On symptoms and illnesses

In December, I attended a seminar run by Vibe Strøier, one of the leading lights in organizational psychology in Denmark. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a consultant, helping large organisations deal with organisational change.

As she described her experiences and her approach (which I might write more about another time), it struck me how much of her work focused on helping managers and their subordinates cope with changes that they hadn’t had any say in. Put in another way: She helped people deal with the manifold stresses and pressures that were caused by the structures of authority in which they were embedded.

For instance, she used Heidegger’s notion of Thrownness, which describes how we are thrown into a world full of things that we have no way of influencing, to help middle managers accept the limitations of their position — under pressure by managers, subordinates and customers — and focus on the things that they can actually change instead. In a way, it is quite similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, which has spread through its association with Alcoholics Anonymous.

It would seem that the working life of a mid-level manager in a large public sector organisation is comparable to the personal crisis associated with something like alcoholism. Which is sad, indeed. Because that would imply that it is just as impossible for a manager to change the power structures in which he is placed, as it is for an alcoholic to not be an alcholic any more (and as they say, once you’re an alcoholic, you can stop drinking alcohol but you’ll always remain an alcoholic).

Strøier clearly says that what stresses people out in big organisations is having to deal with an opaque power structure that can (and often does) turn their working life upside down without giving them any say in the matter. But even so, she focuses on helping people cope with having to work under the existing conditions (presumably because she finds that it is infeasible to change these underlying power structures).

To me, this poses some fundamental questions:

  • Are you are working to cure the symptoms or the illness?
  • Are you dealing with the underlying structures causing these afflictions or the immediate consequences that they cause?
  • Is it better to be pragmatic and give up an idealistic attempt at changing the bigger system in order to alleviate the immediate suffering?
  • When do you make a stand and fight to make big change happen, and when do you settle for small improvements?

Thinking about this, I find that this is something of a false dichotomy: You can fight to make big changes happen, but most often, what you will get is a lot of small improvements. The key is in the compromise. As Saul Alinsky wrote:

To the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. It is always present in the pragmatics of operation. It is making the deal, getting that vital breather, usually the victory. If you start with nothing, demand 100 per cent, then compromise for 30 per cent, you’re 30 per cent ahead.

A free and open society is an ongoing conflict interrupted periodically by compromises — which then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum. Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be “compromise”.

But the thing is: To get even those 30 percent ahead, you have to start out unreasonable. You have to demand it all. You have to go for the big change. If you just accept things as they are and try to make them tolerable, they will never improve. In fact, most likely, they will gradually get worse.

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