Conversation matters more than structure in organisations

By Martin Vogel

A lot of our work in organisations focusses on getting people to show up differently in conversations. This is because it’s through conversations that organisations exist. People often think of organisations as structures which have a solidity beyond the people who comprise them. There’s some truth in this construct. The BBC existed long before I joined it and seems to be managing to survive quite adequately even though it’s a decade since I left.

But it’s also true that organisations are enacted into being by their members. The day-to-day interactions people have with each other in organisations are much more material to how things get done than the structures, strategies, documents and plans that people imagine to be their work.

In their book Complexity and Management, Ralph Stacey, Douglas Griffin and Patricia Shaw elaborate the implications of viewing leadership in this way. The key thing is that managers are part of the organisation, not separate from it. Managers experience a lack of control because they bring a paradigm which somehow construes them as being able to control the organisation as an external puppeteer.

Stacey et al. talk about how managers spend most of their time in emergent processes – conversation, ad hoc emails and so on – but then resort to structured plans and directed initiative to try to influence change. They are puzzled when these levers fail to yield results, even though they know that how they normally get things done is in reality messy. Messiness and complexity defy control and therefore require an emergent and adaptive approach in responding to them.

One of the consequences of viewing an organisation as a thing is that managers who construe their job as trying to control this thing might end up bringing the attitude they bring to other thing-like objects. Instead of relating to their colleagues as other human beings with whom they are in relationship, they implicitly treat them as constituent parts of a machine. It’s a small step from there to bracket out of working relationships the normal empathy that we might routinely bring to human beings outside the working environment. When you approach something as a thing, you don’t give much attention to the emotional attributes of how you relate to it. You simply operate it to get the task done.

When you bring the focus onto how organisations are created through everyday interactions, the critical task becomes the quality of relationship between colleagues. You come to appreciate that qualities that routinely trip up elaborately conceived plans are not pathological to organisational life but endemic to it. Resolving conflict and political behaviour in a spirit of acceptance and maturity is the work of leading.

It follows that one of the most critical skills for leaders is enabling in organisations the conversations that need to happen. This calls for approaches to facilitation that are mostly alien to managers accustomed to working with the organisation-as-thing analogy. In Changing Conversations in Organizations, Patricia Shaw gives a flavour of the approach:

“I think I have learned how to help people sustain an open-ended exploration and begin to notice the way they are generating useful ways of knowing and acting together as they do so. I try to shift people’s perspective to see that organisational change is this process rather than an end product of it.”

However convenient we might find it to construe organisations as machines, with a designed structure and logic to how they operate, we can’t escape the fact that they are comprised of human beings with emotions, irrationalities and motivations which pull in helpful and unhelpful directions. This applies as much to the managers who attempt to lead as those they are seeking to manage. They bring blind spots, fears and obstructions as readily as anyone else. In some instances, the ostensible manager might not be the one who is leading at all. There will be people among those who are ostensibly being managed who might actually be exercising leadership, helpfully or unhelpfully.

Paying attention to how people relate to each other increases the likelihood of a leader treating colleagues as human and this helps get the best out of them. Beyond this, working through conversation goes with the grain of how organisations constitute themselves – and so is more likely to get to the heart of a manager’s challenge than prioritising the task of producing structures and plans.

Image courtesy Francois Bester.