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Understanding “flexibility” – a close-up view of an organizational platitude

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Flexibility is one of those buzzwords that keeps coming up in organizational communiques and discussions. People are continually asked to display flexibility, without ever being told what the term means:  flexible workplaces, flexible attitudes, flexible jobs – the word itself has a flexible meaning that depends on the context in which it is used and by whom.

When words are used in this way they become platitudes – empty words that make a lot of noise. In this post, I analyse the platitude, flexibility, as it is used in organisations. My discussion is based on a paper by Thomas Eriksen entitled, Mind the Gap: Flexibility, Epistemology and the Rhetoric of New Work.

Background – a bit about organizational platitudes

One of the things that struck me when I moved from academia to industry is the difference in the way words or phrases are used in the two domains. In academics one has to carefully define the terms one uses (particularly if one is coining a new term) whereas in business it doesn’t seem to matter, words can mean whatever one wants them to mean (OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by too much). Indeed, as Paul Culmsee and I discuss in the first chapter of The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, many terms that are commonly bandied about in organizations are platitudes because they are understood differently by different people.

A good example of a platitude is the word governance. One manager may see governance as being largely about oversight and control whereas another might interpret it as being about providing guidance.  Such varying interpretations can result in major differences in the way the two managers implement governance:  the first one might enforce it as a compliance-oriented set of processes that leave little room for individual judgement while the other might implement it as a broad set of guidelines that leave many of the decisions in the hands of those who are actually doing the work. Needless to say, the results in the two cases are likely to be different too.

Flexibility – the conventional view

A good place to start our discussion of flexibility is with the dictionary. The online Oxford Dictionary defines at as:

Flexibility (noun):

  • the ability to be easily modified
  • willingness to change or compromise

The term is widely used in both these senses in organizational settings. For example, people speak of flexible designs (i.e. designs that can be easily modified) or flexible people (referring to those who are willing to change or compromise). However,  and this is the problem:  the term is open to interpretation – what Jack might term a flexible approach may be seen by Jill as a complete lack of method. These differences in interpretation become particularly obvious when the word is used in a broad context – such as in a statement justifying an organizational change.  An executive might see a corporate restructure and the resulting changes in jobs/roles as a means to achieve organizational flexibility, but those affected by it may see it as constraining theirs.  As Eriksen states:

Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed almost overnight, and the boundaries between work and leisure are negotiable and chronically fuzzy.

Indeed, such “flexibility” which requires one to change at short notice results in a fragmentation of individual experience and a resulting loss of a coherent narrative of one’s life. It appears that increased flexibility in one aspect results in a loss of flexibility in another. Any sensible definition of flexibility ought to reflect this.

Understanding flexibility

Consider the following definition of flexibility proposed by Gregory Bateson:

Flexibility is uncommitted potential for change

This deceptively simple statement is a good place to start understanding what flexibility really means for projects, organisations …and even software systems.

As Eriksen tells us, Bateson proposed this definition in the context of ecology. In particular, Bateson had in mind the now obvious notion that the increased flexibility we gain through our increasingly energy-hungry lifestyles results in a decrease in the environment’s capacity to cope with the consequences. This is true of flexibility in any context: a gain in flexibility in one dimension will necessarily be accompanied by a loss of flexibility in another.

Another implication of the above definition is that a system that is running at or near the limits of its operating variables cannot be flexible.  The following examples should make this clear:

  • A project team that is putting in 18 hour workdays in order to finish a project on time.
  • A car that’s being driven at top speed.
  • A family living beyond their means.

All these systems are operating at or near their limits, they have little or no spare capacity to accommodate change.

A third implication of the definition follows from the preceding one:  the key variables of a flexible system should lie in the mid-range of their upper and lower limits. In terms of above examples:

  • The project team should be putting in normal hours.
  • The car should be driven at or below the posted road speed limits
  • The family should be living within its income, with a reasonable amount to spare.

Of course, the whole point of ensuring that systems operate in their comfort zone is that they can be revved up if the need arises. Such revving up, however,  should be an exceptional circumstance rather than the norm – a point that those who run projects, organisations (and, yes, even vehicles) often tend to forget. If one operates a system at the limits of its tolerance for too long, not only will it not be flexible, it will break.

