Talking about meaning
We all need the experience of meaningfulness. This requires spaces in which it is possible to raise essential questions, to challenge the current status, to search together for meaning. To Hannah Arendt, the famous political theorist, in such situations we are dealing with politics or what she calls ‘the political’. Accordingly she says that the political happens in public ‘political’ spaces. This phrasing can easily be misunderstood because the words ‘politics’ and ‘political’ have negative connotations nowadays, for example when we say that someone is ‘acting politically’. Arendt uses these terms differently. They signify a general human condition: Being together with others as equals to discuss essential issues.
How does this relate to organizations?
Now, how can the concept of public ‘political’ spaces be applied to the organizational context? In companies countless meetings take place every day. And actually every meeting constitutes a public space, even if they are often smaller gatherings. Because in meetings we act and speak in front of others. Of course, larger meetings form larger publics.
When the context is clear
But not every meeting qualifies as a ‘political’ public space in the sense of Hannah Arendt. And it doesn’t have to. For many situations an instrumental approach is appropriate: People come together, discuss an operational problem, a decision is taken and people move forward.
When basic topics are at issue
The ‘political’ quality becomes important, when people have trouble with essential topics: They might be doubtful about the strategic direction. Or they disagree with management decisions. Or the question established roles and responsibilities. We immediately see that such issues are emotionally charged.
Experiencing oneself as a community
In companies we can observe that almost no official meeting develops this kind of political quality. It is not because there aren’t any fundamental questions. But addressing them in front of many people is strongly avoided. There are two reasons for this. First, people are used to run meetings in ways which make it very difficult and risky to raise critical issues. Second, management often is afraid of not being in control of the outcomes. And it is true, groups can move to new and unforeseen conclusions. Still, what the group as a whole will do is emerging anyway. If we ‘control’ a meeting by suppressing hot topics, those issues will not disappear. Instead they will return unofficially in breaks and during water-cooler chats.
However, addressing such critical issues in public spaces gives people a chance to work on it in a meaningful way and thereby experience oneself as a community. It requires an attitude and the use of meeting designs which make it easier to work on such issues.
Moving into a new way of thinking
We know can see how four concepts – the social human dimension, emergence, identity and recognition, and public political spaces – are interrelated.
Certainly, these concepts present a challenge to the dominant discourse on leadership and management. They do not provide easy answers. But one thing is for sure: Easy answers are not enough; our complex world requires a new way of thinking.