Mayvin_HR_practice based learning relationship disruptive change

Relational intelligence during an era of disruptive change

How can you sustain a good working relationship with your colleagues, with the people you lead, even when the world around you is changing catastrophically? Mayvin Director Dr James Traeger explores how a practice-based learning approach enables the levels of relational intelligence needed in order to embrace whatever context we all may find ourselves in next.

Charles Handy (now 86 years old and looking back on his legacy) the esteemed business guru was quoted in The Economist earlier this year on what he called the ‘curse of efficiency’. This was based on his own experience of a stay in hospital following a stroke from which he is now slowly recovering.

“Organisations focus so much on efficiency that they fail to be effective. Instead of concentrating on their core goal, they pay attention to narrower measures like cutting costs… Mr Handy argues that managers tend to like things more than they like people…. As it is , there is a temptation to try and turn people into things by calling them ‘human resources’. Call someone a resource and it is a small step to assuming that they can be treated like a thing, subject to being controlled and, ultimately, dispensed with when surplus to requirements.”

– The Economist 27th July 2019 p55

This isn’t a novel view but it is interesting to note the source, both in terms of Mr. Handy and The Economist. It is as if the critique of globalisation is starting to infiltrate the very congregants that have worshipped at its altar for so long. They seem to be identifying the nub of a problem that we face in ‘HR’ and in ‘OD & D’ (Organisation Development and Design): what I call the ‘thingyfying’ problem. And if we don’t address it, in an age when disruption is the norm, this problem is going to get more acute.

What are the theoretical assumptions behind your view of the world?

We have an activity on one of our practice-based learning programmes which involves handing each participant a lemon. (From an early age, my daughter has been somewhat bemused by my need to go and buy a bag of lemons for work). In this activity, the aim is to consider what knowledge looks like from various angles. By knowledge I am talking about ‘how we think about the things that we end up doing.’ This is a question of epistemology in academic speak – what are the theoretical assumptions behind our view of the world? What Handy is pointing out is that this often shows up in how we speak about things. In my terms, thingyfying is indeed a speech act.

So, back to the lemons. I ask participants to have  a series of discussions about these lemons. Firstly, I ask them to consider the lemon in terms of what you do with it; the practical purposes of a lemon. They often come up with the obvious things like use in drinks (a gin and tonic often features), and more obscure uses like keeping cats off kitchen worktops and so on (who knew?!). Then I ask them to put on a metaphorical white lab coat and consider the lemon as a ‘lemon-ologist’ would. Here we are in the realm of acute thingyfication. Lemons are generically measured in terms of acidity, colour, size, weight etc. Blemishes are considered as deviations from a norm. This is figural. But the mood changes when I ask them to tell each other a story of a time when lemons figured in their own lives. They usually shuffle uncomfortably at first, but then usually the stories start to flow, and the room is abuzz with holidays in Sorrento, marvellous meals, walks through yellow groves and so on. This leads beautifully into the final stage, which is to consider the lemon that is in front of them; to de-thingyfy it as it were. Again, people feel at first often a bit embarrassed but after a while they get into it. They study their lemon and learn its uniqueness. Blemishes become character, so much so that when I ask them to put their lemon onto the floor in front of them, and I mix them up when their backs turned, they can usually turn back and quite quickly distinguish and reclaim their lemon from a pile of 20 or even 30 others. (Some of them have been known to hang onto their new friend for a while).

From lemons to leadership

A discussion ensues about the meaning of this little diversion. It is not, to be clear, saying that any one of these ways of knowing a lemon (no, really!) is any ‘better’ than any other. It is saying that each way has implications, and that maybe, some of the ways we choose to see the world have taken us into certain implications and consequences. Even to the point, on a macro scale, of thinygying the very planet we call our home.

I remember once offering this activity to a group and a leader of a large department saying: ‘There are 20,000 people in my area of the business. Do you mean to say I have to consider all of them as individuals?’ Luckily someone else in the group responded: ‘how would it change what you did and how you did it if you did that even a little bit more?’

Practice-based learning during discontinuous change: a relational approach

The challenge of thingyfication is heightened in times of major change, and of course we are now facing a time where disruptive, discontinuous change is the norm. This is where a new type of learning, what we call ‘practice-based learning’ might become more relevant. This type of learning is relational rather than universal. It takes place close to the grain of the work, and is about staying in relationship of the context with which we find ourselves. The blemishes of the context are figural and need to be worked with and even exploited, rather than systemically rejected. The same Economist article puts it in the flowing stark terms:

“…business schools need to change. What they do at the moment is encapsulate the best practices of current businesses, codify them and pass them on. But the real challenge that business-school graduates will face is dealing with the unexpected. That cannot be taught in the classroom but needs to be experienced in the outside world.”

In terms of the lemon experiment, what this means is that business schools tend to stay in the thingyfying space. What is required is to learn in close relationship with the context we are in, and in particular the people we are with. This is a stretch for many of us, especially those at the levels of leadership that have been rewarded in the past for their capacity to thingyfy. It is about working at a level of relational intelligence that we aren’t that well trained or equipped for (back to those business schools…). Above all it means changing not just our plans or even our behaviours but our worldview. The goal is to stay in relationship even when the world around is changing catastrophically. When the pieces fall, new orientations of those relationships emerge. For example, in the maelstrom of change over the past ten or more years, people I was once managed by can become my peers or even my employees, and back again. Staying in relationship through all of this has been vital to ensure that we can get on in the context we find ourselves in next. That is the kind of emotional somersault at which we need to be practised. This is where our capacity to learn in the folds of our practice, a constant and changing challenge, comes in.

Mr Handy has apparently woken up to this in a missive he is leaving for his grandchildren. We ourselves may need to get on with it earlier in our careers.

Dr James Traeger is Mayvin’s Director of Research. He is co-author of A Bold Explorer’s Guide to Organistion Development, with Dr Rob Warwick, Reader in Management and Organisational Learning at the University of Chichester. For their work in the field, James and Rob are named as two of HR’s Most Influential Thinkers 2019. You can read more of James and Rob’s latest thinking on our blog.