Flexibility in the workplace

As mentioned in the introduction, the term flexibility keeps cropping up in organizational settings: corporate communiques exhort employees to be flexible in the face of change.  This is typically a coded signal that employees should expect uncertainty and be prepared to adjust to it.  A related manifestation of flexibility is the blurring of the distinction between work and personal life. As Eriksen puts it:

The term flexibility is often used to describe this new situation: Jobs are flexible in the sense that they are unstable and uncertain, few employees hold the same jobs for many years, the content of jobs can be changed, and the boundaries between work and leisure are poorly defined.

This trend is aided by recent developments in technology that enable employees to be perpetually on call. This is often sold as a work from home initiative but usually ends up being much more.  Eriksen has this to say about home offices:

One recent innovation typically associated with flexibility is the home office. In Scandinavia (and some other prosperous, technologically optimistic regions), many companies equipped some of their employees with home computers with online access to the company network in the early 1990s, in order to enhance their flexibility. This was intended to enable employees to work from home part of the time, thereby making the era when office workers were chained to the office desk all day obsolete.

In the early days, there were widespread worries among employers to the effect that a main outcome of this new flexibility would consist in a reduction of productivity. Since there was no legitimate way of checking how the staff actually spent their time out of the office, it was often suspected that they worked less from home than they were supposed to. If this were in fact the case, working from home would have led to a real increase in the flexibility of time budgeting. However, work researchers eventually came up with a different picture. By the late 1990s, hardly anybody spoke of the home office as a convenient way of escaping from work; rather, the concern among unionists as well as researchers was now that increasing numbers of employees were at pains to distinguish between working hours and leisure time, and were suffering symptoms of burnout and depression. The home office made it difficult to distinguish between contexts that were formerly mutually exclusive because of different physical locations.

It is interesting to see this development in the light of Bateson’s definition of flexibility: the employee gains flexibility in space (he or she can work from home or from the office) at the expense of flexibility in time (organization time encroaches on personal time). As Eriksen states:

 There seems to be a classic Batesonian flexibility trade-off associated with the new information technologies: increased spatial flexibility entails decreased temporal flexibility. If inaccessibility and ‘empty time’ are understood as scarce resources, the context of ‘new work’ thus seems to be an appropriate context for a new economics as well. In fact, a main environmental challenge of our near future will consist in protecting slow time and gaps from environmental degradation.

In short, it appears that flexibility for the organization necessarily implies a loss of flexibility for the individual.


Flexibility is in the eye of the beholder: an action to increase organisational flexibility by, say, redeploying employees would likely be seen by those affected as a move that constrains their  (individual) flexibility.  Such a dual meaning is characteristic of many organizational platitudes such as Excellence, Synergy and Governance. It is an interesting exercise to analyse such platitudes and expose the difference between their espoused and actual meanings.  So I sign off for 2013, wishing you  many hours of platitude-deconstructing fun :-)

Written by K

December 11, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Patterns of miscommunication in organisations

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The hierarchical structure of many workplaces tends to constrain or even stifle open exchange of ideas and information. This is particularly apparent in communication between employees who are at different levels in a hierarchy: people are generally reluctant to speak their minds in front of their managers, even when assured that it is perfectly OK to do so.   There is good reason for this: managers often “talk the talk” about being open to other points of view but contradict their words subsequently (see my article entitled, the paradox of the learning organization, for an example of this).

In this post I draw on this paper by Max Visser to describe some of the tactics or patterns of miscommunication which managers employ to sideline, devalue or even completely dismiss employee viewpoints.


Those who toil in the lower echelons of an organisation’s hierarchy can easily sense the gap between managerial talk and intent.  One setting in which this gap becomes particularly evident is in group meetings, where a manager’s words may say, “speak freely” but his body language or responses may append an unspoken “be aware of the consequences”   clause.

As I have discussed in this post, communication is just as much about context (e.g. manager-subordinate relationship within an organisational setting) as it is about content.  This point of view is central to the interactional view of communication that originated in the work of Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick.  According to the interactional view, communication operates at two levels: the spoken or written meaning (content) and the situation/relationship (context). Among other things, this view focuses on the ways in which the content of a message – such as “speak freely” – may be rendered ambiguous by signals that appear to contradict it.  In the remainder of this post we’ll look at a few ways in which managers do this via verbal communication. We’ll also take a brief look at the different ways in which employees respond to such behaviour.

Patterns of miscommunication

The best way to describe these patterns is through an example. Consider the following situation:

An employee presents a business case for a new CRM system to his manager. In the presentation, the employee describes the rationale for implementing a new system and then evaluates a few products based on agreed financial, technical and other criteria. Finally, he recommends a particular product, System X, based on the evaluation and then seeks feedback from his manager.

The manager, who does not want to commit to a course of action may choose one of the following strategies to devalue the employee’s work:


In this case the manager makes a statement that acknowledges the employee’s message but ignores its  content and intent by saying something like:

So how long have you been working on this?”

By going off on a tangent, the manager  avoids giving a relevant response.


There are four types of disqualification


This occurs when a manager avoids giving a response by changing the topic.  For example, the manager might glance at his watch and saying:

“Oh is that the time?  I have to go, I’m late for a meeting with my boss.”

The difference between tangentialisation and evasion is that in the latter, the manager does not even acknowledge the message.

Sleight of hand

Here the manager appears to acknowledge the message,  but then switches the topic. An example of this would be a response along the lines of:

“Yes, you enough data for a Phd thesis here [laughs]. I think we’re drowning in data.“

The point here is that the manager initiates a discussion about a side issue – the volume of  information presented in the business case rather  than its relevance or veracity. Moreover this is done in an apparently light-hearted, yet somewhat demeaning way. Thus although the manager avoids giving direct feedback, he still makes it clear  he does not think that the employee’s work is up to scratch.

Status disqualification

Here the manager switches the focus from the message to the messenger. Usually status disqualification is accompanied by insinuations regarding the messenger’s competence. A typical example of this would be a comment like:

“It’s clear you have not done these kinds of presentations before!”

Without saying it explicitly, the manager is implying that the employee has not done a good job and therefore no further discussion is necessary.

Redundant question

This is where the manager lobs the ball back in the employee’s court by asking a question that implicitly challenges the employee’s conclusions. An example would be:

“[smiles knowingly] I see, but does your data justify your choice of System X?”

Such a question signals the manager is not convinced, but without explicit disagreement. The onus is now on the employee to justify his conclusions.


Here the manager changes the context of the discussion altogether by saying something like:

“Let me tell you something about CRM systems.”

Here the manager changes the frame of the discussion – it is now about educating the employee rather than evaluating the product. Of course, in doing so he also insinuates that the employee’s analysis is not worthy of a response.

Employee responses to managerial miscommunication

When faced with any of the above tactics, the employee can respond in one of the following ways:

  1. Meta-communication: Here the employee understands the manager’s tactics and attempts to point out the inconsistency and double speak in the manager’s response.  This is a risky course of action because the manager may view it as a direct challenge to his or her authority. However, if done right, the manager may actually become aware of the incongruence of his/her response and change behaviour accordingly.
  2. Evasion: Here the employee withdraws from the conversation by ignoring the manager’s message altogether.  One way to do this is to offer no response at all, but this might not be possible as the manager may well insist on a response.
  3. Acceptance: In this case the employee accepts the content of the manager’s response, but ignores the non-verbal signals (derogatory tone, looking at watch etc.).  In doing so, the employee effectively accepts the manager’s criticisms.
  4. Countering: Here the employee counters the manager’s message by  using one of the tactics of the previous section. This generally leads to a verbal escalation as the manager will view such a response as a direct challenge to his authority and thus respond in kind.

Because of the nature of the manager-employee relationship and the fear of challenging authority, I would hazard a guess that majority of employees would respond by acceptance or (more infrequently) by evasion. In an ideal organisation, of course, they would respond by meta-communicating.


In this post I have described some common patterns of miscommunication between managers and the managed in organisation-land.  The common element in all the patterns is that the manager acknowledges the message at one level but responds in such a way as to leave the employee confused about how the response should be interpreted. In effect, the miscommunicating manager avoids giving a response.

The interactional view of communication tells us that context and relationship are more important than the content of a message because what is not said is often more significant than what is. The patterns listed above make this amply clear:  managers who miscommunicate are asserting their positional authority rather than saying anything of substance or value.

Written by K

November 1, 2013 at 5:37 am

On the contradictions of consulting (and management) rhetoric

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Successful management consultants are often seen as experts and trendsetters in the business world. The best among them are able to  construct convincing narratives about their expertise and experience, thereby gaining the  trust of senior managers in large organisations.

Have you ever wondered how they manage to pull this off?

