Ways of seeing and thinking HR Management

The chapter will now turn its attention to our ways of seeing and thinking about our world: ways that generate the language, the code, the keys we use in conceptualising and practising HRM. It is at this point that we become fully aware of the value of representing context as a tapestry rather than as a many-skinned onion, for we find here various strands of meaning that managers and academics are drawing upon to construct – that is, both to create and to make sense of – HRM.

These ways of seeing are the warp, the threads running the length of the tapestry that give it its basic form and texture, but are generally not visible on its surface. They are more apparent, however, when we turn the tapestry over, as we shall do now, and examine how we perceive reality, make assumptions about it, and define it for ourselves. We shall then look at the weft threads of the tapestry as we examine how we define reality for others through ideology and rhetoric.

Perceiving reality

  • Perception

    Human beings cannot approach reality directly, or in a completely detached and clinical manner. The barriers between ourselves and the world outside us operate at very basic levels: Psychologists indicate that perception is a complex process involving the selection of stimuli to which to respond and the organisation and interpretation of them according to patterns we already recognise.

    (You can read more about this in Huczynski and Buchanan, 2002.) In other words, we develop a set of filters through which we make sense of our world. Kelly (1955) calls them our ‘personal constructs’, and they channel the ways we conceptualise and anticipate events (see Bannister and Fransella, 1971).

  • Defence mechanisms

    Our approach to reality, however, is not just through cognitive processes. There is too much at stake for us, for our definition of reality has implications for our definitions of ourselves and for how we would wish others to see us. We therefore defend our sense of self – from what we interpret as threats from our environment or from our own inner urges – by means of what Freud called our ‘ego defence mechanisms’. In his study of how such behaviour changes over time, Vaillant (1977) wrote:

    Freudians and non-Freudians (see Peck and Whitlow, 1975: 39–40) have identified many forms of such unconscious adaptive behaviour, some regarded as healthy, others as unhealthy and distorting. We may not go to the lengths of the ‘neurotic’ defences which Vaillant (1977: 384–385) describes, but a very common approach to the threats of the complexity of intimacy or the responsibility for others is to separate our feelings from our thinking, to treat people and indeed parts of ourselves as objects rather than subjects. The scene is set for a detached, objective and scientific approach to reality in general, to organisations in particular, and to the possibility of treating human beings as ‘resources’ to be managed.

Making assumptions about reality

We noted earlier that the very term ‘human resource management’ confronts us with an assumption. This should cause us to recognise that the theory and practice of the employment relationship rest upon assumptions. The assumptions to be examined here are even more fundamental ones for they shape the very way we think. Some are so deeply engrained that they are difficult to identify and express, but they are nevertheless embodied in the way we approach life.

They include the way we conceptualise, theorise about and manage the employment relationship, so our assumptions have important implications for our interpretation of HRM. Writing about Kelly’s (1955) personal construct theory, Bannister and Fransella (1971) argue:

However, we have developed our assumptions from birth, and they have been refined and reinforced by socialisation and experience so that, generally, we are not even aware of them. We do not, therefore, generally concern ourselves with epistemology, the theory of knowledge, and we find the discussion of philosophical issues difficult to follow. Nevertheless, we are undoubtedly making significant assumptions about ‘what it is possible to know, how may we be certain that we know something’ (Heather, 1976: 12–13).

These assumptions underpin thinking and contribute to the filters of perception: they therefore frame any understanding of the world, including the ways in which researchers, theorists and practitioners construe HRM. To understand something of HRM we need at least to recognise some of the implications of these epistemological and philosophical issues.

Pepper’s (1942) ‘world hypotheses’ help us distinguish some fundamentally different assumptions that can be made about the world. He classifies them as two pairs of polarised assumptions. The first pair is about the universe. At one pole is the assumption that there is an ordered and systematic universe, ‘where facts occur in a determinate order, and where, if enough were known, they could be predicted, or at least described’ (Pepper, 1942: 143).

At the other pole, the universe is understood as a ‘flowing and unbroken wholeness’ (Morgan, 1997: 251), with ‘real indeterminateness in the world’ (Harré, 1981: 3), in which there are ‘multitudes of facts rather loosely scattered and not necessarily determining one another to any considerable degree’ (Pepper, 1942: 142–143). Pepper’s second polarity is about how we approach the universe: through analysis, fragmenting a whole into its parts in order to examine it more closely, or through synthesis, examining it as a whole within its context.

