Othering and organisational design
Caution: This is heavy, even by my standards.
Othering is a process whereby a group of people identify another group of people as having traits that are different and potentially threatening to the group. This involves objectifying members of the othered group and possibly even denying their humanity.
Effective othering involves precision cultural engineering to ensure that all members (of the otherer group) buy into the idea that ‘they are not us’ and that they are a threat to our wellbeing. Effective othering also often involves impressive organisational design.
This post was inspired by recent conversations I have had around resetting leadership. I am particularly grateful to Dr. Frederic Schneider for his perspectives.
Othering is a broad church
Othering occurs at all levels of society
- Sports team other their competitors. If they didn’t. they would not know who to defend against. Drug cartels and organised crime in general fall into this category.
- Some organisations other everyone. “It’s us versus the world.” A few nation states fall into this category.
- Some organisations other by ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or age. “They don’t celebrate the way we do.” Nation states fall into this category, as do terrorists / freedom fighters. Some businesses and law enforcement agencies are similarly guilty.
- Some organisations other free thinkers. “Innovation threatens the status quo and thus it threatens my department.”
- Some organisations other the customer. They are just marks to be exploited. Boiler room operation / scam merchants fall into this category. Pirates don’t even pretend to like their marks.
- Some organisations other their employees through undignified mass redundancies.
- Some organisations other the less well off rather than address poverty and inequality.
- Some organisations other the well off rather than address poverty and inequality.
Not all of these are malevolent. A sports team or a business might well respect their competitors and be content to seek advantage within the constraints of the rules. Some organisations have a just cause, at least from their perspective, and others don’t. Some organisations use extreme violence. Think Columbian necktie, the Holocaust or Hiroshima / Nagasaki.
Management consultants and executive educators tend to avoid the more extreme ends of organisational design. Ironically perhaps, in the same way that those organisations other their victims, mainstream society tends to other such organisations. It is easier to label the Nazis or that ‘post code’ street gang as simply evil.
Such objectification alleviates us from the burden of exploring what made them effective and perhaps more fundamentally what made them viable.
I would argue that we need to explore these unsavoury organisational models. Is endeavouring to extract good from ‘evil’ behaviour morally acceptable? But perhaps it is less about what is good or bad and more about whether it is intelligent to do so. What can we learn in respect of say cultural engineering, logistics and management that might benefit organisations in an increasingly disrupted world? We might become more adept at spotting red flags that indicate an atrocity is in the making.
A learning moment
The red flags argument is easy to sell. Most people would like to see the back of drug cartels and genocide. But exploring their methods with a view to organisational improvement in mainstream society is a tougher sell. Granting an honorary doctorate to the leader of a crime syndicate might well be justified given their unique application of Taylorism, but many, including the traditional management theory academics, would likely consider this distasteful.
Studying fringe organisations for best practice is not a new idea. Harvard Business Review (November 2011) had an article on what business can learn from organised crime. It seems okay for historians and sociologists to get their hands dirty so to speak. Why not organisational experts?
A Master of Brutal Attrocities?
Imagine an MBA that included:
- Supply chain management – Featuring the Sinaloa cartel and the Nazis.
- Entrepreneurism and bureaucratic effectiveness – Featuring Somali pirates.
- Decentralised leadership – Featuring the IRA, the Apache and Al Qaeda.
- Cultural engineering – Featuring the Khmer Rouge.
- Career management – Featuring the Mafia.
- Sweating the customer – Featuring <pick a bank>.
- Sociopathy and leadership – Featuring <pick a Fortune 500 CEO>.
- Decision making under pressure – US Armed Forces (1945).
These modules would be a mixture of cautionary tales and best practice. Students would:
- Gain exposure to diverse and effective operating models.
- Develop a better understanding of the systemic forces that have given rise to these models.
- Understand the extent to which they can influence these forces and the extent to which they will need to adapt.
- Develop a better understanding of human nature and so build organisations that are optimised for both humanity and the planet.
They would also provide an opportunity to discuss ethical matters and thus increase the chances that future leaders are equipped with a moral compass and not just the experience of a very expensive networking event.
Is there any ‘other’ way?