In a paper entitled, The Invincible Character of Management Consulting Rhetoric: How One Blends Incommensurates While Keeping Them Apart, Jonas Berglund and Andreas Werr discuss how consultants, unbeknownst to their clients, often draw from two mutually contradictory forms of rhetoric to construct their arguments: rational (scientific or fact-based) and practical (action-based). This renders them immune to potential challenges from skeptics.  This post, which is based on the work of Berglund and Werr, is an elaboration of this claim.

Background and case study

Typically management consultants are hired to help organisations formulate and implement strategic initiatives aimed at improving organisational performance.  On the ground, such initiatives usually result in large-scale change initiatives such as organisation-wide restructuring or the implementation of enterprise systems.  Whatever the specific situation, however, consultants are generally brought in because clients perceive them as being experts who have the necessary knowledge and practical experience to plan and execute such transformations.

A typical consulting engagement consists of many interactions between consultants and diverse client-side stakeholders.  Berglund and Werr begin their paper with a description of an example of such an interaction drawn from their fieldwork in a large organisation. In brief: the  example describes a workshop that was aimed at redesigning business processes in an organisation. The two-day event was facilitated by the consultants and involved many stakeholders from the business.  I reproduce their description of the event below so that you can read it in its original form:

The event begins with a plenary session. The 25 participants—a selection of key persons on different levels in the organization—sit around a u-shaped table in a large room. Three consultants sit at one end of the table. One (a bit older than the others) is Ben, the project manager.

At 9 am sharp he rises and enters the stage. A nervousness is reflected in his somewhat impatient movements and way of talking. This is an important presentation. It is the first time since the ‘kick off’ of the project, that it is being delivered to a larger audience. Ben welcomes the participants and briefly introduces himself: ‘I am a consultant at Consulting Ltd. My specialty is BPR [Business Process Reengineering]. I have worked extensively with this method in the telecom industry.’ He also briefly introduces the two colleagues sitting at the end of the table. But the consulting team is not complete: ‘We are waiting for Alan, a portal figure and innovator concerning BPR.’

Ben suggests beginning the seminar with a brief introduction of the participants. After this has been completed, he remarks: ‘we clearly have a massive competence here today’. Thereafter, he leaves the floor to Ken, the CEO of the company, who says the following:

‘There are many reasons why we are sitting here today. The triggering factor has been the rapid growth rate of the market. But why should we start working with BPR? I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made—we focused on the current situation instead of being creative.’ Following this introduction, the importance of the project is further stressed. ‘The high growth rate of the market demands a new way of working . . . The competitive situation for the company is getting harder; the years when the customers just came to us are over. Now we have to start working for our money . . . The reason for this project is that we want to become the best from our owners’, customers’ and employees’ perspective.’

After this presentation, Ben takes over the floor again: ‘I have something to tell you. I want to report what we have done in the project so far . . . We have worked in four steps, which is a quite typical approach in reengineering’, he says, showing a slide headed ‘Method for Implementation’, which depicts four project phases arranged in the form of steps from the lower left to the upper right. The more detailed exploration of these phases, and the related activities occupy the group for some minutes.

Thereafter, a sequence of transparencies is shown. They describe the overall situation of the company using well-known business concepts. The titles of the slides read ‘Strategic Positioning’ (the model presented under this title has strong similarities with the BCG [Boston Consulting Group] matrix), ‘SWOT Analysis’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Critical Success Factors’.

I expect many readers who work in organisational settings will be able to relate elements from the above extract to their own experiences with management consultants.

Although the case-study is dated,  the rhetoric used by the consultant is timeless. Indeed, in such plenary sessions, the main aim of  consultants (and client-side senior management) is to justify the proposed changes and convince client-side staff to get involved in implementing them.  This is as true now as it was a decade ago, the rhetoric used has hardly changed at all. What’s more interesting, though, is that their arguments taken as a whole are often inconsistent. To see why, let’s take a closer look at two kinds of rhetoric employed by consultants.

The rhetoric of reason

Consultants often legitimize their proposed actions by claiming to use “established” or “proven” methods. At the time of the case study (remember this was in the 90s), BPR was all the rage and, as a consequence, there were a number of contemporary books and articles (both in research and trade journals) that consultants could draw upon to legitimize their claims.  Indeed, many of the articles about BPR from that era delved into things such as critical success factors and core competencies – the very terms used by Ben, the consultant in the case study.  By doing so, Ben emphasised that BPR was a logically justifiable undertaking for the client  organisation.

