The organisational conversation and complex adaptive systems theory: Implications for organisations, leaders and managers – Part 2

Welcome to the second of a series of articles on conversations in organisations that are my attempt to discuss how Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory might inform our understanding of organisations. ?Advocates of a CAS approach contend that it offers better insights into organisations, and the requisite leadership skills required to function in them over other contemporary approaches (Stacey, 2001, 2011; Streatfield, 2001; Obolensky 2011, Cavanagh & Lane, 2012)). In particular, they have focused on the conversations that happen at all levels of organisations (Stacey, 2001, 2011; Obolensky, 2011; Streatfield, 2001).

After briefly examining the conversation as the process in which the organisation is created, sustained and/or changed in Part 1 of this series, we now explore how conversations might usefully be viewed from a thematic perspective. ?Stacey (2001, 2012) contends that there are three distinct themes patterning organisational conversations:

1. Conscious or unconscious

2. Legitimate or ? shadow?

3. Formal or informal


The formal-informal distinction:

A formal conversation may be seen as one that reflects and sustains the current identity of the organisation, particularly in terms of current positional power, hierarchy and organisational purpose. Formal conversations reflect the way the organisation currently defines itself in terms of task related roles, relationships, talk and purpose. However, within any organisation there are also people (most of whom have designated formal roles in the organisation) in any given moment fulfilling roles or carrying out tasks that are not defined by their formal roles or accountabilities. There are also those who have no formal role in the organisation at all, but may nevertheless play an important part through informal links e.g. the partners of senior leaders.


The conscious-unconscious distinction:

In an organisation people interact in a purposeful manner via the medium of conversation. People are usually conscious of the formal aspects of this conversation e.g. strategy, organisational performance, corporate values, performance management and so forth that are a normal part of organisational life. Most are not aware of the unconscious assumptions that often underpin these conversations, the purposes that these assumptions serve and how the conscious conversation might be both constrained and enabled by these assumptions. For example, a leadership meeting would normally include and exclude participants based on their position in the organisation. On a conscious level people are aware that it is a conversation for some and not for others. However, most will be unaware of the purpose that categorising people as ?in? or ?out? of this particular conversation serves; namely that of preserving the existing power relations and identities in the organisation. ( as discussed in Part 1).

Organisations are likely to be, to a large degree, conscious of their formal identity and relationships, and of the many informal identities and relationships within them. However, focusing only on the conscious excludes important processes in sustaining organisational identity and behaviour: these processes are excluded simply because they are unconscious. When trying to understand an organisation and the thematic patterns?sustaining its identity and behaviour, both?conscious and unconscious themes are important.


The legitimate-shadow distinction:

Another conversational theme is that of legitimate conversations and shadow conversations. A conversation that is acceptable to conduct openly in public might be viewed as legitimate. Such conversations can include both formal and informal themes and conscious and unconscious themes - they are legitimate in that they sustain and serve the current power relations and identities that comprise the organisation. Illegitimate or illegal themed conversations might include how one might steal from the company; do actual harm to an employee etc. However, there are themes that are neither illegitimate nor illegal but nevertheless are felt (either consciously or unconsciously), to be inappropriate to conduct in public. These are shadow themes and may manifest as gossip, humour, parody and mockery and are usually expressed in small trusted groups.

Unduly emphasising organisational identity only as that which is legitimate and openly expressed might exclude these shadow themes. Consequently, relationships and activities that may have a major impact on how organisational identity and behaviour is created and sustained are potentially ignored. The shadow conversations in corridors and lunchrooms between ?trusted? groups, and the conscious and unconscious themes underpinning them are a key part of how the organisation is continually creating itself. It would be naive not to recognise their impact.


How might these themes be useful?

