My previous blog “There is no Organization!” caught a lot of attention. There was also good discussion around the topic – what does this really mean? If there are no organizations what are we talking about then?
This reminds me of the old eastern paradox: “Form is emptiness – emptiness is form“. “Organizations” are empty concepts, but also empty concepts have “form”. There is a temptation to get rid of this paradox by saying something like “organizations are socially constructed concepts”. But if this is a real paradox it can’t be solved. I’m interested in maintaining the paradox. I will give here some perspectives to this phenomenon, but it has to be noted that these are just abstractions – not the real deal that bites you in those corridors and meeting rooms…
There have been many social psychologists and philosophers that have understood the deeply social nature of individuality. Amongst others, Lev Vygotsky, Norbert Elias, Erving Goffman, G.H.Mead and Pierre Bourdieu have all questioned the existence of autonomous individual and instead looked at the person as a social process. They have used different concepts to describe this: G.H.Mead talked about “generalized other”, “social object” and “cult values”. Goffman draw from Mead’s work and developed concepts such as “face-work” and “line”. Elias saw “individual” to be the social process in singular while the “society” was the same process in plural. Vygotsky talked about the “intrapersonal” and “interpersonal”, which were undivided process. Bourdieu talked about “habitus” as a social phenomenon that shapes personality.
In order to understand how we are constructing the “organization”, we need to understand how deeply social we are. In fact, we are so social that instead of talking about “I-dentity” we really should be talking about “We-dentity”. Like G.H.Mead pointed out, our mind is in fact a social process. Without society, there would be no mind. Finnish social psychologist Antti Eskola noted that it takes at least three people to create “me” – there needs to be two people to have a relationship and a third person to “see” that relationship.
Now you see it, now you don’t!
So, how can this help us to understand what it is that we are talking about when we are talking about “organizations”? G.H.Mead saw that our identities are forming in a conversation of gestures. We learn to feel in ourselves the same feelings that we try to raise in the other person. In this way we can understand how other people see us. This perception of the others towards us is what we feel to be “me”. So, actually “me” is how we think others see us.
When we are dealing with a large group of people, this process of creating “me” isn’t so easy. We can quite easily relate to two or three people at the same time, but not with dozens of people. In order to deal with this problem, we create what G.H.Mead called “generalized other”. We relate to few specific others and create an abstraction of the rest of the people. This ability to create this generalization is fundamental skill for human beings. It enables us to live in large groups and co-operate quite well.
However, that generalized other isn’t really a “real” person. It doesn’t exist anywhere but in our own identity – it is the “me” we perceive. It is this same process that we use to create “organization”. In this perspective, organization is really nothing else but the “me”. But the problem with “organization” (in contrast to “group of people”) is that it has also some other characters. It is a legal entity, it has budgets, properties and employees. It has a name. It makes contracts with people and other organizations. It has brand and products. You can see it’s name carved in the products and displayed in commercials. You can see celebrities talking about it and advertising it’s products and services. You can see it’s name on your pay check and on your id-card. You can see it’s shape in the organizational charts and role descriptions. You can see it to have goals and purposes. You can see it winning and losing.
This turbulent social process with lots of symbols intermixing in many different contexts, which are touching your process of creating identity, is deluding you to see this hologram called “organization”. It is so real to you that you can identify yourself with it. You can literally feel it, to have emotions related to it. You can even feel to be part of it.
But the problem is that it doesn’t really exist. Whenever you are acting in your life, you have to deal with real people. There will be lots of conflicts with this “generalized other” called organization and the particular others that you are really dealing with. Your assumptions and constructions of “organization” are unique – as unique as your finger prints and your personality. Other people have different kinds of constructions. Whenever you are talking about the “organization” or trying to co-operate with it, you can only do that in very abstract level. But in practice you can only deal with people.
It is helpful to be able to form these concepts of “organizations”. Language shapes thinking and acting. By talking about organizations you can learn and achieve things that you otherwise wouldn’t. But at the same time you are building a prison for yourself. You are forming your own identity with these notions of “organization”, because in effect: organization + some specific others = “me”. Whenever you build that notion of organization, you are in a trap of your own imagination. It can be marvelous, exciting and empowering! Or it can be shattering, devastating and threatening…
I would advise you to really think whether you want to tie your identity with this kind of fictitious entity. But is it possible to work with “organizations” without putting your identity in the game? I think that is the real paradox we have to face…