Mayvin Better relationships in organisations

Better relationships in organisations: when organisations are in a midlife crisis

James Traeger explores better relationships in organisations through the lens of football:

Honestly! Chelsea under Di Matteo win the FA cup and the Champions League and now he gets the sack, not half a year later!

But WAIT! Don’t stop reading! This isn’t, despite what you may think, really about football. It is about my recurring theme here. How can we, in this crazy world, lead well and be good?

Yes I was disappointed last night, as we crashed out to Juventus. But why was that? Because they played better than we did. Simple. We need some work, it’s true; perhaps even some new players – a strong midfield playmaker to replace the aging Lampard. We have the money, surely? We simply weren’t good enough…

Sorry, I said I wouldn’t talk about football. But surely football, like much else, teaches us so much about life. How often can it be said of a business, a community, a society, that the knee-jerk reaction to poor performance is to restructure, reorganise, fire the leadership? Is chopping the head off going to help the body to perform better? Come on! We see it all the time. We have to find a better way. Yet I notice here that performance is a recurring theme. Is my commitment to my team just about the way it ‘performs’? Surely that’s the problem – where lies the deeper loyalty or commitment to relationship?

I wonder if there is a connection here between this and a great book I’ve been reading recently: Chris Grey’s ‘A very short, fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations’. (Yes that really is the title). In it, Professor Grey (of Warwick Business School) engages in a polemic, the confessions of an Organisational Behaviour ‘expert’ who wants to blow the gaff. It’s his age, I think. Some people buy a Red Ferrari. He’s written an angry book about Organisational Theory. (Not that I can criticise – Grey and I are about the same age, and I did a PhD for my mid-life crisis – how sad is that?). One striking thing Grey talks about (amongst many – it is a ripping read, both of and about Organisations), is how the supposedly ‘humanistic’ movement in Organsational Development (espoused by great gurus like Lewin, Drucker etc.) does in fact have a guilty secret: that it is motivated by the very same imperative to manipulate workers into compliance as the so called ‘scientific’ approach to organisations it was supposedly a reaction to.

To illustrate this, Grey tells a story: Dave is a scientific management type of manager, who tries to to avoid any human contact with his staff and treat as them as economically motivated automatons. Val takes a more human relations type of approach. She tries to understand the problems and anxieties of her staff and to encourage their wider motivations to work. But – and this is the crucial point – they both sought to control their teams: one by avoiding human relationships and one through human relationships. (Grey, 2009, p47) This manipulation is by assumption: it isn’t just in what we talk about but in the very way we talk about it. We do it ourselves all the time – listening and engaging with your staff (sic) will deliver performance improvement.  Grey asks the vital, challenging question – to what end?

So this brings me back to my recurring theme, which Grey echoes – where is the ethical, moral, even spiritual dimension to our being in all this organisational thinking and doing? I am increasingly of the view, although I admit I may not always say this out loud, that our purpose isn’t to build better relationships for the sake of performance, but that we seek to build better relationships for its own sake. I do believe there can be some serendipity here; that doing this can deliver performance, if that’s what you want, but I think our challenge in the 21st Century is to recognise that the mission of any organisation, in any sector, should see itself as a container of relationships, (within it, and between it and the world it is in), and seek to be of benefit to improve these as our primary mission. This could just be a crazy idea; but shouldn’t every mission statement have ‘to be better people, in better relationships’ at its core? Better relationships in organisations is fundamental to healthy workplaces and lasting change.

Take my football team – the baleful Blues (as they were last night). Perhaps we need an owner not with an unlimited bank account but with an unlimited commitment to relationship? (‘Ha!’ Di Matteo laughed, scornfully). Sometimes we’ll win and sometimes we’ll lose. It is about unconditional love. Every true fan knows that: being a fan is like being in a marriage – it is for better or for worse. Ultimately, it is about love. It has to be, on a miserable, wet night in the stands.

Of course, this could just be another polemic by a forty-something, white guy with a need for some other outlet than OD or football for his love and creativity. But I am sticking to my script: I think our primary mission in life should be around the inquiry: how to be good? In the absence of trophies (in football or in life) what else truly rewards us?