Western thinking stands at the first pole in both pairs of assumptions: it takes an analytical approach to what is assumed to be an ordered universe. Hence ‘we are taught to break apart problems, to fragment the world’ (Senge, 1990: 3); we examine the parts separately from their context and from one another, ‘wrenching units of behaviour, action or experience from one another’ (Parker, 1990: 100).

These approaches, which underpin the positivism discussed in the next subsection, lead us in our research to examine a world that we interpret as By contrast, and of particular relevance to this chapter, is ‘contextualism’, Pepper’s world hypothesis that espouses the assumptions at the second pole of both pairs above. This regards events and actions as processes that are woven into their wider context, and so have to be understood in terms of the multiplicity of interconnections and interrelationships within that context. This is what our tapestry metaphor has attempted to convey.

We can use further metaphors to glimpse just how different this view is from our orthodox understanding of the world: from the user’s perspective, the latter is like using a library, while the former is more like using the Internet (Collin, 1997). The information in a library is structured and classified by experts in a hierarchical system according to agreed conventions; users have to follow that system, translating their needs for information into a form recognised by that system.

The Internet, however, is an open-ended network of providers of information, non-linear, constantly changing and expanding. It presents users with a multitude of potential connections to be followed at will and, moreover, the opportunity to participate through dialogue with existing websites or through establishing their own Web page. Differences as basic as those between Pepper’s world hypotheses inevitably lead to very different ways of seeing and thinking about reality and, indeed, of understanding our own role in the universe.

However, we are rarely aware of or have reason to question our deepest assumptions. Not only does our orthodox approach itself impede our recognition of these epistemological issues, but the processes of socialisation and education in any given society nudge its members in a particular direction (although some may wander off the highway into the byways or, like the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, 1976), into what are assumed to be badlands).

It can be easier to discern these issues in the contrast offered by the epistemological positions adopted in other societies. We can, for example, recognise more of our own deeply embedded assumptions when we encounter a very different world view in an anthropologist’s account (Castaneda, 1970) of his apprenticeship to a Yaqui sorceror. Of this, Goldschmidt (1970) writes:

Most of the epistemological threads in the tapestry examined in this chapter reflect Western orthodoxy. (Note how Western orthodoxy has exerted hegemony (see Glossary and below) over non-Western thinking (Stead and Watson, 1999).) And this orthodoxy itself might be gradually changing; some commentators have argued that it has reached a ‘turning point’ (Capra, 1983), that they can detect signs of a ‘paradigm shift’ (see Glossary).

Indeed, over the last decade or so there have emerged new developments in the natural sciences (see the ‘new science’ above), and elsewhere (see feminist thinking: below) that challenge orthodoxy. This chapter will now turn to a more accessible level of our thinking, easier to identify and understand, although again we do not customarily pay it much attention

Defining reality for ourselves

The distinctions between the epistemological positions above and the philosophical stances examined here appear very blurred (Heather, 1976; Checkland, 1981). There is certainly considerable affinity between some of Pepper’s (1942) ‘world hypotheses’ and the approaches noted below. The discussion here will be restricted to aspects of those approaches relevant to our understanding of concepts and practices like HRM.

  • Orthodox thinking

    By orthodoxy we mean ‘correct’ or currently accepted opinions inculcated in the majority of members in any given society through the processes of socialisation and education and sustained through sanctions against deviation. In our society, for example, most people trust in rationality and ‘orthodox medicine’ and have doubts about the paranormal and ‘alternative medicine’.

    We do not generally question our orthodox beliefs: they ‘stand to reason’, they work, everyone else thinks in the same way. By definition, therefore, we do not pay much attention to them, nor consider how they frame the interpretations we make of our world, nor what other alternatives there could be. We shall therefore now first examine this orthodoxy and then some alternatives to it.

    The orthodox approach in Western thinking is based on positivism. Positivism forms the basis of scientific method, and applies the rational and ordered principles of the natural sciences to human affairs generally. It manifests itself (see Heather, 1976; Rose, 1978: 26) in a concern for objectivity, in the construction of testable hypotheses, in the collection of empirical data, in the search for causal relationships and in quantification. It is, therefore, uneasy with subjective experience, and attempts to maintain distance between the researcher and those studied (called ‘subjects’, though regarded more as objects).

