In a recent post, The language of organizational change, I drew an analogy between the central role that verbs play in language learning and the equivalent role played by organizational dynamics in understanding how change happens. As I argued there: "... once people understand the underlying dynamics of organizations, they understand change. The rest is just content." To take this a stage further, Informal Coalitions shows how the critical dynamics of change are embodied within (and simultaneously emerge from) people's everyday conversations and interactions. So this places talk and language at the core of change and organizational dynamics.
In a recent post, The language of organizational change, I drew an analogy between the central role that verbs play in language learning and the equivalent role played by organizational dynamics in understanding how change happens. As I argued there:
"... once people understand the underlying dynamics of organizations, they understand change. The rest is just content."
To take this a stage further, Informal Coalitions shows how the critical dynamics of change are embodied within (and simultaneously emerge from) people's everyday conversations and interactions. So this places talk and language at the core of change and organizational dynamics.
'Thingifying' the organizational world
Verbs, as we were taught way back in primary school world of Janet and John, are "doing words". They are where the action is! And yet, despite our supposed quest to become action-oriented leaders (and ‘doers’ in general), we continually abandon these ‘front-line’ action words and retreat to the ‘trenches’ dug out of the muddy wilderness of abstract nouns.
Nouns, as we were similarly taught, are "naming words". And management is full of them – especially abstract ones! As managers, consultants and academics, we love naming things. So we talk of leadership, management, organization, partnership, co-ordination and communication - to name but a few. Nouns give us the false sense of security that because we can name something we know ‘it’ ... ‘it’ is tangible ... and we can do something about ‘it’.
Unfortunately, in cases such as this, the ‘it’ doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as organization, for example. You can’t collect it up and put it in a box. Instead there are just ongoing and diverse acts of organizing. I’m not suggesting here that companies don’t exist as legal entities. Clearly they do. Nor that there are no such bodies as departments of state, local authorities, charities and so on. Clearly there are. Although, even here, the legal and statutory statuses of these bodies are themselves socially constructed and maintained.
No. My point here is that, as organizational theorists and practitioners, we have a tendency to ‘thingify’ (or reify) the organizational world. That is, we replace the active, spontaneous, human, relational and ‘in-here’ processes of leading, managing, organizing, communicating etc with the static, structured, disembodied, bounded and ‘out-there’ categories of leadership, management, organization and communication.
Implications for action
Doing this results in two things:
- First, it shifts responsibility away from a personal ‘us’ to an impersonal and anonymous ‘them’ (or an even more impersonal ‘it’). So we complain about "the organization"; or "management"; or "communication", rather than recognizing our own contribution to the continuous process of organizing, managing and communicating.
- Secondly, it deflects attention away from the living reality of our everyday interactions with others. It is solely through these local interactions that we can make sense of emerging events, exert choice and take action. And, it is through the self-organizing interplay of these local conversations that change happens and outcomes emerge.
In Informal Coalitions (p. 90), I made a similar argument in respect of the way that we talk about "culture":
"… the active process of everyday interaction [is] central to the notion of organizational culture. Ideally for our purposes, the word "culture" would be a verb, to describe this dynamic (literally verbal) process. Instead, we’re going to have to manage with it as a noun; and accept that, in using a ‘naming word’, we are not suggesting that culture can be made ‘concrete’ in any meaningful way."
Nominalizing verbs and using other abstract nouns is, of course, part of the way that we learn. We generalize patterns of meaning from disparate experiences and name these as a way of making sense of the world. This practice won’t disappear from language; and I’m not arguing that it should. This blog is peppered with such usage (including the phrase "Informal Coalitions"!). What I am saying, though, is that we need to become more sharply aware of the ways in which describing our practice (there’s another one!) in abstract terms can:
- distort our own and others' perceptions and understanding of what’s going on,
- blind us to the part that we are playing in this ongoing process, and
- disempower us from acting in the only place, and at the only time, that we can – that is, in the here and now.