Ethical Management as Meaning Making in a University.

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Title: Ethical Management as Meaning Making in a University.
Year: 2016
Authors: John Newton Diana Dalton Cathy Whelan

“Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. … The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” (Havel, p166)

This paper examines an attempt to Meet the Challenge of the Case (Boxer, following Winnicott) in that it examines the experience and practice of a manager who was required to
dramatically ‘downsize’ her staff.

Nowadays this is not an uncommon occurrence in organisations, but the particulars of this case reveal something of the manager’s unconscious determination, creativity and necessary risk taking in order to meet her own ethical sense in the face of what many staff considered the university’s ruthless and regressive response to market conditions and its own uncertain future.

The organisation is a large and venerable university with a high place in global university rankings. The manager (author D.) is a non-academic executive. The ‘downsizing’, of non- academic staff only, was a response to a significant cut in government funding and done in the name of operational efficiency based on the ‘business case’ put forward by a firm of international consultants.

D. hired, successively, the authors N. and W. as consultants to assist her to manage the effects of the downsizing. Reflection on the experience of working with D. and the ‘survivors’ of the downsizing revealed what we call an ‘ethic of meaning making’ which is called forth by
the increasingly manic confusion between individual and collective commitment in the global marketplace.

Aristotle’s practical ethics requires the individual to ‘do the right thing, at the right time, in the right manner’, drawing from acquired practical wisdom, good upbringing and the Four Critical Virtues. Unlike Bion, however, Aristotle is silent on the unconscious pressures of group life and citizenship as they affect the capacity to ‘think under fire’. The fire in this case is the atomising effect of all-pervasive market economics on an increasingly hyper-individualist
society (Sievers) whereby, for example, the differing roles of student and customer become conflated as the university is torn between the responsibilities of a public institution and a commercial business. Subsequently, this ‘fire’ has made the ultimate purpose of the university more contestable and its critical stakeholders more numerous and diverse, thus
pressuring the traditional task and sentient bonds between staff groups, academic and non-

academic alike. The possibility of seeing each other as co-creators of a ‘greater good’ (Emery and Trist) is diminished as staff and students are increasingly pressured to be ‘entrepreneurial subjects’ and experience themselves as largely ‘self-employed’ (Boxer) in determining their own career paths.

Krantz has described the occasional, ethical, necessity for the ‘virtuous betrayal’ by a leader of her staff in order to achieve a higher, collective good. The challenge of a virtuous
betrayal is to be confident of the greater good and to stay emotionally connected to staff so as to help them mourn their loss and find a willingness to forgive the breaking of trust. In this case, the proposed greater good was for ‘operational efficiency’ in order to preserve, without financial detriment, the primary task of academic research. This message was, for proud, longstanding university staff not particularly compelling as they believed it to be a false economy, preserving research funds by reducing administrative staff costs yet requiring academics to spend more of their own time on administration. Administrative staff believed the top down approach to change did not enable the continuation of highly valued, effective but economically costly, local initiatives to meet complex environmental demands.

D’s "practical wisdom", born of previous experience of downsizing, was that the University's strategy of a ‘spill and fill’ of all staff positions was the fairest approach; so long as it was transparent, applied rigorously according to pre-established procedures, gave all staff the opportunity to openly discuss their hopes and fears about future employment, and reasonable transitional support was made available.

D’s experience of enacting this practical wisdom led her through a personal nightmare of isolation, collegial revulsion and near disablement to a place of gradual, grudging
admiration and trust from her colleagues. The darkest time was when she could not get support to allow staff to openly discuss, prior to the demotions and redeployments, what was happening to them and their valued place of work. A graphic instance of what Trist called ‘an absence of joy in post-industrial organisation’. The turning point, (or perhaps a ‘quilting point’ (Western), followed the creation of deliberative, open spaces for the survivors to mourn, forgive, re-connect and take collaborative steps to re-build appropriate task and sentient links. The ethic resides in the ‘democracy of emotions’ (Hoggett and Thompson). It is linked to the positive mobilisation of the Basic Assumption Pairing (French and Simpson) for realistic
hope through collective making of meaning (Armstrong).

The paper describes leadership and design choices for group interventions (reflection groups, open space, and horizontal leadership) to support meaning making in the face of uncertainty and ‘not knowing’ (French) accompanied by the discovery of unconscious sibling dynamics as both a threat and support to the strengthening of lateral relations in the face of what was experienced as ‘lean and mean’ management’s attack on a secure psychological attachment to a place of work (Marris).


Aristotle, Book 11, Nichomachean Ethics
Armstrong, D. 2012. Terms of Engagement: Looking Backwards and Forwards at the Tavistock Enterprise. Organisational and Social Dynamics, Vol. 12, N0. 1, 106-121.
Bion, W. 1961. Experiences in Groups. Tavistock Publications: London
Boxer, P. 2004. Facing Facts: what’s the good of change? Socio-Analysis. Special Issue: Power and Politics in Organisations. Vol. 6, 20-46.
Boxer, P. 2014. Leading Organisations Without Boundaries: “Quantum” Organisation and the Work of Making Meaning. Organisational and Social Dynamics, Vol. 14, No.1, 130-153.
French, R. 2001. “Negative Capability”: Managing the confusing uncertainty of change. Journal of Orgnizational Change Management, Vol. 14, No. 5, 480-492.

French, R. and Simpson, P. 2015. Attention, Cooperation and Purpose. An Approach to Working in Groups Using Insights from Wilfred Bion. Karnac: London
Havel, V. 1990. The Politics of Hope. In, Disturbing the Peace. A conversation with Kavel Hrizdala. Translated by Paul Wilson. Alfred A. Knoff, Inc: New York.
Hoggett, P. and Thompson, S. 2002. Towards a Democracy of the Emotions. Constellations, Vol. 9, No.1, 106-126.
Krantz, J. 2006. Leadership, Betrayal and Adaptation. Human Relations, Vol 59, No. 2, 221-240 Marris, P. 1996. The Management of Uncertainty. In Kraemer, S. and Roberts, J. (Eds.),The politics of attachment: towards a secure society. Chp 14, Free Association Books: London Sievers, B. 2008. The Psychotic University. Ephemera, Vol. 8, No. 3, 238-257.
Western, S. 2012. Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text. Sage: London

NOTE: It is intended that all three authors, Client and two Consultants will present the paper/discussion

Language: English

Date: 06/26/2016
Location: Granada, Spain
Name of Event/Conference: 33rd ISPSO Annual Meeting
Sponsoring Organization: ISPSO

Submitted by:
John Newton

Corresponding author: John Newton

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