    For example, the Western view is that the individual has (rather than is) a self, which is a natural object, bounded, reified, highly individualised, and autonomous (see Collin, 1996). We can perceive the role of positivism in orthodoxy in the contrast Kelly draws between the assumptions underpinning his personal construct theory (see previous subsection) and those of orthodox science:

    Positivism has informed most social science research, which in turn has reproduced, through the kind of new knowledge generated, Western orthodoxy. Hence, it ‘reigns’ in much HRM research (Legge, 1995: 308). It will be clear from the discussion of the immediate context of HRM that many managers and theorists of management espouse it. It underpins many organisational activities such as psychometric testing for selection and human resource planning models.

  • Challenging alternatives

    There are several alternative ways of thinking that challenge orthodoxy, and you could read more about them in Denzin and Lincoln (1994). The approaches outlined here differ from one another, having different origins and, to some extent, values and constituencies, though they are largely similar in their express opposition to positivism. However, it is important to note that it is only the non-positivist forms of feminist and systems thinking that are covered here: in other words, there are also positivist versions.

Phenomenology, constructivism and social constructionism

These three approaches stand in marked contrast to positivism, being concerned not with objective reality, but with our lived, subjective, experience of it. Phenomenologyis concerned with understanding the individual’s conscious experience. Rather than analysing this into fragments, it takes a holistic approach. It acknowledges the significance of subjectivity, which positivism subordinates to objectivity.

Phenomenological researchers try to make explicit the conscious phenomena of experience of those they study, seeking access to these empathically, through shared meanings and inter-subjectivity. This is not a commonplace approach in the field of HRM and management (Sanders, 1982), although it is sometimes discussed in qualitative research studies.

Constructivismis also concerned with individual experience, but with emphasis upon the individual’s cognitive processes: ‘each individual mentally constructs the world of experience … the mind is not a mirror of the world as it is, but functions to create the world as we know it’ (Gergen, 1999,). (Note that some constructivists appear to retain something of the positivist approach.)

Social constructionismholds that an objective reality is not directly knowable (and hence we cannot know whether it exists). The reality we do know is socially constructed:

we construct it through language and social interaction. To make sense of our experiences, we have to interpret and negotiate meaning with others. There can be no single objective meaning but, Hoffman (1990) suggests, Knowledge is thus a social phenomenon (Hoffman, 1990), and language, rather than depicting objective reality, itself constructs meaning.

Weick (1979) quotes a baseball story that illustrates this nicely:

As also suggested by Pepper’s (1942) contextualism, discussed earlier, this view of the social construction of meaning implies that we cannot separate ourselves from our created reality: ‘man [sic] is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’ (Geertz, 1973: 5). Again as with contextualism, this approach emphasises the significance of perspective, the position from which an interpretation is made (remember the Guardian advertisement at the start of this chapter?).

Further, it also draws attention to the way in which some people contrive to impose their interpretations upon, and so define the reality of, others, with the result that less powerful people are disempowered, overlooked, remain silent, are left without a ‘voice’ (Mishler, 1986; Bhavnani, 1990).

This is a point to which the chapter returns later.

Feminist thinking

Feminist thinking, which recognises differences between the world-views of women and men, challenges what is increasingly regarded as the male world-view of the positivist approach (Gilligan, 1982; Spender, 1985). Gilligan’s (1982) landmark study concluded that women value relationship and connection, whereas men value independence, autonomy and control. Bakan (1966) made a distinction between ‘agency’ and ‘communion’, associating the former with maleness and the latter with femaleness.

Agency is ‘an expression of independence through self-protection, self-assertion and control of the environment’ (Marshall, 1989: 279), whereas the basis of communion is integration with others. Therefore, Marshall (1989) argues, feminist thinking ‘represents a fundamental critique of knowledge as it is traditionally constructed . . . largely . . . by and about men’ and either ignores or devalues the experience of women:
Calas and Smircich (1992: 227) discuss how gender has been ‘mis- or under-represented’ in organisation theory, and explore the effects of rewriting it in.

