Taking Positions in the Organization

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This volume provides a positive and productive model for helping people to move out of static positions or difficult relationships in the workplace. Informed by systemic thinking and social constructionism, the authors discuss how it is possible to create realities through dialogue and to enable greater opportunities for the employee, manager and consultant alike. Taking Positions in the Organization uses a model of semantic polarities to create simple solutions to complex problems in a format which will inform and enthuse all its readers.

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CHAPTER ONE. Introduction

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Picture a seminar with twenty students. While one of the authors (MG) was presenting the Semantic Polarities model to them, a student suddenly interrupted, saying: “It’s not possible to use Semantic Polarities all the time.”

The group went silent, and all eyes were on me to see how I would respond. I felt stuck, and I wondered to myself why he was saying this now, when things were going well—he was spoiling everything. I said to him, “I could ask you to be quiet and get on with the exercise, or I could ask you to hold on to your point of view and I will take the opposite position.”

He tried to negotiate a bit by saying, “I only said what I did because you had implied that this model could be used all the time,” but my response was: “No, you stick to your position and your statement and I will stick to mine, and we will invite the rest of the group to discuss these positions as two ends of a polarity.” I also thought it was important to take this seriously, and I thanked him for creating the opportunity to work on this polarity.

 

CHAPTER TWO. Ideas that underpin the model

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This book represents a convergence of three streams of thought that are broadly informed by systemic thinking and social constructionism. These are: Discourse theory and Semantic Polarities; Positioning theory; and Dialogue theory.

They have been pulled together to create a model for understanding and working with organizations from the position of the insider—that is, the manager—or the outsider—that is, the consultant.

The aim of this method is to assist people in their working environment to understand why they and their colleagues behave as they do and to enable them to create a conversation with others that will help them shift their thinking and behaviour.

The method begins with Discourse Theory and Semantic Polarities. This proposes that we all make sense of the world—and decide how to act—by taking a position within a range of meanings about ourselves and our environment. These different meanings are offered to us in the form of discourses generated at many levels of our social experience. For example, our society generates a discourse about “globalization”; our workplace generates a discourse about good governance; and our family generates a discourse about sharing with others. We can take one of many positions that are available within these specific discourses.

 

CHAPTER THREE. Putting the model into practice

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Over the years that we have been using the Semantic Polarities model with organizations, we have come to apply the ideas in many different ways. This range of applications will be apparent when the reader comes to the case studies, as we have purposely offered many case examples to highlight this aspect of our model. There are a few of our central concepts that can be applied in many different ways. After all, we are two authors, from different cultures, working with many types of organizations and presenting problems in the public and private and voluntary sectors. Nevertheless, many people have asked us to try to describe our work in a systematic way so that others, whether consultants or managers, can use the ideas themselves. We therefore thought it would be helpful to try to generalize and condense the work we do into a rough template that has some order and sequence. The reader might find it beneficial to think of this chapter as a hypothetical template that can be used to organize one’s own thinking and practice when using these ideas in real organizations.

 

CHAPTER FOUR. Filling in the model

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In our work with Semantic Polarities and Positioning in organizations, we have found that the simplicity of the ideas underpinning the model can be misleading when we are putting them into practice. Our own development as consultants has been advanced by exploring some of the related issues that are connected to the model. This fuller understanding enables us to apply the model more confidently to a wider range of problems thrown our way and this chapter is a chance for us to share our current thinking about these issues, bearing in mind that we are continually having new thoughts.

We feel that organizational work will not be effective unless a consultant has some appreciation of the exercise of power within the organization. Organizations, as the name implies, have to organize themselves with particular structures to carry out particular tasks, and this means certain decisions are preferred over others. Organizations have to pull together disparate individuals and take exclusive and limiting decisions. All of this shapes the environment, takes effort, moves people around, and requires power.

 

CHAPTER FIVE. Case studies with a primary focus on management

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We want to emphasize that the Semantic Polarities model is a loose collection of ideas and techniques rather than a prescribed method. This means that we have applied different aspects of the model in the various consultations we have done over the past few years. For example, a conversation about positioning with a staff group may have been sufficient in one piece of work, whereas a more elaborate presentation of Semantic Polarities with flip-chart diagrams may have been necessary in another. Therefore, for this chapter we have looked back over our work to draw out the important interventions and lessons that have emerged from each consultation.

