Stephen Billing’s Blog

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The Language of Leadership – Useful Only to Describe Deficits?

Stephen Billing, November 5, 2009

In which I consider that even though it is much debated what leadership actually consists of or whether it actually exists at all, the language of leadership has certainly given rise to to many ways to describe deficits of personal characteristics in those who manage and lead organisations. 

I am currently reading The Saturated Self by Kenneth Gergen. In it, he discusses the impacts of burgeoning technology on our identity – i.e. how we experience who we are. He says that through technology we are now bombarded by many disparate voices of humanity – both harmonious and alien.

He demonstrates how the scientisation of human behaviour has led to an explosion of terms to describe mental health deficits in the 20th century. Terms such as low self esteem, repressed, authoritarian, obsessive-compulsive, bulimic, sadomasochistic and post-traumatic stress disorder have only come into being relatively recently, and they all refer to problems, shortcomings or incapacities – mental deficits. (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?


New Responses to Resistance

Stephen Billing, January 25, 2009

Patricia Benner’s work challenges leaders of change to consider and generate new responses to employees’ reactions to change. This is more effective than the commonly utilised grief cycle approach.

This is the fifth in a series of posts about how to view your employees’ responses to change as other than ‘resistance.’ It is based on Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring which in turn is based on Heidegger’s phenomenological approach. Phenomenology means that people can grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for the self. 

People grasp change situations in terms of what those situations mean for them.

Previous posts have covered Benner’s four aspects of our humanness through which we deal with change situations and the associated growth and loss:

Benner’s contribution assists in redefining what is commonly known in managerial terms as resistance, or opposition to the change desired by management, an opposition that it is the leader’s job to overcome.

To me, Benner’s work challenges leaders of change to consider and generate new responses to the specific situation where the smooth operation of the participant’s background meaning, habitual bodily understanding and the individual’s concerns are breaking down.

This view is consistent with complex responsive process thinking which encourages paying attention to the micro-interaction of what is going on in the here and now.

John Shotter points out the importance of being open, of being willing to be struck by the novel moments in ordinary conversation. I think Benner’s suggestions help leaders to concentrate more on understanding the life situation of participants and to identify what is potentially new in a conversation.

This is a far cry from seeing employees as going through the stages of a grief cycle, and allows a far more personalised approach to situations of ‘resistance’ that might arise.



Changed Situation – Opportunity for Reflection, not Persuasion

Stephen Billing, January 23, 2009

 People constitute their world and are constituted by it at the same time. Changed situations lead to breakdown of smooth functioning for your employees. Better to see this as an opportunity for reflection rather than an opportunity to ‘persuade’ them.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced.

Benner proposes that there are four aspects of our humanness that enable us to grasp situations directly in terms of their meaning for the self:

  • Embodied intelligence
  • Background meaning
  • Concern
  • Situation

Earlier posts discussed embodied intelligence, background meaning and concern.

Benner calls the fourth attribute ’situation’, which denotes that people inhabit their world, rather than living in an environment. What I mean is that people are constituted by, at the same time as they form, their world. Not only do we create our own world, but it simultaneously creates us. Benner says that this point is often missed because we are so ingrained in an individualist view of the world where we are seen as autonomous individuals, who create the world we live in through our words and actions. Interdependence with other people takes a back seat – more on this here.

Over time, external situations change, and in response the individual also changes. For example, marriage, divorce, widowhood, unemployment, promotion and retirement are all examples Benner gives of how real world situations or contexts change and can impact upon life experience.

No amount of rehearsal or reflection can prepare one for these events because people cannot, in advance, reflectively encounter every taken-for-granted aspect of their being.

However, these changed contexts represent breakdowns in smooth functioning, which can prompt reflection. We can become aware of previously unnoticed background meanings, habitual body understanding and concerns.

This breakdown in smooth functioning is experienced as stressful, as any person involved in organisational change can testify. In situations of change, people’s concerns change and the habitual bodily understandings may not seem to work any more. Taken-for-granted aspects of one’s being may no longer work smoothly. And yet often, leaders respond with ‘persuasive’ messages, rather than attempts to understand what it means for employees whose habitual smooth functioning is breaking down.

Considering this, along with history in the form of background meaning can offer you as the leader of change, the potential for new responses to your employees’ ‘resistance.’ Something more relevant to your employees than a persuasive message.

These new responses you make to your employees have far more potential to trigger the actual organisational change you desire, more than all the programmed key messages and persuasive messages your PR team could dream up.


An Ego Inside a Bag of Skin

Stephen Billing, September 1, 2008

We make the mistake of "identifying with an isolated ego inside a bag of skin" (Eric Eisenberg). 

This attention-grabbing image echoes the idea of George Herbert Mead from 1934 in Mind, Self and Society that the mind is not some sort of essence or spirit that lives inside our heads or inside the brain. Our human minds, according to Mead, consist of the silent conversation we have with ourselves. This is a very social way of considering our sense of who we are and what it means to be a "self". In the same way that we have conversations with others, we have conversations with ourselves. 

A person’s mind then, is the singular of this conversational process. Our sense of who we are is thus formed through a social process of interaction with others. Covey in Seven Habits says that interdependence comes after independence but I do not agree with his idea of interdependence. I think we are interdependent human beings because we rely on others from the day we are born. And we rely on others in our organisational life. 

What we think it is to be human (independent or interdependent, mind as socially created processes of conversation with oneself, or as an ego inside a bag of skin) is very important for what we think we are doing when we try to change organisations. 

What do you think?