It is odd how things develop, they sit in the back of the mind and niggle away. So it was with my last posting about trust. Since then I have obtained research funding from the Roffey Park Institute to look into the subject. I am carrying out the research with a friend of mine Alison Donaldson. We are now a few months in and well under way interviewing people, reviewing the literature and shaping some ideas that we will be road testing with with organisational development experts after summer . As part of our approach we have set up a blog to share emerging thoughts and ideas. You might like to have a look, if so, click here. If you want to get involved, get in touch.
I was at a leadership conference this week and listened to a presentation about trust. In all organisations the issue of trust is vital, particularly those where research, development and innovation are key as well situations that are political. The researchers were examining people’s experience of trust by using a questionnaire survey (the second phase was to include interviews). It got me thinking how difficult it is to ‘measure’ trust due to its complex relational and contextual nature and how this is played out over time. It reminded me of the process of exchanging a gift and the sense of expectation that is created between the giver and receiver. And it is in this reciprocity of expectation that the relationship continues. Trust can be seen in similar ways to that of a gift, but here the focus is not a tangible item of the gift, but the relationship itself brought to life with a confidence building gesture.
Pierre Bourdieu, in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), argued that the tendency of abstraction, free from context and the temporal flow of events from which they are drawn, is a fundamental problem of researching how people interact with each other. And he explored this through the example of gift exchange, and I extend this argument here to trust.
An objective approach would consider the principle of gift exchange, seen from outside the game, as a form of reversible operation and context-free ‘law’: where possible, gifts are to be matched by return gifts of equal value whereby the obligation is cancelled out. Or in the case of trust, confidence building actions are matched by similar actions. However this does not account for the intertwined context that the parties navigate skilfully, along with feelings of hesitation, possibilities and expectation and how this fits in with the meshed course of past events; events that point to the irreversibility of experience. Bourdieu also considers ‘style’ of gift exchange: the occasion and nature of further gifts and how this affects the experience of the ongoing process.
In our book (Warwick & Board, 2013) we explore this from a common experience in the UK, that of buying a round of drinks in a pub. We do this from the perspective of the person buying the round, who is immersed in the game, and that of the detached researcher watching the goings on (p46). However, here I would like to illustrate the point through the gift exchange anxieties of Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon is one of the main characters in the comedy, The Big Bang Theory. They are a bunch of rather nerdy physicists and engineers, working in a university, along with their friend and neighbour, Penny, a waitress who dreams of becoming an actress. Sheldon, bordering on the autistic, sees everything from the perspective of the objective scientist. And it is this mindset that trips him up when Penny gives him a Christmas present, here is the video (Cendrowski , 2009). Shocked that he is to be bought a present by Penny he buys a range of gifts of different values. Upon receiving his gift from Penny he plans to quickly check its price on the internet so he can give the one of closest value and return the rest to the store. But of course, Penny gives him something priceless – a signed napkin of Sheldon’s hero, Leonard Nimoy. Here the zero-sum game of gift exchange collapses and Sheldon is overcome.
The question for me is how we can describe the relationship of trust that gives voice to this relational and anticipatory nature of experience rather than focusing on the abstract notion of zero sum exchange. I shall call this the ‘Sheldon Dilemma’. And this brings me to where I began, trust is too important a factor of organisational life not to research, but how can we study it? To complement the surveys and questionnaires, which all have their place, it would be good to hear accounts of people’s own stories (including researchers’ own stories) of their dynamic network of their trust relationships. We should focus on accounts of the here and now, not those that come to mind months or years later. Perhaps here we might be able glimpse the dynamic nature of trust that gives voice to anticipation, style and reciprocity.
So instead of talking about trust (almost as if it were an object) lets talk about the processes of how we build trust worthiness.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Cendrowski , M. (2009). The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis. The Big Bang Theory, Season 2, Episode 11.
Warwick, R., & Board, D. (2013). The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
It is an odd feeling reading a review of one’s book; not unlike looking in the mirror and noticing something for the first time. That is how I felt in reading Jan Myers’ review of our book in the journal Management Learning (Myers, 2014). Our book felt a bold project, giving voice to the experiential and intellectual texture of carrying out doctoral research. So I was pleased that Jan explored this by relating to her own practice in commenting: ‘I found myself re-living part of my own experience, echoing the accompanying rollercoaster feeling of satisfaction, elation and exhaustion’ of her viva examination.
