donderdag 30 december 2010


The words ‘grief’ or ‘violence’ or ‘pain’ do not belong to the vocabulary of organizations. Because there grown-ups work together based on mutual consent and rational alignment. That’s what I sometimes hear from participants in my workshop Thinking for someone else, in which I – in the footsteps of the philosopher Levinas – regularly use those words, even if we discuss work situations. My answer is that some words may indeed sound strange in the context of organization and management, but that they really can tell us something about that reality. And that time may be ripe for a variety of unusual word connections.

As to that latter thought I feel strengthened by the publication of the book The judge’s new clothes by the Dutch judge Rinus Otte. Because the book calls forth a number of unusual associations. Of judges with misery, of organizations with grief, of management with being pathetic. These unusual connections are there already for some time, so Otte suggests, but something in our minds keeps us from associating the said things with one another.

The association of judges with misery gets profile only relatively recently. Namely, Otte tells us, since judges are locked up in planning and control cycles in which targets are fixed and results are measured. Because much of their work processes are standardized, judges from a center point turned into a link in a chain. They have little grip anymore on the organization of their daily work. The juridical process is planned for them, not by them. The thinking is being done for them, and thus they started to show increasingly dependent behavior. They started to make one another’s lifes a misery and to complain a lot, especially about the workload, says Otte.

That’s pretty miserable indeed, but – according to Otte – no more pathetic than the fate of many other professionals, because the planning and control bureaucracy has raged almost everywhere and made people mellow. That of course makes it no less severe, as the malaise now almost gets the features of a genuine cultural crisis.

The words organization and grief seem to stem from two incompatible vocabularies. Organization stands for ultimate rationality and functionality. There may be some links with the realm of emotions, but these connections are subject to strict censorship. Emotions in that context should invariably radiate positivity and enthusiasm and be about connectedness. The association of organization as a reasonable concept with grief keeps feeling uneasy, but Otte makes clear to what extent that association within the administration of justice is identifiable. The Dutch paper NRC reports that Otte was baffled about the “unhappiness” and the “organizational violence” that he encountered at his court (and, appearing from his quotationmarks, the reporter found it strange words a well in this context).

Something similarly uneasy applies to the coupling of managers and being pathetic. According to the prevailing perception managers are still mainly associated with vigor, coolness and, again, reasonableness. Yet, however often the words energy and charisma and connection may be used in those circles, Otte’s book makes quite clear, according to the NRC, that management of the criminal process is mainly rather tiresome. “Tensions have grown over the last five to ten years” and “What you see is a lot of communication between deaf, people don’t reach each other”.

The interesting question, of course, which lays behind those uncomfortable associations is: what makes our brain to take one kind of associations for granted and to find other kinds of associations odd, even though reality offers us many reasons for such an unusual association to be made? To be continued.

Also see Bauman, Levinas and business ethics