Monday, March 16, 2015

Ambivalence and Contradiction

In his response to my critique, Tim Vogus advises us not to dismiss "the idea of complex and contradictory jobs as one possible mechanism for eliciting emotional ambivalence and, in turn, sustaining ... mindful organising". He says that this is an empirical question, and suggests that there are, in fact,

actual highly reliable organizations that design work in precisely this way. For example, in wildland firefighting there is the so-called LCES structure (e.g., Weick, 1996) that balances the faith in capabilities to detect weak signals of changing conditions and respond swiftly to them via lookouts and communication links. That embeds hope in the system. At the same time escape routes and safety zones are also in place. These simultaneously instill doubt in the system in the form of a recognition that things can fall apart rapidly and unexpectedly.

Part of me doesn't want to grant that this is really an "empirical" dispute. After all, even if we take Weick's account at face value, I just don't see the "emotional ambivalence" in having both lookouts and escape routes, which is to say, I don't see how these aspects of the job design of firefighters might be contradictory. Consider, by comparison, the design of writing processes. I generally recommend that people choose to write about something they are quite confident they know and to keep their inner critic at a distance while writing. This could be interpreted as a kind of "faith" in your ability as a writer. But then I also suggest planning to let your inner critic read the text at a later time in search of grammatical mistakes and logical errors. This could be interpreted as "instilling doubt". But is there really any contradiction here? Am I really recommending that writers be ambivalent about their work? Surely, not. I am recommending that they do both things resolutely, namely, writing and then reading their text. That is, even if I accept Weick's empirical description of the LCES structure, it does not force me to accept his logical conclusions.

Now, Tim is quick to point out that universities, where the writing processes I help to design go on, are hardly "high-reliability organisations". But is the comparison really as specious as he suggests? I mean, the very article he cites to show that HROs do actually organise their work in "complex and contradictory" ways—namely, Weick's 1996 paper in the Educational Administration Quarterly—proposes to apply the lessons of firefighters to the work of educational administrators. Weick's paper, in fact, encourages us to take those administrators' language about "putting out fires" much more literally than they probably do themselves. If they're going to talk that way, he says, they should organise their work like firefighters.

On Wednesday, I'm going to conclude this engagement with the notion of emotional ambivalence by looking at Weick's work on firefighters. I have some differences of opinion there too.

[Continues here]

No comments: