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