The case examples are based on the recent work that we have done independently of each other in our own working contexts: largely teams and small organizations in the public services in Britain for David (DC), and Danish public and private organizations in social and educational settings for Marianne (MG). The reader may also gain something from reading between the lines about these different cultural settings. We hope the case studies will help the reader understand the model in greater depth and also appreciate the many ways it can be modified and applied to fit particular organizations. Each case study stands alone and was chosen for the book because we think it illustrates a particular aspect of our model.

 

CHAPTER SIX. Case studies with a primary focus on staff relations

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CASE 10
A new polarity for respect

Respect for colleagues is a fundamental condition for good team work, and lack of respect is frequently an unspoken barrier to building working relationships. This case shows that in spite of apparent lack of respect, it is possible to place all members of a staff group on a new polarity that will stimulate a new interest in communicating with each other on a different basis.

We have found that mutual respect—and the lack of it—are at the heart of team relationships. When one colleague feels a lack of respect from others, he or she may retreat from the team and express dissatisfaction by not contributing much to a team effort. This often has the effect of further undermining the respect from others, and a vicious cycle has set in. Our experience is also that when one colleague expresses a lack of respect for another, it is usually the result of people working from different values. If one asks why one person does not respect another, what is usually said are things like he or she is “lazy … unreliable … dishonest” or “isn’t committed to this job” or “doesn’t treat clients the way they should be treated”, and so on. Each of these observations can be understood as a discrepancy between the values of the observer, who, for example, values reliability and punctuality, and the colleague being observed who has different values about him/herself in the workplace. One might also say that the observer is identifying two different positions on the semantic polarity of “laziness”, “reliability”, or “honesty”, placing him/herself at the positive end of the polarity and the colleague closer to the negative pole.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN. Exercises

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People learn in many ways, and we have tried to find different approaches to conveying the central ideas behind the Semantic Polarities model. The two settings in which we are most often presenting our ideas are consultation to organizations and training other professionals, and we have, over the years, designed a number of exercises that help people understand and absorb the Semantic Polarities concepts, to get them “under your skin”. Some of the exercise presented here have been used with client organizations, others come from training workshops, and they represent a different opportunity for learning than we have presented thus far in the book—a chance for readers to play with ideas and experiences and learn from participating directly in the process. We hope some of the readers will be interested to try these exercises themselves, with clients and colleagues, and we would be very keen to hear how they work for others and whether new exercises emerge from working with these ideas.

In order to make it easier to refer to an exercise, and to encourage a playful attitude towards this style of learning, we have given each exercise a name and added some comments about our experiences with them.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT. Being a consultant

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In a recent seminar, David was asked how he constructs a consultation. This relevant question gave us the idea for each of us to reflect on the ways we are putting the model into the practice of consultancy. This chapter offers a range of ideas, from the way requests come to us, to how we formulate problems, to how we maintain our role as consultants. Readers, however, have to remind themselves that this is an up-to-the-minute account of our respective work. We are both consultants who highly value development; in fact, the Semantic Polarities model has been elaborated through such development. It is our hope that this development will continue, and we invite readers to use these ideas in their own way to elaborate their own practice.

Organizing a consultation (from DC)

Managers are embedded in their organizations. Demands are made from managers, leaders, and directors above them in the hierarchy, from colleagues at their own level, and from staff below. These demands are presented to the manager in the form of requests to do something specific or solve a specific problem, but they are always more complicated. They are also about the people who make the requests and the particular agendas they have for making the request in the first place. So to really understand what a specific request means, in order to make the best response, the manager would do well to understand something of the unspoken, implicit agendas behind the request. This is very difficult to do in the work-a-day world where so much is happening simultaneously and in a political climate in which people may not be inclined to reveal the full meaning behind their requests.

 

CHAPTER NINE. The client's voice

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Justine Gr0nbaek Pors

Justine Gronbxk Pors is a student of organizations at the Department of Business Studies at Roskilde University center, Denmark. She is also Marianne’s daughter and, through her, has attended several seminars and consultation work based on Appreciative Inquiry and Semantic Polarities.

I have always played with the metaphor that relationships are like people connected with string. These strings have different lengths, thicknesses, and forms as they hold people together. Since I study organizational culture and I work as a supervisor for teachers of physical education, there are strings that connect me to many different professional conversations. I have also observed in my mother’s work how she untangles organizational knots, and I have watched the way the strings between these people grew stronger and stronger while the knots were untied.

As part of the research for this book, I had the privilege of visiting different organizations who have been working with Semantic Polarities. I interviewed managers first of all to throw light on their experiences, to bring the reader closer to the organizations and the people who are using this model and experiencing successes and challenges in relation to their work.

 

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