These would include the correction or completion of the organisational record from which women have been absent or excluded, the assessment of gender bias in current knowledge, and the making of a new, more diverse organisation theory that covers topics of concern to women. Hearn et al. (1989) identify similar shortcomings in organisation theory in their discussion of the sexuality of organisations, while Hopfl and Hornby Atkinson (2000) point to the gendered assumptions made in organisations.

Systems and ecological thinking

Systems thinking offers particularly useful insights into the understanding of context. As with feminist thinking, there are both positivist and alternative views of systems, but here we are concerned with the latter. Checkland (1981), for example, adopts a phenomenological approach in his ‘soft systems methodology’, employing systems not as ‘descriptions of actual real-world activity’ but as ‘tools of an epistemological kind which can be used in a process of exploration within social reality’ .

Note that his later book – Checkland and Scholes, 1990 – updates the methodology but does not repeat the discussion of its philosophical underpinnings.) As with feminist thinking, systems thinking gives us a different perspective from that of orthodox thinking. It allows us to see the whole rather than just its parts and to recognise that we are a part of that whole. It registers patterns of change, relationships rather than just individual elements, a web of interrelationships and reciprocal flows of influence rather than linear chains of cause and effect.

The concept of system denotes a whole, complex and coherent entity, comprising a hierarchy of subsystems, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Much of what has been written about systems draws upon General Systems Theory, a metatheory that offered a way to conceptualise phenomena in any disciplinary area. Very importantly, the systems approach does not argue that social phenomena are systems, but rather that they can be modelled (conceptualised, thought about) as though they had systemic properties.

The concept of system used in the social sciences is therefore a very abstract kind of metaphor. However, we can give only a brief outline of systems concepts here: you will find further detail in Checkland (1981), Checkland and Scholes (1990), Senge (1990) and Morgan (1997). Systems may be ‘open’ (like biological or social systems) or ‘closed’ to their environment (like many physical and mechanical systems). As shown in Figure, the open system imports from, exchanges with, its environment what it needs to meet its goals and to survive.

It converts or transforms these inputs into a form that sustains its existence and generates outputs that are returned to the environment either in exchange for further inputs or as waste products. The environment itself comprises other systems that are also drawing in inputs and discharging outputs. Changes in remote parts of any given system’s environment can therefore ripple through that environment to affect it eventually. There is a feedback loop that enables the system to make appropriate modifications to its subsystems in the light of the changing environment.

Thus the system constantly adjusts to achieve equilibrium internally and with its environment. Reflecting upon the management approaches identified earlier, we can now recognize that the scientific management, human relations and perhaps also the humanistic approaches treated the organisation as a closed system, whereas the human resource approach recognises it as open to its environment. Brunsson’s (1989) identification of the ‘action’ and ‘political’ organisations could also be seen as an open system approach.

The significance of systems thinking, then, lies in its ability to conceptualise complex, dynamic realities – the system and its internal and external relationships – and model them in a simple, coherent way that is yet pregnant with meaning and capable of further elaboration when necessary. This means that we can use it to hold in our minds such complex ideas as those discussed in this chapter, without diminishing our awareness of their complexity and interrelationships.

Model of an open system

According to Senge (1990), systems thinking – his ‘fifth discipline’ – is essential for the development of the effective organisation – the learning organisation : Systems thinking therefore enables us to contextualise organisations and HRM. It conceptualizes an organisation in an increasingly complex and dynamic relationship with its complex and dynamic global environment. Changes in one part of the environment – global warming, poor harvests, international and civil wars – can change the nature of the inputs into an organisation – raw materials and other resources.

This can lead to the need for adjustments in and between the subsystems – new marketing strategies, technologies, working practices – either to ensure the same output or to modify the output. The environment consists of other organisations, the outputs of which – whether intentionally or as by-products – constitute the inputs of others. A change in output, such as a new or improved product or service, however, will constitute a change in another organisation’s input, leading to a further ripple of adjustments. Consider, for example, how flexible working practices and call centres have been developed.

