On my escape from the planet of the beautiful people

For various reasons, I’ve been leading an insular life for the last 6 months.

I’ve had the chance (or perhaps been forced) to slow down a lot, focusing closely on just my small part of the world and a little circle of home, family, school, doctors, friends.  I’ve begun to see myself as something of an antipodean, twenty first century Jane Austen – without the literary genius and the cool 18th century line dancing.

I’ve had the time to try to look very intently at my local environment.  I feel I know every inch of the walk down to Rushcutters Bay, every item on the menu at the 2 or 3 coffee shops I frequent.

I’ve spent time observing and thinking about the way that dogs interact with each other in parks, and hours watching the young, and not so young yummy-mummys of the Eastern suburbs out to play with their children.

I’ve been to art classes where I’ve listened to another, generally older, group of women talk about why they’re drawing pictures and what it means to them.

And I’ve been following a brouhaha about the demolition of a nearby tennis clubhouse that was a home away from home for a coterie of locals; and I’ve marvelled at the ire this has raised in their hearts as they make their creaky first steps into the world of political activism.

But recently I’ve been back in the world again, on a plane, at meetings, travelling, phone conferencing, presenting and writing documents in words carefully selected to appease a range of difficult audiences.

Two things have struck me in my re-joining of the world.

The first is deeply superficial.  Darlinghurst is home to some of the most glamourous, well dressed, stylish, stick insects in Australia, and I generally wander around feeling like a lumpen potato.  But out there in normal world, there are so many more large, or perhaps normal sized people.

On my recent trip, I watched with pleasure the huge behinds and stomachs lining up to get on the plane, and felt like an escapee from the planet of the beautiful people.

The second – perhaps more insightful – thing that has struck me is the profound difficulties and frustrations people experience when working in large organisations.

In the organisations with which I’m beginning to re-engage, there is a tremendous sense of powerless expressed by people at middle and lower levels – in both the public and private sector.  Employees report almost routinely that even when they love the work they do, they are constantly undermined, put down, or frustrated by others within their organisations – particularly those above them in the hierarchy.

A  large part of my so-called conflict resolution expertise is being called upon to help people to manage upwards, and disproportionate amounts of their energies directed into these efforts.

William Sherden’s The Fortune Sellers also examines the world of corporate life, looking first at the business planning and corporate management industries.

As someone who’s done their fair share of facilitating strategic planning exercises, I have often wondered about their usefulness.  More than occasionally, they turn out to be exercises in down-sizing or getting rid of a difficult person or difficult section.

Sherden cites a range of research which found that that strategising and planning failed – “There are almost no cases of companies that successfully predicted long term trends and acted upon them” ( Schnaars Megamistakes).

Sherden says “Not only is nearly everything that a planner would like to know about the future unpredictable – the weather, the economy, capital markets, technological developments, and societal trends [and I’d add political changes] – but organizations themselves are unpredictable.”

“Organizations, like economies and societies, are complex systems that behave in subtle and sometimes counterintuitive ways.  They are much more highly interconnected than tidy organizational charts and functional compartmentalizations would suggest.”

Also, says Sherden “affecting the complexity and unpredictability of organizations is irrational decision making”.  He cites, March, a “specialist in managerial decision making” who says that “rational decision making is an illusion, because decision makers in organizations lack sufficient information, have faulty memories, and tend to rework the facts to support original conclusions”.

From this, Sherden goes on to discuss the ineffectiveness of organisational control, suggesting that organisations “have the capacity to achieve great things on their own through the process of self-organization” which allows them to  “adapt to changes in the environment, self-renew, create innovations, and solve problems in novel ways”.

For a control enthusiast like me, the concept of corporate or institutional self-organisation sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.  What it means to Sherden is providing two essential ingredients – empowerment, particularly to those at the lowest levels who are responsible for the majority of the outputs or outcomes; and the development of meaningful guiding principles.

These principles should be specific but not too detailed and should “resonate with… employees dreams” (Kriegel) – whatever that means.  The empowerment should take the form of providing freedom, training and the tools to accomplish great things at the lowest levels of organisations.

There are other aspects to Sherden’s vision for successful self-organisation (including developing appropriate organisational intelligence, using scenario development rather than detailed planning, taking advantage of accidents, lucky breaks and mutual benefits), but the empowerment one resonates strongly with me at the moment.

In my 6 months at home, the feelings of powerless I experienced were responses to specific people or experiences –  an arrogant doctor, recalcitrant children or a dysfunctional body.  Each of these, while difficult and frustrating, was able to be focused on, and, to varying extents, overcome –  with a change of personnel (the doctor, not the children), patience and firmness (the children and the body) and time.  I could take back the power myself, and wasn’t dependent on someone else’s benevolence.  Being outside an organisation brings benefits as well as vulnerabilities.

In my job, I often see the rhetoric of empowerment being used as an empty PR excuse for abdication of  responsibility or lazy management.

Real empowerment in a large, institutional work place requires that senior managers put more time into thinking critically about their organisational processes, and about the way that they interact with their employees.   Empowerment strategies will be the result of careful deliberation rather than disinterest.  Sitting quietly, watching how things work and not making unfounded assumptions would seem to be a good first step.

How to convince organizations that this will contribute to them being more effective, efficient and better places to work, (with perhaps less resources needing to be allocated to strategic planning and “communications training”) is the question I’m pondering.

I’m reading

William A Sherden The Fortune Sellers – the big business of buying and selling predictions. John Wiley & Sons, NY, 1998.



About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this www.janeelix.com
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3 Responses to On my escape from the planet of the beautiful people

  1. Amanda Cornwall says:

    As a disempowered middle level public servant these days your comments Jane resonate. A group of us here have openly sought ways to empower the ‘lower levels’. Recently, with new senior management, we’ve tried some of your strategies and they are getting results. As for sitting quietly and watching how things work – I don’t see it being taken up by senior management any time soon. Too many meetings and day to day distractions. But maybe just striving for these things is enough. its at least an improvement.

  2. Leah Godfrey says:

    Having just returned to paid employment I found this very useful Jane. My greatest learning over the last three weeks has been seeing this very small world from the lower level of the organisation, and reminding myself that I am powerless, uninformed and not responsible!

  3. Jann Zintgraff says:

    I am fortunate indeed in being a nurse .Although one has little power over the large hospital organisation or the nonsense of the paperwork ,we still dictate how we actually interact and work with our clientel or patients .We can be effective and thus satisfied with outcomes even when working in an unwieldy system .Of course their is always a need of more staff, I never feel disempowered and have enjoyed 50 years of working. ….Lucky me.

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