However, that’s not all:  by referring to a stepwise “method for implementation,” Ben makes the process seem like a rational one with an “if we do X then Y will follow” logic. Of course, real life is never that simple, as evidenced by the statistics on failed BPR projects. Consultants often confuse their clients by presenting the map which is the idealised process as being equivalent to the territory that is organisational reality.

The rhetoric of action

To be sure, those who run organisations care more about results than models or methodologies. As a result,  consultants have to portray  themselves as being practical rather than theoretical. This is where the rhetoric of action comes in.

Ben’s reference to his “extensive experience in the telecom industry” and his invocation of   “Alan, the portal figure and innovator” are clearly intended to emphasise the consulting organisation’s experience and “innovative approaches” to  implementing BPR initiatives. Notice there are no references to reason here; there is only the implicit, “trust me, I’ve done this before”, and (if not that, then), “trust Alan, the portal figure and innovator.”

Ben’s spiel is backed up by the CEO;  consider the CEO’s line, ” …I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made…

The boss heard the BPR Gospel According To Alan and had an epiphany; everything just “fell in place.”


The short case study illustrates how consultants shift back and forth between two essentially incompatible modes of rhetoric when speaking to clients: a rational one which assumes the existence of objective management models and a normative one which appeals to human behaviours and emotions. This enables them to construct narratives that, on the surface, seem plausible and convincing, and more important, are hard to refute.

Although the rhetoric of reason refers to an idealised world of management models, its power and appeal  cannot be overstated. As the authors state:

The belief in experts and their techniques is firmly anchored in the modern belief in rationality. In our culture ‘the notions of ‘‘science’’, ‘‘rationality’’, ‘‘objectivity’’, and ‘‘truth’’ are bound up with one another’. Knowledge is power, and formalized knowledge is praised as the only legitimate form of knowledge, offering hard and objective truth in correspondence to reality.

Indeed, consultants play a huge role in the diffusion of new knowledge and models in the wider business world, thus perpetuating the myth that management models work.

On the other hand, consultants must show results. They have to portray themselves action-oriented and hence Ben’s attempt to establish his (and his organisation’s) credibility via credentials. This mode of rhetoric downplays scientific-rational thinking and highlights  wisdom gained by experience instead. As the authors state:

The chain of argument usually goes like this: merit always prevails over privilege; management knowledge is often contrasted with scientific, theoretically informed knowledge, which is regarded with suspicion by managers; and a persons’ track record and ‘hands-on’ experience is regarded as more important than expertise in general management skills acquired through extensive education.

Another facet of the rhetoric of action is that it emphasises the uniqueness of each situation. This is based on the idea that things in organisations are subject to continual change and that the lack of a stable configuration and environment makes it impossible to employ management models. The implication being that the only way to deal with the mess is to create a sense of collectivism – a “we’re in this together” attitude. The  concept of  organisational culture plays on this by portraying an organisation as this unique, wonderful place in which everyone shares the same values and deep sense of meaning. As the authors state:

The management literature discussing corporate culture is filled with religious and magical metaphors of the leader stressing the less rational sides of the organization, emphasizing the role of ceremonies, rituals, sagas, and legends (to mention only a few), in creating a system of shared values in the organization.

Seen in this light, the CEO’s references to Alan’s epiphany-inducing presentation, the “competitive situation,” and the need to “start working for our money” are attempts to generate this sense of collectivism.

The foregoing discussion highlights how consultants and their allies draw upon incompatible modes of rhetoric to justify their plans and actions. This essentially makes it difficult to refute their claims: if one tries to pin them down on logical grounds, they can argue based on their track record and deep experience; if one questions their experience, they can point to the logic of their models and processes.

…but we are all guilty

Finally, I should emphasise that management consultants are not the only ones guilty of using both forms of rhetoric,  we all are: the business cases we write, the presentations we deliver, the justifications we give our bosses and staff are all rife with examples of this. Out of curiosity, I re-read a business case I wrote recently and was amused to find a couple of contradictions of the kind discussed in this post.


In this post I have discussed how consulting rhetoric frequently draws upon two incompatible kinds of arguments –rational/fact-based and practical/action-based. This enables consultants to present arguments that are hard to refute on logical grounds.  However, it isn’t fair to single out consultants: most people who work in organisation-land are just as guilty of mixing incompatible rhetorics when attempting to convince others of the rightness of their views.

Written by K

August 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

“Dad’s driving” – a tale about meaning and context in communication

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This post is inspired by a comment made by my elder son some years ago:

“Dad’s driving” he said.

