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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Towards a Dialectics of Organizational Tongues

by Lael Ewy

A lot of the trouble we end up having in the workplace stems from our preconceived notions of how the workplace ought to run, our expectations of what we ought to be getting out of it, and what different communications at the workplace signify.

The ability to adapt to a new work environment—to a new workplace culture—is essential to our survival and comfort on the job. This could be said about any organization, schools, even families as well.

Part of that success is in reading the contextual cues of the environment and the organizational culture, of the communications of the “natives.”

A couple of tools spring to mind to help deal with the problem of not adapting well to an organizational culture, and one prominently: Reader Response, a theory of literary critique. Reader Response postulates, among other things, that texts contain the means of their own interpretation, that each work gives the reader cues and clues as to what's going on within it. Often, readers are unaware of how a text is “teaching” you to read it, but exploring these indicators formally helps us to see what we might have missed, explain things that confuse us, and help us gain insight into the internal codes the author has used. An organization's culture can be analyzed in much the same way: an awareness of its “tells” can give us insights into what is really going on.

If done well, a person can can not merely adapt to an organization but also gain a certain amount of agency, if not power, within it. This can help address the unspoken power differences that often create barriers between organizational equals.

The in-group language of those in charge, however, can still be used to to create and maintain hierarchies and reinforce institutional structures of power. In the same way that a ruling social class has its own set of terms and cultural cues, so too do the powerful within an organization: methods of dress and address, jargon specific to a certain theory of or school of management, or idiomatic fixations become, very quickly, the means to express in order to impress. Mastery over these may not guarantee success at an organization, but they no doubt increase or improve it. In turn, lack of mastery of these is used to create and reinforce subservience. As Bakhtin might have put it, those at the top speak the language of organizational epic. A way to push back against this reification of power would be through some form of polyglossia, of the novelization of intraorganizational discourse.

As with other forms of colonization, when those in charge try to “improve” the staff by teaching them the “master's” tongue, the result is nearly inevitable failure: outside the context of the boardroom, the language of the power structure holds little relevance and therefore little power to create positive change. Its lack of effective magic in these circumstances reinforces the idea in the minds of the managers that those lower on the org chart deserve their place, that those already in charge are fit to lead; their mastery of the magic tongue makes it so. This also reinforces among those lower in the organization that they deserve their place: if only they could make the incantations work, all would be well. That they cannot simply proves that they are not fit to lead.

Both sides forget a few important things: those of lower organizational status forget that the language of the managers is ill-suited to the work that they are doing, the appropriate language being that created by the nature of the work itself. And the managers forget that the miraculous effects of their words—the ability to create almost instant compliance, for example—comes not from the words but from the fact of organizational power.

Thus the language of power is really about the organization and its structure, not about the work the organization ostensibly exists to do.

For power to be challenged, then, and for the good not necessarily of the organization but its stated aims, actual dialog must take place, without assumption and on neutral ground.

True empowerment is dialogic, a product of shared magic.

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