Recognising the messiness of organisational life

Chris Mowles has some droll reflections in response to a 360 degree “leadership” questionnaire. I love his statement of the assumptions implicit in the questions:

The tenor of questionnaire conjures up an orderly organizational world with the leader in rational control, proposing and disposing, choosing and identifying, analyzing and solving. This leader is aware that there might be differences of opinion, even conflict, (although there were only two questions from the 40 acknowledging this) but this does not faze them, since they are able to point out the differences, accept, soothe and reconcile. The leader has positional power and can use it to convince colleagues of change, which is good for them and which they are likely to oppose. Change is always good, and so is innovation: this leader is always innovative knowing in advance what will turn out well for the organization. The leader is able to tell the difference between a risky risk and one that is reasonable: they are just on the right side of edgy… The staff this leader inspires are bit part players, adjuncts to the leader’s will, a cast of actors to be directed, moulded, aroused and measured, all for the good of the organization.

I think that really nails the world imagined by these questionnaires and it’s good to have it stated. Otherwise, I think many of us start to think we must be rather inadequate, compared to the idealised figures conjured up.

And here is a little of Chris’ alternative version of what the subject of the questions might be facing:

In the game of organizational life the leader can expect to be as much played by the game as they are playing it. They are not standing on the sidelines dictating the course of the game. Although they may have positional power, they too are subject to requests and requirements which often come from left field, unexpected or unintended consequences, disrupting and displacing their carefully articulated projects, plans and milestones… Sometimes staff will do what is required of them and will do it well and creatively. And sometimes they will subvert, misunderstand, mishear, act up, be difficult, connive and generally follow their own interests. It is in the exploration of this daily hurly burly that what we later come to call ‘innovations’ emerge, although we may not realise it till afterwards.

In short, the reality of organisational life is so much messier than HR department formulae pretend. I suggest that by embracing the mess, we have some chance of managing it in a more human and real way.

1 thought on “Recognising the messiness of organisational life

  1. Earl Mardle

    In the Social Life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid point out that all organisations function at all because of the widespread, socially mediated breaking of the rules.

    The best way to cripple and organisation is to “work to rule” because the rules and systems don’t function, only their breaking functions. Until and unless organisations and the people “running” them get this, all this management BS will be just that.

    Still, it keeps the consultants from molesting the sheep so its not totally wasted.

    Reply

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