I had a really pleasant surprise last week when this email hit my inbox:
Dear Patrick Goh,
I’m delighted to inform you that your article published in Voluntary Sector Review was one of the Journal’s top five most read articles published in 2017. As such we will be making it free to access for the month of February and marketing it on our website (http://policypress.co.uk/journals/free) and on the Voluntary Sector Review twitter feed.
As the email didn’t ask me to fill in my personal information, I’m fairly certain it’s not spam. :)-
My reward? It’s being featured as a free download for the month of February 2018… so get it while you can.
#Don’t you wish your boy / girl friend was hot like me? JK!
The article’s called Systemic practice and workplace as community: alternatives to managerialism
Relational leadership is not just about being nice. Hitler was nice to his family and friends. It’s not merely about acquiring relational skills either. We can, and often do, use these skills to manipulate. Take for example, sales people who are trained to use relational techniques for the sole purpose of making us buy stuff. Rather, it is about being mindful and responsible for the social realities we co-create in our conversations with others. In this sense…
It’s been a long, hard and eventful year. If you are like me, you are probably feeling a bit down hearted about the state of the world, and alarmed at how the upheavals are no longer ‘out there’ in the big wide world but right on our very door-steps.
The cliche about what kind of world we are handing over to our children has never been so pertinent. With the terror alert for the UK at ‘severe’, the words, “dad, I’m going into London for the day” fills me with anxiety and a sense of foreboding.
However, as we approach the season for making resolutions, it’s probably a good time to remind ourselves that together, we can make a difference. Here’s some really wise words from my former tutor, Ken Gergen, (some call him the father of social constructionism, no less!). He says:
In the conflict-ridden conditions of the world today, it’s sometimes difficult to think positively. We each seem to live in our own small worlds, totally helpless to bring peace or relieve suffering in the big world. Yet, there is a way in which “the big world” is made up of just these “small worlds” in which we live. Making a difference in our own particular ways does add up.
How do we make the small worlds in which we live generate a better big world? Well, according to Susan Scott, “one conversation at a time.”
Wishing all my readers a wonderful, blessed Christmas with your loved ones, and many, many hope-filled, generative conversations that lead to beautiful consequences in 2016.
An email exchange with my friend and mentor, Chris Blantern, intrigued me so much that I decided to replicate part of the thread in this blog.
Chris: The more I think about it the less I know what a system is and hence what systemic can mean.
I get the impression that Social Constructionists are a bit obsessed with ‘relationship-with-other’ as the only ontological ground – leaving no room for our relationship to cultural ‘actants’ (non-human actors). As Latour said – “a man doesn’t behave in the same way as a man with a gun”.
Also, people don’t (on the whole) drive through the traffic lights at red – even if the car in front of you did. We have delegated some social actions to the lights (substitute police). Whether it’s traffic lights or ice cream vans you can’t study social behaviour without studying objects in use – like words in use. Inter-subjectivity suggests there is nothing outside the conversation. I maintain we act in relation to context – of which language in use is very important but by no means exclusive.
Me: Interesting thoughts. Can’t speak for all Social Constructionists but the Systemic Practice doctorate I’m pursuing is about human systems, hence it’s primary focus is on how reality is co-created through human interaction, in particular the implicative effect of speech acts and the constitutive effect of language. I like the description that systemic thinking is not an explanatory theory per se but rather a ‘theory about theories’, which is why I am curious to know more about the systems and objects (non human actors) position you are advocating. However, I think Social Constructionists would say that in order for humans to have a relationship with things, we first have to socially construct them as cultural artefacts; and that the language we use to talk about these actants, makes and does things.
That said, we had a guy come into TF two weeks ago to talk about his PhD on poverty, during which he made an interesting hypothesis. He said that, according to the bible narrative in Genisis 2:7, humans are part of things because we are made from the dust of the earth. Therefore, humans have a special relationship with things. He went on to talk compellingly about implication of this narrative on how we view our relationship with things, in particular, money, the lack of it (i.e.., poverty), natural resources and nature!
