Friday, February 18, 2011

Change Discourse: Discretionary Effort, Power and Routinization

I have been reading a grand sweeping tome by Yale historian and archaeologist, Ian Morris, called Why the West Rules...for Now. What struck me in the reading is how ancient kings, who orchestrated hierarchical economic systems, claimed deity - and how readily subjects believed in the kings' "mandate of heaven" ... until things went awry, of course. I didn't think it was a matter of rulers simply appointing themselves as gods and then expecting everyone to believe it - there must be something much, much more unconscious and instinctive going on. This supports Joseph Campbell's thesis that, until now, each age gets the mythology it needs to support its social/technical/economic arrangement. 

People prefer order until it chafes. They get their sense of tribe and belonging via the social order and organization, if not the day to day rituals, the situating of one's activities in the scheme of things.  People tell themselves (internalize and identify with) the prevailing story (or mythology) in order to feel more socially and economically secure. This explains the dismal fate of many would-be change agents in the distant and recent past and the depressing mantra of "that's just how it is - it's never going to change." Usually there is some kind of "reaction formation" (e.g., today's fundamentalisms) before there is change.

With that in mind, think about the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant said "Have the courage to use your own understanding!" How does this tie to high demand/low control situations at work and employee engagement?

I was at a workshop facilitated by Julie Diamond last fall called "Deep Democracy." A very interesting discussion occured about people defaulting to routine/process during work time, and not bringing their personal powers (talents and abilities) into the converstion. There's a certain amount of risk involved and courage required to use personal power in a more or less hierarchical situation, but engagement requires it. (The hierarchical order isn't necessarily embodied in individuals, but in organizational norms and habits of belief.) 

It's important to feel that you bring your whole self into work. This ties directly to high demand / low control issues often referred to in discussions of workplace stressors, because the definition of engagement includes the willingness to invest discretionary effort (which would require a good degree of freedom from control) to achieving the organization's objectives. 

So now the question is, what would allow people to apply more discretionary effort? How can we loosen up whatever version of "the divine right of kings" mythology that the organization is labouring under, and today's kings are just those bureaucratic norms of discourse that provide default support to initiative-sapping routines and hierarchies.

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