It’s generally well worth looking below the surface when faced with a consultancy assignment. What’s asked for can be odd, appear wrong, but beneath the surface, there may be a more than valid request for help, but expressed in a way that masks the deeper challenge. Framing this challenge in medical language, pathologizing the challenge, can make understanding for both parties all the more problematic. Good organisational thinking doesn’t need this vocabulary. Here’s the example of a board’s ‘odd’ request that hid the real question, they were not prepared to ask openly.
It is terminal?
Working in organisations, you often get comments that go as follows. ‘It’s mad here isn’t it? Have you seen anything like this? Do you think we can be cured?’ Such comments are perhaps the start rather than the conclusion of a deeper conversation with a client. And yet, the humorous, albeit frustrated reaction, such as ones like these, nevertheless references medical notions of illness, pathology, diagnosis, treatment and the like.
But while an organisation’s members may indeed experience some feeling of dis-ease about how things are, can we really talk about disease, when it comes to the workplace? If we can’t, what language should we use? If we can, how far can we go with this kind of medical terminology?
‘We need a consultant’
I am reminded of one fairly small voluntary organisation whose board invited us to carry out an evaluation of the service it ran, alongside reflections on the organisation itself. But there was immediately a mystery. It wasn’t’ clear why they felt they needed an evaluation. If ‘evaluation’ was felt to be the remedy, what were the ‘symptoms’? In our initial conversations with the board and with the CEO, we received vague points about time for an overview of things, perhaps we should think about a merger, or, our funders are happy, but perhaps they need reassurance, and so on. Nothing you could hang your hat on, and it was hard to discern any hypotheses from the terms of reference with which we were issued.
But hints that things may not be entirely right started to emerge, almost by inference. It seemed to take an age to complete the contracting process with the CEO, the board now having withdrawn from the details of our working, once we were commissioned. We speculated about the board’s enthusiasm for the evaluation and the CEO’s apparent lack of enthusiasm in practice (though not at all in theory), and wondered if one of the questions that was not being asked was not so much the fitness for purpose of the service the organisation provided (though that may merit reflection too) but the fitness for purpose of the CEO herself.
Behind the unasked question, a bigger unasked question
It turned out that the CEO was herself quite ill, with a serious physical condition, that affected her presence emotionally as well as physically. But was it only the CEO who was not in in good condition?
Our evaluation found a great service, with some (but not all) committed staff working in poor conditions. They were very badly led, with poor levels of support, infrastructure and esprit de corps. In a small organisation, whose only activity is its one service, leadership means both the board and the CEO.
Somehow an unfocussed evaluation was supposed to fix (or treat) an unspecified organisational condition. There was indeed an issue with the CEO, but her condition in terms of the leadership and management of things, while a problem, was at the same time perhaps akin to referred pain: worthy of investigation, but leading to something more profound.
Thus, while the CEO’s illness was indeed real, it also seemed in some ways to be, symbolically anyway, some kind of receptacle for a hidden organisational ‘illness’ or rather state of affairs, that could not so easily be considered: the board’s ultimate leadership of the organisation. Commissioning an evaluation could be an effective way of avoiding the leadership question that needed to be asked, by getting in the organisational doctors. The alternative may have required the board itself to reflect on how things were, how well it was performing itself. Somewhat rivalrous, with some problematic conflicts of interest within its membership, that was the one thing it could not easily do. But more importantly perhaps, the board’s anxiety to be ‘sensitive’ to the illness of the CEO, conveniently avoided them facing the bigger point: they were being too ‘sensitive’ (i.e. avoiding) their own tricky issues.
‘No emotional experience in organisational life is a suitable case for treatment’
I am reminded of these powerful concluding sentences in David Armstrong’s chapter in Working Below the Surface (Karnac, 2004, p27):
‘We are only now just beginning to understand the underlying dynamics that relate specifically to this dimension of organizational life and what it may evoke from our inner worlds or our group inheritance. But we remain convinced that we will go seriously astray if we collude with the pull into pathologizing.
‘No emotional experience in organisational life is a suitable case for treatment. It is rather a resource for thinking, releasing intelligence.’
So, perhaps the board was right, when it was ‘wrong’: they did need a consultancy, perhaps any consultancy, to help them think, to release more of the intelligence that was already there, enabling them to face the challenges they were experiencing and to deal with them.
Actually, in the end, that’s what they did. From dis-ease to greater ease, but not via disease. That would have been far too convenient.
- When you hear medical language applied to organisations, what’s your reaction: a sick or useful approach?
- What’s your experience of organisational challenges being represented as one thing, only to mask a bigger thing that is too hard to frame, let alone confront?