Defining reality for others

This chapter has defined the warp of the tapestry of context as our ways of seeing and thinking. It will now examine some of the weft threads – the ways in which others define our reality (or we define reality for others): ideology, hegemony, and rhetoric. These interweave through the warp to produce the basic pattern of the tapestry, but with differing colours and textures, and also differing lengths (durations), so that they do not necessarily appear throughout the tapestry. They constitute important contextual influences upon HRM, and in part account for the competing definitions of it.

  • Ideology

    Gowler and Legge (1989) define ideology as ‘sets of ideas involved in the framing of our experience, of making sense of the world, expressed through language’. It has a narrower focus than the ‘ways of thinking’ we have been discussing above, and could be seen as a localised orthodoxy, a reasonably coherent set of ideas and beliefs that often goes unchallenged:

    Ideology operates as a reifying, congealing mechanism that imposes pseudoresolutions and compromises in the space where fluid, contradictory, and multivalent subjectivity could gain ground. (Sloan, 1992: 174)
    Ideology purports to explain reality objectively, but within a pluralist society it actually represents and legitimates the interests of members of a subgroup. It is a ‘subtle combination of facts and values’ (Child, 1969: 224), and achieves its ends through language and rhetoric (see below).

    What we hear and what we read is conveying someone else’s interpretations. The way those are expressed may obscure the ideology and vested interest in those interpretations. For example, in contrast to the orthodox view of culture, Jermier argues that culture is:

    As you will recognise from earlier in the chapter, the organisation is an arena in which ideologies of many kinds are in contest: capitalism and Marxism, humanism and scientific approaches to the individual, feminism and a gender-biased view. Child (1969) discusses the ideology embodied in the development of management thinking, identifying how the human relations approach chose to ignore the difference of interests between managers and employees and how this dismissal of potential conflict influenced theory and practice.

    Commentators such as Braverman (1974), Frost et al. (1991) and Rose (1978), and many of the readings in Clark et al. (1994), will help you to recognise some of the ideologies at work in this field.

  • Hegemony

    Hegemony is the imposition of the reality favoured by a powerful subgroup in society upon less powerful others. Such a group exerts its authority over subordinate groups by imposing its definition of reality over other possible definitions. This does not have to be achieved through direct coercion, but by ‘winning the consent of the dominated majority so that the power of the dominant classes appears both legitimate and natural’.

    In this way, subordinate groups are ‘contained within an ideological space which does not seem at all “ideological”: which appears instead to be permanent and “natural”, to lie outside history, to be beyond particular interests’ (Hebdige, 1979: 15–16). It is argued that gender issues are generally completely submerged in organizations and theories of them (Hearn et al., 1989; Calas and Smircich, 1992; Hopfl and Atkinson, 2000) so that male-defined realities of organisations appear natural, and feminist views unnatural and shrill.

    You could use the readings in Clark et al. (1994) to identify instances of hegemony and the outcomes of power relations, such as the ‘management prerogative’; Watson (2000) throws light on the manager’s experience of these.

  • Rhetoric

    Rhetoric is ‘the art of using language to persuade, influence or manipulate’ (Gowler and Legge, 1989: 438). Its ‘high symbolic content’ ‘allows it to reveal and conceal but above all develop and transform meaning’ (Gowler and Legge, 1989: 439, their italics). It ‘heightens and transforms meaning by processes of association, involving both evocation and juxtaposition’. In other words, its artfulness lies in playing with meanings. It is something with which we are familiar, whether as political ‘spin’ or as the terminology used in effecting organisational change (Atkinson and Butcher, 1999).

    In the ‘eco-climate’ of an organisation, where meanings are shared and negotiated, power and knowledge relations are expressed rhetorically. For example, changes to structure and jobs might be described as ‘flexibility’ rather than as the casualisation of work, and increased pressures upon employees as ‘empowerment’ (see 100 Chapter · Human resource management in context the objectified product of the labor of human subjects . . . there is a profound forgetting of the fact that the world is socially constructed and can be remade . . . Exploitative practices are mystified and concealed.

    (Frost et al., 1991: 231) . Moreover, Legge (1995) proposes, one way of interpreting HRM is to recognise it as ‘a rhetoric about how employees should be managed to achieve competitive advantage’ that both ‘celebrates’ the values of its stakeholders while ‘at the same time mediating the contradictions of capitalism’ (p. xiv). In other words, it allows those stakeholders to ‘have their cake and eat it’.


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