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OD for 'the Man'? The moral and political positions of OD

Mayvin Director James Traeger challenges us all to face up to the moral and political positions of OD in every choice we make as OD practitioners.
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Mayvin Director James Traeger challenges us all to face up to the political and moral dimensions of every choice we make as Organisation Development practitioners.

Political positions of OD: insights from a group supervision session

A recent group supervision session with a client provided an opportunity for reflection on the moral and political positions of OD. We started the session with a check-in, as usual. Each person in the group drew a pen picture of where and how they had been since we’d last met. As to be expected, most people were ‘busy’. ‘Tired’ was another word that featured. A reflective mood cast itself on the space, as it often does in these situations. When people stop, in the midst of furious activity, they are regularly thrown into the deeper, existential questions of life and work. ‘Who am I right now? What am I doing that is worthwhile?’ This is the distinctive opportunity of good quality practice supervision, whether it be in the field of OD, leadership or HR.

But there was another mood that was distinctive in the group that day, and that was anger. People were frustrated by the current pall of resource constraint that has settled over their particular quarter of the public sector. When faced with an angry group, my move as a supervisor is usually to encourage people to express it, and then recognise how to go beyond it, and make wise choices. The rationale goes like this: anger is usually a response to a lack of personal control, being ‘done to’, and practitioners usually have to get over it and recognise what power they do have in the situation. This includes (and most often centres on) their own attitude and unconscious behaviour. It is a bit of a ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment where we need to ask:

‘This is how things are, so what can you do to make the situation better? And how can you recognise and enact your own agency?’

I notice how this response comes from a particular stance: that the individual can be empowered to blend in, work with ‘what is’ and enact what is possible, from the perspective of what Deborah Meyerson and Maureen Scully famously called the ‘tempered radical’. She finds ways to get under the radar, learning to enact and work with arch political skill, building a coalition for some kind of justice, whatever that might mean in the situation in which she find herself.

On this particular day, with this particular group, I noticed a different sympathy building within me. As I heard their stories, the thought occurred to me that their anger might not be something to be ‘risen above’. Perhaps it could be enacted in some way? Maybe their anger wasn’t just about some internal psychological process that needed to be overcome. Maybe it was a rational response to a series of ridiculous and irrational contexts, where too much was being asked, and change was being conducted by the powers that be in a way that is absurdly out of step with the realities of resource constraints on the ground? In short:

When faced with another year of budget cuts, having delivered the last ten-years-plus of the same, is the righteous response a resounding ‘no!’?

I don’t know the answer to this question. It may not be, it may be. That became a discussion for the group, and my role as a supervisor was to help them hold that tension in order to work out their own wise choices. But in the course of doing this, a model, a way of making sense of this emerged between us. I configured it on a flip chart like this:

Mayvin_OD political positions

OD hiding in plain sight

My intent in configuring it this way was to do two things: Firstly to make visible what is often transparent in the discussion around how OD functions, that is, rarely are the political and moral dimensions of OD explicated. I’ll say more of that later on. The second intention was to help these practitioners make a choice about how to use their anger. Rather than just assuming they needed to ‘get over it, or get clever with it.’

So let us take this first point on a bit to further consider the moral and political positions of OD. Organisation Development, like many ‘managerial’ disciplines is often discussed as if it is value free and does not come from a particular political perspective. This is odd, as OD's early exponents, such as Kurt Lewin, had a very strong motive at their core; they saw the development of what has become ‘OD’ as a tool of human emancipation. Often this was in response to their own experience. Lewin himself was a refugee from Nazi oppression. But over the years, like many innovations, OD became a tool for use in the hands of any organisation, in the service of utility. Even if that organisation stood for purposes that are dubious, or used methods of engagement in an underhand way, to co-opt engagement manipulatively, the mantra becomes ‘if it works, use it’.

I myself experienced a version of this when, years ago, I was confronted by a senior manager in an organisation who described my work on an engagement initiative as ‘ your job is to soften people up for the bad news to come’. Such work becomes OD for those who the 1960s counter culture described as ‘the man’; the faceless (and often white, middle aged, middle class) oppressor. Now, as a white, middle-aged, middle-class man myself, I can only really say this if I accompany it with a heavy dollop of irony, but I hope you get my drift. Any of us can find ourselves doing OD ‘for the man’, as I did in the example above.

We don’t necessarily set out that way, but ‘the man’ is crafty and can draw us in. We can be crafty too however, and the central position, the OD of ‘blending in’, is what I believe to be a careful art of the ‘tempered radical’. This is where we use the language of the mainstream but in service of a subversive agenda of engagement and emancipation. This is the OD of ‘hiding in plain site’, for example, doing what looks like a piece of mainstream project management-style change but through a methodology of appreciative inquiry that shifts the cultural mood, under the radar, as it were. This is the reasonable, politically wise, urbane position that suits my own image of myself, but could simply be, at times, my kidding myself that I haven’t in some subtle way, slipped into being ‘the man’ too. Often though, to be fair, it could just be doing good work.

OD as sabotage

Sometimes, as in the case above, when resources are simply too scarce to argue that a bit more ‘working smarter’ can be squeezed out of the organisational tube, perhaps the blending in approach doesn’t satisfy. The Sabot, the wooden shoe of the eighteenth century Flemish weavers, (perhaps apocryphally) thrown into the gears of the new looms that made them redundant, might be seen as a perfectly rational response in their own terms, perhaps because they were given no other choice. Change was simply being thrust upon them, with no hint of consultation, (with or without the post-it notes).

Maybe ‘OD as sabotage’ could sometimes be a reasonable choice when the situation demands. Perhaps this most regularly shows up by a simple refusal to play. Recently we were asked if we wanted to tender for a piece of work that looked very much like dunking lots of people through a performance management system that had very little, if any, soul in it. I doubt very much if it will deliver the aims that the organisation in question hopes for it, but notwithstanding that, despite the fact that in principle we could have easily devised a process that would be workable, our stance was to offer a simple ‘no thank you’. Now this might not look much like all-out shoe throwing, but maybe that is as close as we dare come to it.

Where do you stand?

Ultimately, OD is not a value-free discipline. We can’t pretend we can sit on some virtual sideline, objectively holding a safely neutral position. There is always a political and a moral dimension to every choice we make, and every project in which we engage. That doesn't mean we have to make black and white choices, or throw our shoes about, but at least we need to reflect on where we stand along the line.

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