Stephen Billing’s Blog

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There Are Always At Least Two Perspectives In Every Relationship

Stephen Billing, October 4, 2009

Holding contradictory points of view without getting anxious – could this be a core competency for leaders of change?

When you think about it, it is fairly obvious that there can be no "I" without we, you (singular), he, she, you (plural) and they. "I" can only be thought of as "I and relationships with others." "I" cannot be thought of as a stand alone individual in isolation from others. You could think of "I" as meaning "interdependent I."

You can distinguish between interdependent I and others, but you cannot separate them – interdependent I only exists in relationship to other people. (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…)


A Second Reason Why Thinking is a Social Process

Stephen Billing, June 20, 2009

I posted earlier about thinking being a silent conversation one has with oneself, and this is an inherently social way of viewing the process of thinking. It is inherently social because it is viewing thinking as a process of silent interaction.

There is another, less obvious way in which this view of thinking is radically social. It is in the make up of the participants in the silent conversation that consitutes thinking.

Who is talking to whom in this silent conversation I am having with myself? Who is doing the talking, and who are they talking to? Please bear with me and see if I can answer this question, drawing on George Herbert Mead and Ralph Stacey.

The answer is that different aspects of the self are talking to each other. "I" am talking to "me." The aspect doing the talking is "I" as the subject, doer or initiator of action.

The aspect being spoken to is "me" as the object, the recipient of the action.

The "I" as the subject doing the talking is the individual in the present moment responding to the "me."

Mead pointed out that as humans we have the capacity to take on the attitude of the other person. In other words, you can perform an imaginative feat in which you experience what it would be like to be in the other person’s place. Mead said that it is because we can imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes that we have human consciousness.

You imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes based on your experience of many social interactions over time – the results you received from these interactions and what they meant to you. These imaginings are therefore socially based because of the social experience you have had. For example, I moved around a lot when I was growing up and so would often have to leave my friends behind and make new ones. If you were brought up by different parents or in a different culture you would have different experiences and so your view of what the other person would be making of you would be different.

Humans also have a tendency to generalise.

The "me" taking part in the silent conversation of thinking is a generalisation that represents your generalised view of what society thinks of you. Society in this case is that group of people whom you identify with.

In a process that utilises both our human tendency to generalise and also our capacity to take on the attitude of the other, we imagine what others think of us. Our imagining of what others think of us is the "me" that is participating in our silent conversation.

This conversation between "I" and "me" is never resolved. It is a conversation in which "I" am constantly responding, in the present moment, to "me." In other words I am constantly responding to the generalised view that I think others have of me.

There, simple eh?


One Reason Why Thinking Is A Social Activity

Stephen Billing, June 18, 2009

Thinking is a process of silent conversation with oneself and is therefore a social activity.

It makes you more effective when thinking about organisational change to be able to articulate what you think it means to be a person and to think. Why? Because how you think about what people are doing in organisations when they are thinking affects what you do to help influence the course of change. This is so in many subtle ways, whether or not you are aware of your assumptions about human consciousness. If you are aware of your assumptions about what it is to be human, you can be more deliberate in your effectiveness in organisational change.

Most people think of the mind as being something that lives inside a person’s head, something separate from the brain, that controls the actions of the body.

George Herbert Mead talked instead about a conversation of gesture and response in which meaning arises from the gesture and response taken together.

He proposed that thinking was the process of engaging in silent conversation with oneself. This makes sense in terms of our experience in which we do talk to ourselves. As a tennis player I tell myself to do things like hit up through the ball. And I hear other players admonishing themselves to "Concentrate" or "hit it" or "move." The silent conversation is then spoken aloud and in some cases becomes an exasperated shout!

So, this highlights one way in which the process of thinking, because it consists of silent interaction, is a social process.

Instad of thinking about thinking as a property of the individual, think of the mind and its process of thinking as silent conversation. This silent conversation is what constitutes human consciousness, and one of the great benefites of this view is that it means that cognitive processes do not need to remain a mystery as properties of individuals that we can never reveal or become aware of.

Instead, if you realise that thinking is a process of silent conversation, you can become aware of it and engage with others in their process of silent conversation. This will make you more effective as a facilitator of change in your organisation.


Precarious working

Stephen Billing, September 18, 2008

Are you precarious?

A theme of a number of presentations at the Control or Care of the Self conference in Hamburg in July 2008 was precarious working arrangements, and the impact these are having on society. I had to ask what the term precarious working arrangements was referring to, because I had not heard it before.

I assumed it was referring to people who gained income through working at the margins of society, at the edges of legality, such as burglars or sex workers.

But no! The concept of precarious working arrangements means the shift to contract working and self employment. This seems to be happening on a large scale in Europe and academics are now writing about it extensively.

I was struck by the thought that at this academic conference of 60 people, all of them were employed by universities or tertiary institutions. I was the one person there who was self-employed, I was a part of the group that was being described as "precarious."

There is no doubt that in addition to your technical skills you do need to have the additional ability to generate work if you are self employed. And yet I have never felt less precarious in my working life.

It was ironic that I was seen as in a precarious group as I had been talking to several people who were on fixed term employment contracts with their universities, and I could sense their concern about what their next job would be.

I had to wonder which was the precarious group – the self employed or the academics.


Informalisation and self control

Stephen Billing, September 17, 2008


Informalisation of our relations with each other is accompanied by expectations of increased self control. And watch out if you make a mistake of self control.

I had the privilege of hearing Cas Wouters speak at the Hamburg conference Control or Care of the Self in July 2008. He pointed out that the informalisation of social controls (e.g. in the form of mufti days or casual Fridays) is accompanied by an increase in self-control.

In organisations, people are also expected to informalise their relations with each other, but at the same time (and this is not so obvious) they are also expected to have more self-control, more self-regulation.

For example, as Jason Hughes pointed out in his presentation at the same conference, casual Fridays ostensibly give employees the freedom to wear any clothes they like, within the constraints of decency. It seems like a move from corporate uniform to corporate mufti. And yet are people really free to wear anything they like? Thinking of how people comment on each other’s clothes, it is obvious that there is plenty of judgment going on about what people are wearing.

It is a move to informalisation of what people wear to work on a Friday, and it is accompanied by a need for increased self-restraint. The company does not prescribe what you wear on a Friday, you decide yourself. But you need to exercise self control. And beware if you get it wrong!