A simple statement, one would think,  with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding.  Yet, as I’ll discuss below, the two words had deeper implications than suggested by their mere dictionary meanings.


The story begins  in mid 2010,  when I was driving my son Rohan back from a birthday party.

I’m not much a driver – I get behind the wheel only when I absolutely have to, and then too with some reluctance. The reason I was driving was that my dear wife (who does most of the driving in our household) was pregnant with our second child  and just a few weeks away from the big day. She  therefore thought it would be a good idea for me to get some driving practice as I would soon need to do a fair bit.

Back to the story: as we started the trip home, my son  (all of seven and half at the time) said, “Dad, you should go by North Road, there’s a traffic light there,  it will be easier for you to turn right.”

“Nah, I’ll go the shorter way.”

“Dad, the shorter way has no traffic light. It has a roundabout, you might have trouble making a right turn.” He sounded worried.

“Don’t worry, I can handle a simple right turn at a roundabout on a Sunday evening. You worry too much!”

As it happened I had an accident at the roundabout…and it was my fault.

I checked that he was OK then got out of the car to speak with the unfortunate whose car door I had dented. Rohan sat patiently in the car while I exchanged details with the other party.

I got back in and asked again if he was OK. He nodded.  We set off and  made it home without further incident.

My wife was horrified to hear about the whole thing of course. Being pretty philosophical about my ineptness at some of the taken-for-granted elements of modern existence,  she calmed down very quickly.  In her usual practical way she asked me if I had reported the accident to the police, which I hadn’t. I reported the accident and made an appointment with the a smash repairer to fix up the damage to the bumper.

A week later my wife summoned me from work saying it was time. I duly drove her to the hospital without incident. A few hours later, our second son, Vikram, was born.

I pick up the story again a few  days later, after we had just got used to having an infant in the house again.  Sleep deficit was the order of the day, but life had to go on: Rohan had to get to school, regardless of how well or  badly Vik had slept the previous night; and I had to get to work.

Soon Rohan and I had our morning routine worked out:  we would walk to school together, then I would  catch a bus from outside his school  after dropping him there.

On the day Rohan uttered the words I started this post with,  it was raining heavily –  one of those torrential downpours that are a Sydney characteristic.   It was clear that walking to school would be impossible, I would have to drive him there.

My wife gave him the bad news.

“Dad’s driving,”  he said, in what appeared to be his usual matter of fact way.

However, if one listened carefully, there was a hint of a question, even alarm, in his words.

Given the back-story one can well understand why.


According to the most commonly accepted theory of truth, the validity of a statement depends on whether or not it is factually correct – i.e. a statement is true if it corresponds to some of aspect of reality.  Philosophers refer to this as the correspondence theory of truth . There are a few other well known theories of truth but it would take me too far afield to discuss them here. See my post on data, information and truth if you are interested in finding out more.

Of course, it is true that Rohan’s statement would in retrospect either be true (if I did drive him to school) or false (if I didn’t). But that was hardly the point: there was a lot more implied in his words than just an observation  that I would be driving him to school that day. In other words, his meaning had little do with any objective truth. Consider the following possibilities:

There was a hint of a question:

“Dad’s driving?” (…”You do  remember what happened a couple of weeks ago, don’t you?…”)

or even alarm:

“Dad’s driving!” (I could almost hear the,  “ I’m not getting in the car with him”)

Whatever the thoughts running through his head, it is clear that Rohan saw the situation quite differently from the way my wife or I did.

Indeed, the main problem with correspondence theories of truth is that they require the existence of an objective reality that we can all agree on – i.e. that we all perceive in the same way. This assumption is questionable, especially for issues that cannot be settled on logical grounds alone. Typical examples of such issues are those that are a matter of opinion – such as which political party is best or whether a certain book is worth reading…or even whether certain folks should be allowed to get behind the wheel. These are issues that are perceived differently by different people; there is no clear cut right/wrong, true/false or black/white.

There are other problems with correspondence theories too. For one, it isn’t clear how they would apply to statements that are not assertions about something. For example, it makes no sense to ask whether questions such as, “how much is this?” or “how are you?” are true or false. Nevertheless, these statements are perfectly meaningful when uttered in the right situations.

