Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Requisite violence – an ethic of personal and organisational change

Requisite violence – an ethic of personal and organisational change

Torrey Orton

August 19, 2009

Following on from Violence and violations – making sense of extremes, I'm going to grasp the violence nettle from another direction, which assumes it is not a plant we should (or could) completely uproot. That we can never do so, as well, is an assumption of the next steps. The complexity of talking outside a good/bad frame about violence is briefly but sharply explored in a recent discussion of terrorism in The Guardian. I commend it to you.

Pain we have to have?

The "Pain we have to have" is extolled in The Australian recently as the price of health care reform. This is emblematic of an array of pains we have to bear to live. For example, there is

the pain of training to a high level of physical or mental competence (10,000 hours of strenuous application for mastery in advanced disciplines). This is a key pain for development and competence. Not everyone wants to go to the Olympics (a modal 10K hours aspiration), but everyone needs to be competent at quite a range of things and we aren't born with most of those competences, just the potential to acquire them.

These are the self-imposed pains of stumbling along life's way, which can only be avoided at the cost of another pain: the senses of sadness, incompetence, hopelessness which come from not developing oneself! It is Catch 22's original symptom. Alongside these pains are the experiences of being not good enough for a certain performance hurdle. Amass enough of these and a recurrent pain of expecting to be 'not-good-enough' grows to make work for people like me.

Then there are the pains of helping people to learn or recover from injury – teachers, psychotherapists and coaches all know that important developmental stages are seldom reached without uncomfortable, sometimes shocking, inputs from helpers to learners.

In such cases there is often some pain for the helper in knowing they will give pain to another. Those who experience the other's pain too much become limited helpers. Medical staff similarly must often inflict pain to achieve health, starting with children's first needles (I remember one of mine on a kitchen table in Washington DC in 1946, approximately).

Few of these steps are painful all the way (though some accident recoveries are almost totally pain for months), but few can be successfully travelled without some pain. The same point can be made for groups and organisations and societies… our own seem on the verge of some great new pains now. In this case, as for individuals, avoidance is the harbour of failure.

Good pain, bad pain

We do not usually think of these pains as violences, nor the perpetrators as violaters, as criminals and abusers. Yet they are experientially the same. The pained feel injured and retain the memory with the special clarity which dangers give. The defining difference is not the pain but the intent. These pains above are all good for us in some sense. From this point there grow arguments for just wars, justice in a daily sense (the restraint of others who are damaging us, or likely to do so if given a chance) and so on. Where good pain is involved the pain remains but the burden of assault is retired. Of course, just which is which is often unclear since the 'value' of a pain is proportional to various contextual factors. Those who struggle on our behalf to manage failed families – the child protection workers – deserve special medals just for trying to decide in the child's interest.

My point is this: some violence is necessary in life, and when we hide those violences from others (often in the name of not disturbing them, or not being 'negative', or not discomforting them, or protecting ourselves from their fear, anger, sadness….) we are often doing a wrong by them. In some cases I believe this should be treated as culpable and punishable for ethical and moral breaches of a high order. Those cases are ones where some preparation could have substantively ameliorated the large numbers of people and the size of the negative effect(s) which resulted. Corporate downsizings and failures, mergers and acquisitions and some public disasters are among these. Here in Melbourne we are seeing one such process play out in trying to make sense of the February bushfires.

Doing the right thing

Providing information about possible dangers (usually the most important form of assistance) to people who otherwise could not access it until a probable sky has fallen is what I call requisite violence. It is a core competence for organisational risk management, change management and project management. It is also, in these times of multiple local and global threats to core well-being, a core life management competence, perhaps.

This responsibility (obligation would be a better word) ranges across the full spectrum of management / governance roles in life. These are functions which have privileged access to information affecting the viability of organisations and their members.

But, private business structures protect executives from accountability for withheld information which seriously compromises workers. The published Australian history on these matters is persistent and recurrent. On a monthly basis, large organisations go under with workers losing entitlements and opportunities to prepare themselves for the demise of their work. It would be nice if their wellpaid bosses were more publically accountable - outed perhaps – for their contribution to a worker's fate they will not experience themselves. Out of such ground grow rages against the machine. How many failed executives reappear rebranded in a related industry under the mantle of board positions?

Yet the first argument against my position will descend from the heights of private property theory amplified by commercial-in-confidence practices. It will be said that competitive positions would be compromised by transparency of the sort I am recommending. Counter -examples of businesses which share the brunt of bad business weather across the whole organisation are not abundant, but are occasionally publically noted. I have yet to see this acknowledged by the rest. When it is embedded systematically in business practice, the need for powerful employee associations will decline precipitously. I don't expect that slide to occur in my lifetime or yours.

What are requisite violences?

I did not expect to find what I recently did in a Harvard Business School newsletter – an item called Conducting Layoffs: 'Necessary Evils' at Work
* in which the authors Margolis and Molinsky say:

"We define a necessary evil as a work-related task that requires a person to cause physical, emotional, or material harm to another human being in order to advance a perceived greater good,"

This definition could apply to non-work as well, of course. The DIY relationship industry produces tons of material but only a little of great use unless you are in very low conflict situations. There are a couple of management / self-help market books where this is handled explicitly. See Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patten and Heen, 1999) and Crucial Confrontations (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, 2005). Jim Camp engages the same ground from a negotiation viewpoint in Start with No (2002). These books are uncommon in the communication and negotiation literatures. Mainstream communications texts have varieties of conflict management by conflict avoidance, easing-in strategies and keep everyone comfortable ethics – ones where words like power and anger are hard to find in the indexes.

Arguments about the character of possible requisite violences must cover at least three things:

  • Is the act in question really necessary? e.g.- is the precipitating threat big and real enough that not to mention it would constitute a significant risk to others? If there's a doubt, their right to consider the risk is bigger than your right to decide for them.
  • Is it just? (arrived at by influenceable processes as above and with reasonably balanced outcomes)? That is, will the action bear roughly equally on all affected by it, or will the reasons for unbalanced outcomes be convincing and available to all?
  • Are the means and level of the act appropriate to the circumstances? Will the act achieve the appropriate end (informing people, providing pathways of response) and at the right level of intensity?

* The Harvard mob's use of 'necessary evils' in the title signals to me a borderline moral unease with their material. The ' ' casts a pall over their engagement with violence, a pall which suggests it is unethical, bad, etc. The presumptive counterpoint of the ' evils' by "greater good" intensifies the pall. This good /bad split is characteristic of simplistic moral thinking. That simplicity, however is exactly appropriate as a first response to serious threats – necessary but unrequisite violences. This is the response of our core defence systems. When we are also constantly under pressure from various kinds and sizes of violences, simplistic response is likely to be sustained, tending towards continuous presence in our appreciation of the world.

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