Chris: In reference to your PhD guy – I think Gaians have a notion of a kind of synchronous relationship between humans and things – but I’m talking sociology. That is the study of social behaviour and action.
Though it’s important I’m intrigued as to why linguistic inter-subjectivity seems to exclude other forms of relating. Meaning and possible action is also created through our relationship to objects, physical and abstract. So, for example, a progressive chief exec ‘says’ she wants to create a more democratic, less hierarchical organisation – but still sits at the ‘head’ of the table in meetings or has the only non-shared office, or has named, reserved parking spaces for the top team. Meaning and power relations are conferred through previous inscriptions in objects as constituents of context – not just the speech act.
Action is mediated by non-human actors (actants – Latour)
as well as with other humans and the lack of acknowledgement of the former seems to suggest that, in the old ‘structure versus agency’ debate – that Social Constructionists only see agency. There is no space for cultural artefacts that impart expectations of behaviour. Language or, more accurately, the lexicon itself can be seen as such. This is what Giddens refers to as performed structures – outwith the inter-subjective. He calls it ’structuration’ (i.e. social processes) that hold a sense of structure.
What’s interesting is that the notion of the ’system’ is more structural than it is inter-subjective – so there’s a paradox there. I think I am arguing for a 3rd possibility – that there are patterns rather than systems, and semi-stable, but they are socially performed.
I remember an occasion when I was standing in the security queue for Departures at Stansted airport. The queue is channelled by parallel rows of stainless steel barriers (you may well know it). Progress was very slow and a woman in front of me, obviously frustrated and maybe de-meaned by the experience, turned to me and said – “for this to work we have to be sheep.” She could clearly see the affect of the barrier ‘acting into’ the situation. Is it only folk ‘educated’ in learning and organisations that see behaviour as emanating deep within the individual, rather than the contextual environment? Wittgenstein and Burrus Skinner (he of lab rats and conditioning theory) may have been worlds apart in many ontological ways – but they both could see that context is an essential part of behaviour.
I love the phrase “The map is not the territory.” This phrase helpfully points out that strategic plans, operating statements, vision statements, benchmarks, corporate scorecards and the myriad of other planning tools are merely maps (a representation/aspiration of the real). And, that things don’t just miraculously happen because we have a good map. It takes people to make things happen. The quality of what gets done depends on the quality of the relationships. That’s the territory.
A friend of mine once explained it like this…
“It’s like going to the restaurant, and having been impressed by the menu, you proceed to eat the menu!” The menu is the map. The actual food you get, depends on the relational episodes leading to you being served. The chef might have been sick and someone less able had to step in. S/he may be preoccupied with bad news. S/he may have just been told that s/he was being let go. S/he may be planning to set up their own restaurant nearby. The employees may not be on speaking terms because of an argument. Something you said may have caused offence, etc.
An example from last year springs to mind:
“A XXX employee was caught on video and arrested for spitting in two cups of iced tea. The customers returned them because they weren’t sweet enough; he spat in them before giving them back. I don’t know if the customers drank the tea or not, but the article does say that they removed the lids and saw phlegm.”
A far cry from the restaurant’s Mission Statement:
“XXXX’s vision is to be the world’s best quick service restaurant experience. Being the best means providing outstanding quality, service, cleanliness, and value, so that we make every customer in every restaurant smile.”
The map is not the territory. The territory is the quality of relationships. Without this, a map is useless.
Great work only gets done through great interaction (relational practice).
If you believe in the stats, it would seem that the breakdown of families due to failed relationships has reached epidemic proportions in the West. If this is the case, it may be reasonable to assume that people bring their deficit patterns of relating into the work place, resulting in dysfunctional relationships at work too.
These are two reasons why I think that organisations should get involved in helping employees learn, develop and maintain healthy and productive ways of relating.
At the heart of this endeavour is helping people learn to have generative conversations. Conversations that: