It has potency because she openly gave voice to subaltern and contrary perspectives, in direct contradiction to the tacit narrative that holds sway in corporate life that those at the top of the hierarchy are worth more, in terms of both what they are presumed to contribute to the firm – and in respect of what they are paid in light of that supposition.
By sustaining relationships of pacifying dependency, the felt need for the big daddy (and occasionally mummy) to tell us what to do, keeps the whole show on the road. Stripped of a sense of chosen agency, micro-measured to within a second of every visit to the toilet or RAG report updated, people have to look elsewhere for a sense of authority and influence – and find it there on the shining hill of the executive suite, where sits the wonderful source of all power. As Bion’s framing expects, so they hand over their lives to these great rulers.
When a company, in the form of its HR department, executives and shiny consultants, turns its potent eye to worry about the perennial problem of workforce engagement, they take themselves out of the picture – and see only the part of the picture which excuses them for any role in this disengagement. Instead, they try to motivate this lumpen mass in the only way they know, either through punishment or through the joujous of fruit drops and exhortations to self-care, neither of which achieve much and are two sides of the same coin, as Alfie Kohn so eloquently notes. This leads us to the powerful observation that:
‘Work organizations have long employed various management techniques in order to maximize workers’ engagement, which in itself implies that ‘alienation’ at work is common.’Kociatkiewicz, Kostera, and Parker (2020) The possibility of disalienated work: Being at home in alternative organizations. Human Relations. at
The basic psychological, social and economic contract remains undiscussed, with the learned and sustained relational contract of power-constructed dependency ensuring that people experience themselves as too passive and compliant to point out the obvious. That the interests of the self-justifying elite are not the interests of the wider corporate body.
We continue to live in the shadow of the clock and the production line, which stripped people of their skill and their sense of self at work. At least Henry Ford had to pay his workforce relatively handsomely to put up with the immiserating nature of working on a production line – these days people get both lousy pay and insecurity to go with the anti-developmental nature of working life.
What is to be done? Start by challenging the taken for granted obeisance of the workplace to the ego, status and control needs of senior leaders. Start by naming the BAD and calling out the demeaning and immiserating consequences of workplace relationships predicated on the ‘divine right of leaders’, an attitude of mind with its roots in the justification of medieval monarchs to rule as they saw fit, appointed as they were by the will of God.