Jan picks out the following quote where we discuss what we term ‘immersed reflexivity’ in which we address leadership in the social process of knowledge:
… an understanding of the world in which everything we do, we are engaging in, forming and being formed by, social processes … If we attend in a disciplined way with others to the disturbing detail of this experience, we can generate new insights and knowledge. … noticing and staying part of, and attentive to, feelings and thoughts which may be hurtful, joyful, confrontational, anxiety causing and conflicting as well as those experiences that are more logical and ‘rational’ (Warwick & Board, 2013, p112).
In choosing this quote she highlights an important theme that we felt goes largely unnoticed, that of the emotional and logical aspects of organisational life as we make sense and inch forward into the future with others. In other words, features of organisational life that are so quickly eroded by post-hoc rationalisation. And the hard work that goes into noticing and giving voice to this.
In writing the book our good friend, Bob Mackenzie, said more than once: ‘of course the text is never finished …’ and I agree. With this in mind Jan rightly reminds us of some unfinished threads where we could have paid more attention: for example the wider landscape of ethnography and the game of peer review and academic publishing (an issue that I’m starting to pay more attention to!). All of that said, the review gave me a great fillip to continue the ‘project’ and to share our ideas, particularly when she noted:
… the book is thoughtful, thought proving and well crafted. It is a treatise for engaged, qualitative research and connectedness though reflective practice. I have already recommend it to several colleagues and doctoral students and I’m looking forward to re-reading . (Myers, 2014, p359).
And with this glimpse in the mirror we continue.
Myers, J. (2014). Book review: The social development of leadership and knowledge: A reflexive inquiry into research and practice. Management Learning, 45(3), 356–359.
Warwick, R., & Board, D. (2013). The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge: A Reflexive Inquiry Into Research and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Recently Douglas and I presented our first webinar, discussing several themes of the book. It was hosted by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and focused on the transition from completing an MBA and achieving a doctorate. Despite some technical challenges not only did good number of people start the webinar with us, they continued to the end. The Webinar is now available on the AMBA website, just click here.
In writing the ‘Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge’ Douglas and I are curious about the nature experience. We try to stay true to this curiosity throughout the writing of the book, the sharing ideas and the reflexive effect it has on us.
We begin with the topics of knowledge and leadership. At the start we are unsure about the connections. We begin by treating leadership as something separate – an example of a practice in which all of us can find some part, whether as leader or led. We read. Our thinking and noticing shifts: knowledge and leadership are now sitting differently in our minds. We attempt to formulate a contribution and invite reactions to it from others. Along the way we also consider in some detail reflexivity, which we think is key to making a knowledge contribution, and with the help of others we look back reflexively at the path we have taken.
The result is a book of varying textures and intensity. The chapters which we describe collectively as ‘a visit to the library’ are more abstract than narratives of action. Experience does not follow a linear path that finally delivers us at a clear destination known in advance. In fact we don’t arrive: we are in a constant process of arriving. Multiple avenues and possibilities fleetingly emerge and close: facing us with choices, dilemmas, exclusion, panic and hope. We hope to convey this with narratives from the doing of our research and reflections on our changing practice. By variations in the book’s ‘texture’ we mean differences in the pace and intensity of the text and even at times the robustness of what we are saying. These are features of our experience of inquiry which we have tried not to homogenise in the act of re-telling.
In June’s edition of Changeboard magazine Douglas was asked to consider five important questions of leadership. We thought it would be useful to include them in our blog as they give a useful introduction of the themes that we explore in our book.
How would you describe the changing role of today’s leaders? Increasingly demanding and confusing. We know that the multiple, on-going manifestations of global crisis have called into question numerous myths, such as charismatic leadership or self-correcting markets or organisations being ‘in control’, but many of the proffered solutions look unconvincing. We see that we swallowed too easily some big ideas in the past, so we are more sceptical about any idea offered to us now. Leaders are affected twice, with question marks over what ideas can really help them, and more question marks in the minds of their followers when they try to act.
How is demand for executive leadership programmes changing? There is a considerable desire to develop ethical leaders, and an even greater desire to be seen to be developing ethical leaders. The former desire encourages attention on extended, practice-based programmes in which leaders support each other in wrestling with live dilemmas over a period of several months. These dilemmas will always have a political dimension, which is easier to address in programmes in which peers from different organisations come together. The desire to be seen to be developing ethical leaders more commonly means commissioning shorter, in-house programmes in which leaders are ‘taught’ ‘our’ house values. In parallel with increasing interest in ethics, there may also be rising interest in courage.
