Everything to play for…

The coronavirus pandemic represents the first significant social, political and economic rupture in the UK since the five-year experience of world war just over a generation ago.

Of course, in the 76 years that have passed since that global warfare, catastrophes and horrors have afflicted various parts of the world – but we have been comfortable and largely cossetted. This perhaps led us to a tacit sense of invincibility, a feeling that the uncertainties of the human condition had been conquered.

We should no longer be cleaving to such a notion, in terms of what we have seen over the past 16 months or so. For some, though, so deeply is this idea entrained and engrained, that they are seeking to reclaim that assuredness even in the face of chaos. This represents an ideological commitment to the idea that the world at large is knowable and manageable. It makes modern management look natural, when our recent experience suggests that it shrouds itself in an illusion of competence and control.

The rupture that has accompanied the emergence of a new and frightening disease seems to have two effects. There is a sense in which people used the slackening of the context in which they lived and worked to test the boundaries and experience of autonomy when – in the past – this has been largely subsumed under the pretence of engagement and empowerment.

Paradoxically, while our personal lives became necessarily more constrained through lockdown practices, our professional selves – in some instances – found unexpected and unattended spaces in which to work more freely and with greater individual discretion.

Secondly, it has thrown into sharp relief things about our lives pre-COVID that perhaps we secretly knew were wrong or unhelpful. Seeing such things amplified has made us perhaps feel less willing to tolerate them and leave them unchallenged.

So far, so good – at least, from the perspective of those of us who felt the loosening of the bindings of organisational life as a positive thing. There will, of course, be those in corporate leadership who feel a sense of loss of status and power considering what was seen during this time. At a less mercenary level, there maybe those seized by an existential crisis, as they confront the fact that there is now an inescapable live example of where leadership flourished as a potential for everyone, as opposed to a sole preserve of those who carry the title of leader.

Working out where we are – and what we want

It seems to us that there is a tussle at large in terms of two sets of ideas: on the one hand, there is a perspective that acknowledges the changes we experienced in response to the crisis – and wants to make sense of that and to build out from it. On the other, there is a position that analyses our recent experience as a period of confusion and uncertainty from which we need to recover – and which holds to the view that the practices of the past stood us in good stead previously and need to be reclaimed as it appears that the chaos that we faced is beginning to stabilise.

In this space of contestation, it seems utterly vital to us that the voices of everyone should be encouraged. And, importantly, they should not merely be listened to – corporate leaders are now attuned to how they are meant to listen and can affect the pretence of so doing in so many ways – but truly heard. Those voices deserve our genuine and uninterrupted attention, rather than the cocked head, sympathetic nod, and murmur of agreement of “corporate listening”.

Work that we have undertaken recently speaks loudly to us about people’s experiences of – and concerns about – their experience of organisational life during the pandemic. In those conversations, we have worked hard to create room and safety for people to speak; to listen in a way that quietens our thoughts and the desire to speak, so that the voices of others fill that space; and to hear what is being said and how it’s being said, without seeking to mediate it through our experiences or the world view that we might hold.

What we have heard over recent months reminds us of the corporate distance that persists between those at the sharp end of our organisations and those sitting at the apex. We have heard how communication by senior leaders has been more open…but that it continues to exclude those at lower levels of the hierarchy. It looks as though this openness serves to bind together management, whilst still leaving many feeling out of the loop – perhaps even more so, when this shift is visible but remains inaccessible.

It reminds us that our organisations can often feel like an hourglass. A bulb at the top and one at the base – and a very narrow channel in the middle through which the grains of sand can drop down. At the bottom, people point upwards and darkly mutter about “them” at the top; similarly, those at the top frustratedly glare down and make generalisations about “them” below. From those entrenched positions, the potential for listening, let alone hearing, is significantly limited.

The problem with resorting to a catch-all phrase like “them” is that it effaces the human beings that are subsumed in that category. Indeed, it objectifies them into a whole, against which it is then possible to project one’s irritation and ire, rather than distinguishes each of them as a human subject in their own right – and bearing their own anxieties, concerns, and perhaps even fears.  

We heard also that there was sometimes a gap between corporate commitments to staff health and wellbeing and the capacity for people at every level of the organisation to be able to access that provision. And occasionally a very distinctive edge appeared in conversations that took place between employees and managers, particularly in respect to occasions when health care staff inadvertently contracted COVID, where the individual was often seen to be in some way culpable. This also seemed to be manifest itself in an attitude that took the view that everyone gets stressed at work – and what’s needed is for people to just pull themselves together.

Lastly, we heard that the chaos nudged management into a command-and-control mindset and practice. In many instances, this makes sense: after all, if someone suffers a cardiac arrest whilst in a hospital, they would likely not want the crash team to sit around in a reflective circle to discuss how best to proceed; they would doubtless prefer that someone take charge and direct others in support of a joint effort to resuscitate them.

But, outside of that specific moment of crisis, of course, there would be no reason for leadership to continue to be practised in that way. But we heard that this was the experience of many, wherein decisions were being made at a managerial level, but no one was sharing what information they had accessed that led to that response. (This despite the fact, of course, that most organisations ceaselessly vacuum data up the line with constant demands for people at the sharp end to supply it but little explanation as to why it is being asked for and what use it will have once received.)

Similarly, we heard people speak about being told, perhaps in the way in which a parent might speak to a child, but never consulted – or even spoken with – about the circumstances and reasons for that instruction. This, of course, would have passed unremarked in the early industrial period, when management first began to appear and was seen to wield unrestrained power of the employees.

The iron fist in the velvet glove

These days, we have been sold the idea of involvement, engagement and empowerment – largely illusory corporate commitments, to our minds, but ideologically significant in our workplaces – so to be suddenly confronted by the iron fist in the velvet glove is a shock to the system. And, indeed, the fact that the iron fist hammers down without distinction – whether the organisational challenge faced is simple, complicated, complex or chaotic – means that its impact is felt all the more.

Our provisional conclusion in response to all that we’ve heard just recently is a simple one but difficult to apply, for a range of reasons. We suggest that everyone should be allowed the space, time and attention to bear witness to what they’ve seen, how they’ve felt, and how they’d like things to be. This goes beyond encouraging people to speak up and affecting the appearance of listening; it means that we have actually to hear what it is that is being said – and how that in turn makes us feel and want to act.

Truly hearing the voices of others impacts the ideological certainty that we carry in us about the world as we experience it – and our personal understanding of our place in it. As in an eye test, it invites us to view the world through a variety of lenses, with the aim of clarifying our vision and the way in which we see the world.

Only through this dialogue will we ease the tensions between the binaries that exist, such as then and now (the old ways versus the new possibilities, in respect to the rupture of the past year or so); them and us (an entrenched view that objectifies others and makes no space for their subjectivity); and positive and negative (regarding what we think is good and bad in the organisational presence of others).

We need to pay attention to the unspoken tension in the workplace between the dominant voice – an overbearing discourse that emerges from those in positional power and also from the regimes of silence generated via “pluralistic ignorance” – and the subaltern voices.

The voices that for so long have gone unheard.

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