This brings us to the crux of the matter:  in most social interactions, the meaning of a statement (or action, for that matter) depends very much on the context in which it is made. Indeed, context rather than language determines meaning in our everyday interactions.  For example, my statement, “It is sunny outside,” could be:

  • An observation about the weather conditions (which could be true or false, as per the correspondence theory)
  • A statement of anticipation – it is sunny so I can play with my kids in the park.
  • A statement of regret – it’s going to be a scorching hot day and we’ll have to stay indoors.

To find out which one of the above (or many other possibilities) I mean, you would need to know the context in which the statement is made. This includes things such as the background, the setting, the people present, the prior conversation, my mood, others’ moods …the list is almost endless.

Context is king when it comes to language and meaning in social situations. Paraphrasing the polymath Gregory Bateson , the phenomenon of context and the closely related phenomenon of meaning are the key difference between the natural and social sciences. It is possible in physics to formulate laws (of say, gravity) that are relatively independent of context (the law applies on Jupiter just the same as it does on earth).  However, in the social sciences, general laws of this kind are difficult because context is important.

Indeed, this is why management models or best practices abstracted from context rarely work, if ever at all. They are not reality, but abstractions of reality.  To paraphrase Bateson, all such approaches confuse the map with the territory.

I started this post almost three years ago, around the time the events related occurred.  All I had written then were the lines I began this post with:

“Dad’s driving” he said. A simple statement, one would think,  with not much scope for ambiguity or misunderstanding. ..

The lines lay untouched in a forgotten file on my  computer until last weekend, when I came across them while cleaning up some old folders.  At the time  I had been reading Bateson’s classic, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, and had been mulling over his ideas about meaning and context. With that as background,  the story came back to me with all its original force. The way forward was clear and the words started to flow.

Bateson was right, you know – context illuminates meaning.


My thanks go out to Arati Apte for comments and suggestions while this piece was in progress.

Written by K

May 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Posted in Communication, Management

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The system and the lifeworld: a note on the gap between work and life

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Regardless of how much we enjoy our work, there is a distinct disconnect between our professional and personal/social lives. A major reason for this gap is the (perceived) degree of control we have over what we do in the two spheres: in the former, we generally do as we are required to, even if we don’t agree with it;  in the latter we (generally)  follow our own interests and wishes.

In this post I explore the gap between the two worlds  using the ideas of the social theorist and philosopher Juergen Habermas. My discussion draws upon a couple of sources: a  short and very readable  book by James Finlayson entitled, Habermas: A Very Short Introduction and a considerably heavier (but very enlightening) text by Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott entitled, Making Sense of Management: A Critical Introduction.

Communicative and strategic action

Juergen Habermas is best known for his theory of communicative rationality, wherein he argues that rationality (or reason) is tied to social interactions and dialogue. In other words, the exercise of reason ought to occur through open debate that is free from the constraints of  power and politics.  For a more detailed discussion of communicative rationality in an organisational setting, see my post  entitled, More than just talk: rational dialogue in project environments or Chapter 7 of the book I wrote with Paul Culmsee.

Habermas terms collective actions that arise as a consequence of such dialogue communicative action. These are cooperative actions based on a shared understanding of the particular issue  under consideration.  The point Habermas makes is that many (most?) of the collective actions that we undertake in our work lives are not communicative because they are aimed at achieving a particular outcome regardless of whether or not there is any shared understanding about the objective or the means by which it should be achieved.  Habermas terms such actions strategic.

To sum up:  actions that are carried out in the professional sphere are invariably strategic, whereas those that are performed in the social/personal sphere can be communicative.

The system and the lifeworld

As mentioned in the first line of this post, our day-to-day lives are played out in two distinct spheres: the social arena which comprises our interactions with family and society at large, and the professional and administrative sphere in which we work and/or  interact with institutional authority. Habermas refers to the former as the lifeworld and the latter as the system.

The lifeworld is the everyday world that we share with others.   This includes all aspects of life barring organised or institution-driven ones. For example, it includes family life, culture and informal social interactions. In short: it is the sphere within which we lead much of our social and personal life.    The lifeworld is based on a tacit fund of shared meanings and understandings that enable us to perform actions that we know others will comprehend.  Thus day-to-day actions that we perform in the lifeworld are generally communicative in nature.

In contrast, the system refers to common patterns of strategic action that serve the interests of institutions and organisations.  System actions are essentially driven by money and power. To put it somewhat crudely, the system uses money and power to manipulate individuals to achieve its own (i.e. the system’s) aims. These generally do not coincide with aims of individuals.  The term instrumental action is used to describe actions via which individuals are manipulated in this way. Clearly, such actions are related to strategic actions, since they are aimed at achieving specific ends, regardless of whether or not there is a common understanding underlying the objectives.

