Sunday, 29 November 2009

Random Sunday night thoughts

One of the things I've been thinking about lately is the way that our relationship to institutional structures affects the way that we interact with others. Two things keep jarring with me, and I think that they are basically different aspects of the same thing. First is the way that organisations appear to act differently - more rationally - than the individuals that compose them. Second is the way that individuals seem to act differently when they perceive themselves to be in a given institutional context.

Just a couple of examples to flesh out what I mean. First, organisations, or the management teams that take decisions, appear to be capable of taking decisions that the individuals that compose them might find cruel or unethical if they were taken at a personal level (either a one-to-one business relationship or a non-work scenario, for example). Somehow being part of the institution, or adhering to its values (such as shareholder value) enables them to either shed other behavioural norms, or defer to to a sort of ideological authority. Thinking about the Milgram experiment, it's almost as if the institutional norms play the role of the experimenter - insisting that they continue on a given path despite their qualms, or at least providing them with the justification for doing so (and of course, most of the time there is an actual authority figure further up the chain).

Secondly I think about how I and others act at work. We must all be on a spectrum ranging from those who simply don't imbue the organisational ethos and continue as if all work relationships are simply personal relationships situated in an office and those who defer totally to the organisation, and seek to act in a way that maximises their effectiveness and the effectiveness of others in line with the organisational goals. Assuming most of us sit some distance from either extreme, I imagine I can't be alone in finding people too far towards either end quite irritating/frustrating. Some people don't seem 'worky' enough. Though we might be happy to share lunchtime or moments during the day talking about home-life, some people seem to barely recognise that this isn't what they get paid for. Yet at the other extreme there are those that can't see anything at work unless it is through the prism of organisational goals.

I have a mate who is really lovely bloke, full of good stories, friendly and funny. But if you arrange to meet up you can guarantee that he will be late. On a social level I admire him and the fact that he hasn't been corroded by the workplace. But on a professional level (having worked with him) I know he can be incredibly frustrating for exactly the same reasons.

What this leads me to think is that in effect what happens when we operate within an organisation is that we tend to simplify or stylise our interaction with others. Because we don't really need to know what they did at the weekend, or how they are feeling, for managers in particular much non-organisational communication becomes formalised and essentially meaningless. In contrast we start to think about people in terms of their organisational capacity. They become a series of bullet points, a shorthand for they can and can't do, and the situations in which they can and cannot be deployed. And their ability to make themselves organisationally effective, and to communicate back in organisational terms will probably make them successful, so there is an incentive to participate. (Incidentally, I think humour in the workplace plays an interesting role here. Many jokey comments actually contain a little moral about effective an ineffective organisational behaviour).

At one level such a process may be necessary in order for an organisation to behave rationally, but it probably also explains why so many people find work such a drag, and think their managers are tossers. It probably also has something to do with why when commercial interests start to intrude in a given sphere we can feel the change.

When I go back over these thoughts I realise that I've probably been hugely influenced by some of the Habermas stuff I've read. Anyway, I think this is a topic I'll be coming back to.

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