Decaf, pragmatic and real resistance

Are there words in your organisation that are banned?   Last week a colleague mentioned that while writing report, she was avoiding the use of some words as, from experience, she knew they wouldn’t ‘land well’.   With some humour and cynicism we started a list of these.

I wondered if we were on the edge organisational silence, similar to the situation in a gripping short story I’d read, Ma Boyong’s City of Silence, in which, as reviewer @Bibliophilopoly, says,  ‘Citizens are constantly monitored by The State and must adhere to and use only words from a continually updated list of “healthy words.” The insidiousness of gradualism is on display in how the communication and language are inexorably taken away from the citizens’.

The story imagines ‘a totalitarian state that has restricted all information and communication to a strictly regulated internet, a world in which, “It’s understandable that the appropriate authorities prefer electronic books. With electronic books, all you need is FIND and REPLACE to eliminate all the unhealthy words in a book and decontaminate it. But to correct and edit physical books would take forever.”

Ma writes of computers welded shut, with no hard drives or slots for “CDs or even a USB port”; of data that can only be stored or accessed remotely …’  None of this is a million miles from most organisations that now restrict USB ports, require everything to be stored on sharepoint, etc. and, as Hubstaff  trumpets, ‘Thanks to modern technology, companies can monitor almost 100 percent of employee activity and communication’.

In the City of Silence, there’s a small resistance group who form the “Talking Club,” which meets weekly to use the banned language.

Resistance in organisations is studied by academics and theorists but, as Darren McCabe points out, in his new book, Changing Change Management: Strategy, Power and Resistance, business and management texts ‘are silent with regard to resistance or, in many cases, relegate it to just a few pages. … Indeed, I do not know of a single chapter that is dedicated to resistance in mainstream textbooks – such are the beliefs 1) that organisations are predominantly consensual, thus there is no opposition to management ideas, strategies and intentions,  and 2)  that management is the key player able to dictate to or enrol others and thereby change cultures, strategies, structures, subjectivities, operations, etc.’

What we were exhibiting when we started to list the ‘banned’ organisational words was what, Alessia Contu, now at MIT, labelled  ‘decaf resistance’.  It’s one of three types that McCabe and Contu talk about, the other two are real resistance and pragmatic resistance.

Decaf resistance:  Contu explains ‘just as decaf coffee, makes it possible for us to enjoy [resisting] without the costs and risks involved. We can have the thing (coffee) without actually having it.  Contu tell us that the unofficial transgressions of working life i.e. skepticism, humour, cynicism, etc. ‘consist of an adulterated resistance.  This is a softer resistance, a resistance without the acid that can destroy the machine of power. It is a sweetened resistance that we can still practice without too much damage, without paying the price of what destroying the machine of power may bring. … In this decaf resistance, we receive a payment in the form of the illusion that we are still having the thing (resistance). However, we do not have to bear the cost that is associated with having the thing itself, which is the danger of radically changing things as we know them’.

Pragmatic resistance:  is well described by McCabe in his co-authored paper ‘There is a crack in everything’: An ethnographic study of pragmatic resistance in a manufacturing organization.’  He sees pragmatic resistance emerging as a response to ‘the rationality and irrationality, order and disorder that imbues organizations. … such conditions create ambivalent situations that can generate resistance that is ambivalent itself as it can both facilitate and hinder the operation of organizations’.

An illustration of this is the writing of the same report that I mentioned at the start (the one that avoided ‘banned’ words).  Following organisational practice, the writer sent the first iteration to some colleagues to review.  They came back with suggestions and the paper was reworked.   This process then repeated over several days, but not exactly.  Additional reviewers were added each time as the draft paper circulated.  On the eighth iteration of the paper she resisted writing a ninth and proposed a different tack:  a single sentence update.  Initially, that suggestion was also resisted, but later agreed.

McCabe et al propose ‘pragmatic resistance as a means to grasp the everyday resistance that emerges through and reflects cracks in the rational model of organizations. Rather than being anti-work, we demonstrate how pragmatic resistance is bound up with organizational disorder/irrationality, competing work demands and the prioritization of what is interpreted as “real work”.’  McCabe sees pragmatic resistance as having organisational consequences, unlike decaf resistance which he describes as ‘innocuous’ i.e. without consequences.

Real resistance:  according to Contu, is ‘something crazy, like an heroic act, which goes against all your interests … you cannot justify or explain it. … [It’s] an act of resistance for which we would have to bear the costs. It would be an act that changes the socio-symbolic network in which we and our way of life make sense. It would be costly because we depend on these socio-symbolic networks …  It is an act that cannot be presupposed, predicted, and controlled. … an act where one assumes fully the responsibility for the act itself, without “if” and without “but,” risking all and effectively choosing the impossible.’

You don’t see real resistance happening much in organisational life.  Perhaps whistleblowers demonstrate real resistance?  And, I suggest that the Talking Club in the Ma Boyong story counts as real resistance.  Their meeting is, more or less, an act of madness, an ‘outrageous break’ with all that is professed to be reasonable and acceptable in the society they live in.

The point of examining and exploring resistance, as both McCabe and Contu state (albeit in different ways) is to challenge the models of organisations that prevail in business and management literature/education which portray a rational ordered view of the world, in which organisations can be ‘designed’, change can be ‘managed’, levers pulled, and control exerted.

Examining resistance shows that organisations are hotbeds of absurdity, disorder, uncertainty and the irrational features of organizing that are equally relevant to everyday working life and should be integral to organisation design considerations.

What types of resistance do you engage in and/or have you witnessed in organisations? What impact does it have on your organisation design work?  Let me know

Image:  Resistance decaf