The relationship between the system and the lifeworld

Historically, the system arose from prevailing social conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The system is therefore embedded in the lifeworld.  This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the system grows at the expense of the lifeworld , or in Habermas’ words,  colonises the lifeworld. The verb evokes images that are quite appropriate:  at a personal level, many people struggle to find that mythical balance between their work and personal/social lives, and in most cases it is a losing struggle because the former  intrudes upon, invades and eventually takes over the latter.

This has little to do with personal choice.  Although there are those who would say that we are free to opt out of the rat race, the truth is that most of us aren’t.  To understand how things come to be this way, one has to recognise the role that power and money play in the colonisation process.  These foster a  self-interested “rational”   attitude towards value which makes people amenable to being manipulated. Those who hold power and purse-strings can thus exert undue influence on the decisions of stakeholders while bypassing consensus-oriented communication (or rational dialogue) that is characteristic of the lifeworld. The lifeworld is thus devalued and becomes less and less important in the daily lives of people.

The colonisation of the lifeworld results in several dysfunctions that are all too evident in modern-day professional life. At the workplace this can manifest itself through a general sense of alienation from organisation, and a lack of shared meaning of its purpose and goals.

Critics of the Habermasian view sometimes argue that the modern day organisation is more enlightened – for example, HR departments are now aware of the need to foster an appropriate culture that focuses on employee inclusiveness, empowerment and similar feel-good themes.  However, as Wilmott and Alvesson warn in their book,  the concept of organisational culture is but an insidious means of control that aims at getting employees to think in ways that the organisation would like them to (also see this paper by Wilmott – if only for its truly memorable title…)

The problem with management practice

Notwithstanding the fact that there are islands of enlightened management, it would not be a stretch to say that many managerial strategies and actions serve to perpetuate, even grow the system at the expense of the lifeworld.  As Alvesson and Willmott state in their book:

Within the rationality of the system individuals are treated as numbers or categories (e.g. grades of employees determined by qualifications, or types of clients determined by market segments), and more generally as objects whose value lies in reproducing the system….

However, the instrumental logic of the system – i.e. the logic which “justifies” the manipulation of individuals – is ultimately self-defeating. As Alvesson and Willmott note:

The devaluation of lifeworld properties is perverse because the instrumental rationality of the system depends on the communicative rationality of the lifeworld, even though it appears to function independently of lifeworld understandings and competences. At the very least, the system depends upon human beings who are capable of communicating effectively and who are not manipulated and demoralized to the point of being incapable of cooperation and productivity.

The central problem of  present day management practice is that this issue remains largely unaddressed.

A way forward?

To be fair, it is impossible to achieve open dialogue in the sense of Habermas at the level of, say, an organisation. Nevertheless, as Paul and I discuss in our book, it is eminently possible to approximate it in smaller settings over short time periods. In case you don’t have a copy of our book at hand, see our paper entitled, Towards a holding environment: building shared understanding and commitment on projects, for a detailed case study illustrating this point.

Before going any further, I should state clearly that the approach we propose is but one of many. One does not have to use any particular  technique or approach, all one needs is the possibility of  engaging in genuine dialogue with those who have a stake in the issue under consideration. This needs an environment that is (relatively) free from power, politics and other constraints that come in the way of open, honest discussion. Although it is impossible to create such an environment at an organisational level, it is quite possible to approximate it at on a smaller scale – say,  for example, in  a one-on-one interaction or even a workgroup discussion.

Interactions that occur in such a holding environment are a step forward from present day practice because they acknowledge the existence of the lifeworld, something that  has long been denied by mainstream management.

Summing up

In their book, Alvesson and Wilmott use the metaphor of organisations as structures of communicative interactions.  In our paper and book, we invoke an alternate metaphor coined by   Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores: organisations as networks of commitments. Genuine commitments are possible only when people’s concerns and aspirations are heard, acknowledged and acted upon. And this is possible only via communicative or open dialogue.

In closing, I reiterate my main point: although it  is impossible to create an environment that encourages genuine dialogue at the level of an entire organisation, it is certainly possible approximate it on a smaller scale. The importance of this cannot be overstated,  for although one cannot change the system overnight one can bring it closer to the lifeworld, one interaction at a time.

Written by K

February 7, 2013 at 7:28 pm


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