Viewing the distinctions in conversational themes in an organisation in terms of either formal or informal, conscious or unconscious or legitimate or illegitimate can be useful in directing one?s attention to the patterns that either entrench the current patterns of organisational conversation, or allow the emergence of new patterns. Rather than ways of ?classifying? different conversations, they are different ways of paying attention to the one conversation in any given moment and directing one?s attention to different aspects of that conversation. A mindful leader might notice these different themes and find them useful when reflecting on the ideologies and assumptions under-pinning them. A mindful leader with the psychological capacity to take multiple perspectives could use these themes - or any combination of them - to choose which is the best way to understand the current conversation as it unfolds before them and is continually co-created by them.?

Stacey (2001) posits five ways of combining these themes to better understand the patterns of organisational conversation and what might hold these patterns in place.

- Formal-conscious-legitimate

- Informal-conscious-legitimate

- Informal-unconscious-legitimate

- Informal-conscious-shadow

- Informal-unconscious-shadow


A Strategic Meeting at Company X:

Company X?s strategic leadership team meets for their annual strategic planning meeting. The design of the meeting i.e. what will be discussed, when and by whom as set out in the agenda that all participants receive, reflects the current hierarchy and formal positions of power within the organisation. In paying attention to both how the conversation is shaped by the formal agenda and how it?unfolds in the meeting, I might notice ?how the procedures of hierarchical deference - the frequent glancing at the CEO to gauge her reaction, who talks and for how long, and so forth - are influencing the conversation. In so doing, I am attending to aspects of formal-conscious-legitimate processes in the conversation.In the same conversation I might notice a younger, less senior leader taking quite a dominant role as he discusses the rollout of a project that is his responsibility. This dominance in no way threatens the existing overt power structure: Whilst the conversation is now adopting a more informal aspect as regards to who talks and for how long, it is still perfectly conscious of the legitimate differences in personal power and persuasiveness of those present. I am now attending to aspects informal-conscious-legitimate processes in the conversation.

I might notice that the young leader seems dismissive of any interventions made by one of his colleagues - who is also to be the sole non- Caucasian participant in the meeting. I notice that none of the other participants seem to be uncomfortable with his dismissive behaviour and start to wonder if there is an unconscious attitude regarding race or culture that he and his colleagues share. In this case, I am attending to the informal-unconscious-legitimate themes of the conversation (legitimate in the sense that they all, albeit unconsciously, hold this attitude to be acceptable).

Alternatively, I might notice that a number of the young leader?s colleagues exchange complicitous glances and knowing looks whilst he is talking. I wonder if this indicates some collusive disagreement with what is being said and perhaps an intention to undermine what he is proposing, along with a collusive agreement not to voice this resistance. I am now attending to informal-conscious-shadow aspects of the conversation.

As I ponder the meaning of the complicitous signalling and possible tacit collusion of the young leader?s colleagues, I wonder about what unconscious assumptions and beliefs might be driving this behaviour. ?Are they fearful of the CEO and do they see the young leader as one of his ?favourites?? Is their silent collusion a way of dealing with the discomfort and anxiety that would result from overtly challenging the young leader?s proposal and thereby implicitly challenging the CEO? I am now attending to informal-unconscious-shadow aspects of the conversation.


Yes ?..but so what?

It is not suggested that these conversational themes are definitive of the organisational conversation. They are not boxes with which to label conversations, or even parts of conversations. Rather, they should be seen as different dimensions of the conversation that is occurring in the present moment. There is no imperative to use any particular dimension at any particular time or in any particular sequence. It is a function of mindfulness as to what one notices in conversations and what particular theme/combination of themes might be useful in making meaning of what is noticed. It then becomes a function of contextual judgement as to how this meaning making is used to maintain useful conversational patterns, or to challenge less useful patterns. The ability of a leader to be mindful of the patterns in the conversations they are co-creating and the assumptions, ideologies and ideas underpinning them, allows the opportunity for new patterns of conversation to emerge. If this is combined with a capacity to hold multiple perspectives about what is noticed in an objective and non-judgemental manner, then leaders have the potential to more effectively engage in co-creating more useful and adaptive organisational conversations.






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