Stephen Billing’s Blog

Stephen Billing photo

Long-Standing Conflict and Bullying

Stephen Billing, October 6, 2009

In situations of long-standing conflict, accusations of bullying can be a sign that relationships have broken down to such an extent that one or both of the parties can see no possibility of carrying on working together.

I have noticed when I have been asked to help organisations where people are in deep seated conflict, that the situations are often characterised by each party accusing the other of bullying them. When I mention to a new or potential new client these accusations of bullying in other conflict situations, I am struck by how they say "that happens here as well."

Chris Mowles writes an interesting post in Violence in Organisations on his blog Reflexive Practice that shed light on this for me.

He says that organisational politics consists of the daily exercise of power, involving people negotiating, discussing, being polite or impolite to each other, revealing, concealing, pulling rank, delegating and so on. Drawing on Hannah Arendt, he describes this political process as the proper exercise of power in the public space; as something that leads to the greatest of human civilising achievements. (more…)


What Does it Mean to be Self Organising?

Stephen Billing, August 21, 2009

The concept of self-organisation is a very misunderstood topic when it comes to applying it to organisations.

Bas Reus is exploring what it means to say that humans are self-organising, over at His post outlines the development of his thinking in attempting to define self-orgnisation.

Arising from the study of complexity, the important thing about self-organisation is that the ordering of society (or people in organisations) occurs through local interaction in the absence of an overall blueprint or plan. As any top manager will tell you, you can’t just make a plan, tell others and then confidently expect that the plan will be followed. Instead, all sorts of unexpected things happen – people interpret things differently, they react to things in surprising ways and there are unintended consequences. This is what is meant by saying there is no overall blueprint or plan. (more…)


How to be a Good “Change Recipient”

Stephen Billing, August 14, 2009


Have you seen this blog post by Tiffany Monhollon called "How to Talk About Change at Work" that recently caught my eye?

For the last five months the author has had what is described as a seismic shift every 30 days. That amounts to five of these seismic shifts in five months. So, lots of change, by any standards.

Tiffany goes on to give a very personalised account of what she has learnt through these frequent and rapid changes in her organisation, and some survival tips that I think are very practical, and revealing of political processes. Essentially Tiffany’s tips amount to "how to be a good management recipient of change."

First of all she suggests figuring out what the change means, and recommends talking to a group of trusted others as a way of working out what it’s all about. (more…)


Dealing With Difference

Stephen Billing, December 21, 2008

Dealing with resistance depends on how you deal with difference

People who resist change are negative, troublemakers, or just don’t understand the benefits. Right? Not necessarily.

Perhaps they have legitimate concerns about the change as it is framed and planned. If so, these concerns, even legitimate ones, when expressed would sound to senior managers like resistance, wouldn’t they? Cooney and Sewell see dealing with this resistance as a question of who we deal with difference.

Cooney and Sewell’s stimulating research article is called Shaping the Other: Maintaining Expert Managerial Status in a Complex Change Management Programme, and is published in December 2008 in the academic journal Group and Organization Management.

Cooney and Sewell identify three means of dealing with difference:

  • Confrontation – overt domination through the exercise of power – in other words, crush all opposition.
  • Appropriation - a more subtle form of confrontation in which you take ownership of their position. For example, managers might appropriate the technical knowledge of the workers by eliciting it and representing it in a standardised and formalised manner, and then use it in service of their own ends.
  • Dialogue – engagement with the other in a process that recognises each other’s difference and does not seek to dominate or appropriate them.

Note: the above are based on the work of the German philosopher Hegel, as discussed in the work of Collins.

While at first blush the dialogue option seems to be the most desirable, I think it is unlikely to be attained. Why not? Because of the power relations that are part and parcel of all human relating.

However, these alternatives gave me an insight into the work of the leader in making change happen, and my own role as a consultant in facilitating change.