What behaviours, competencies and skills do leaders need to possess now more than ever to be able to lead an organisation to greatness? A potentially significant development is growing awareness of the limitations of competency-based analyses of leadership. There will always be room for individuals to improve their skills but research points us to give more attention to leadership as a complex social, political and intuitive process.
Can we develop leaders who are not self-serving? Possibly, but it takes time to do this in a deep way, and it has to happen before leaders reach the most senior positions. Most senior leadership positions are hubristically poisonous (in Acton’s famous formulation, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely). But development is not the only answer. Research can help us spot narcissistic and psychopathic leaders who may appear strong candidates for promotion but need to be screened out, and we need non-executive directors whose values base does not replicate that of hero-CEOs in order to challenge and call time on them at the appropriate moment.
What advice or top tips would you give to leaders to win the respect of the people they are leading, as they seek to innovate and navigate through turbulent times? When the world is chaotic and many people keep trying to manipulate us, we cling even more tightly to simple certainties. Most simple certainties are dangerous. One of the few that isn’t, is that even at the top of the organisational pyramid, leaders only have 24 hours in their days. In trying to signal what really matters to a leader, the currency of how they spend their time remains a platinum standard. Stories such as Colin Marshall regularly spending Christmas Eve evenings in British Airways’ hangars and terminals wishing staff on shift happy Christmas will always stay with us as beacons, even in a confusing or cynical world.
More information about Changeboard magazine click here.
After our last blog Alison raised asked a couple of questions about narrative so we thought we would dedicate this posting to the subject. Narrative is a key feature to our ideas of immersed reflexivity, particularly how those narratives develop over a period of time. In this post we would like to address two aspects of narrative: firstly the important features of a narrative, and secondly the social process by which they develop. We will include a narrative that we have used in the book as an example.
A narrative tends to be a short account of a personal experience, often a few hundred words in length, occasionally more. It can be written in any style; a free flowing steam of words, dialogue, carefully crafted prose, whatever suites the writer. A narrative as we describe features someone who writes in the first person who is an active player in a game that matters to them and for which they have an important stake. The narrative pays attention to the logical and the rational as well as emotion, anger, hope, affection, puzzlement, allegiances etc. of how people are with each other. As an expert in the game the writer can pay attention to the sense or intuition they have about the next step they might take in the process. Issues of anxiety, trust, anticipation, intuition etc are often absent in how we talk about what goes on in organisations (or in ‘the verb ‘organising’). However they are central to what sustains and destroys both people and organisations. Narratives are always unfinished; they have a dramatic quality that captures both the imagination of the reader and writer as they envisage the next step.
Within a learning group people read their narratives slowly. Being mindful of people’s reaction around them they notice things that they had not noticed before and they might pause (we call this dynamic punctuation). The group asks questions: Why did you do this? Who was involved? Why were you not surprised …? And so on; typical coaching questions. The person re-writes their narrative in light of these new insights and thinks to themselves – what could they do differently, what will they do differently, what will the risks will be? This will form the basis of changing the dynamics and relations of the group that they are part of. Next time the group meets this change might form the basis of a new narrative and a further round of exploration.
Here is an example of a narrative that we use in the book, note the level of detail and how central the person is in the events.
As Luke and I talked about the practice of organ donation I scribbled notes over the paper with arrows, pictures and a small mindmap; all of which were quite different from the linear set of bullet points I wrote in the specification. As we went down the page, bullet point by bullet point, the conversation felt clunky and disjointed, which contrasted with my usual conversations with Luke which were quite fast moving, enthusiastic and fluid. I found it difficult to recognise how the parts of the specification connected with each other. Indeed there were times I could hear surprise in Luke’s voice as if the issues we were discussing were difficult for him to recognise. As I reflect on this now, both Luke and I were at ill at ease, even as we were making final changes to the specification.
During the process of working with narrative in several set meetings those hidden and taken for granted assumptions and ways of working that develop in a group become available for discussion and for change. This has important implications for an individual’s identity within the context of their lived experience and the next steps that they might take on their leadership journey from where they are and from who they are.