I think that it is quite possible and indeed likely, that the issues of staff and managers are based on genuine concern for the organisation. I don’t assume that people are damaged.

In sessions I run with managers and staff, I am seeking to recognise difference, and not to dominate the discussion, in line with the dialogue option above. I do all sorts of things to minimise the power differential between me and the participants in order to meet this objective. And I am seeking to create dialogue. However, everyone knows that there is a power relationship going on, no matter how unacknowledged it might be. People are often surprised that I am actually listening to them, and that their views are reflected in the written documents that are produced in the course of the change project.

But nevertheless, the organisations I work with are not democracies (whether they be private sector, government agencies, NGOs or Crown entities), and the power differentials are real. By the way, do not read this as meaning that I think the power is all on the side of management. In one restructuring project I worked on successfully, a previous attempt to do similar things resulted in pickets and the resignation of the CEO. Naturally enough, the new CEO, General Manager and I took this very seriously as it graphically illustrated that the power was not unilaterally on the side of the CEO.

How are the power differentials in your organisation getting in the way of you dealing with difference (and resistance)?


Power is a Function of All Human Relating

Stephen Billing, December 3, 2008


It is both practical and interesting to think about power if you are trying to change your organisation. Instead of seeing power as being like an amulet, that one person holds over another, Norbert Elias had a very different way of thinking about power.

Elias saw power as an inevitable characteristic of all human relating. He saw power as a function related to the need that one person has for another. If I need you more than you need me, then at that time, the balance of power will be tilted towards you and away from me.

In this way of thinking, power exists only in relationship between people. Power is not a thing in itself that can exist outside of human relationships. Rather it is relational in nature.

To illustrate, Elias gives extreme examples where the power seems to be weighted completely in favour of one party, such as a baby and its parents, and a master/slave relationship.

Elias points out that a baby has power over its parents, just as much as the parents have power over the baby. At least, the baby has power over the parents for as long as the parents attach value to the baby. The parents may abandon the baby if it cries too much. Through the socialisation process the baby eventually learns what the limits of its power are, through interaction with its parents.

In the case of the master and the slave, another seemingly lopsided power relationship, Elias acknowledges that the master has power over the slave, but that the slave also has power over the master in proportion to his or her function for master and the master’s dependence on the slave.

How is this talk of babies and slaves relevant for organisations?

Consider the example of a manager / subordinate relationship in terms of the argument above. It is readily evident that the manager has power over the subordinate. What is less evident is that the subordinate also has power by dint of the subordinate’s functionality for the manager. In any change initiative, the staff have the ability to exert power by going along with the change or not going along with it. The manager and those reporting to the manager are interdependent – they rely on each other. They are not isolates bumping up against each other. Power is in an ever-changing balance between the two, depending on the relative need each feels for the other at the time.

Thinking of power in this relational way that Elias proposed shifts the attention away from the manager as an individual possessed of powerful characteristics by dint of position power and influencing power, to thinking of specific relationships between specific managers and specific subordinates.

It is then possible to see that the power balance is always shifting – it is not a static thing. With this way of thinking it becomes possible to identify shifting power balances between manager and direct report. And it also becomes possible to identify shifting power balances across an organisation.

And this is a very valuable perspective to have when leading organisational change.


Power – Don’t Talk About It

Stephen Billing, December 1, 2008


Power is a topic that is not much talked about in organisations, at least not overtly in my experience. And yet it is a fundamental component of our organisational relationships as human beings within an explicit hierarchical structure. Hierarchies of management mean that some people have more power than others. I am referring to power as the ability to make certain things happen that would not otherwise happen.

Why is it that such a pervasive feature of organisational life is so little written about in the organisational literature, or discussed in every day organisational life? Especially considering that power is such an important part of the CEO or senior manager’s ability to get things done.

Norbert Elias suggests in his 1984 book What is Sociology, that one reason power is not a fit subject for discussion is because of the numerous examples of abuse of power and the harm done by powerful people to others.