Can we ever be clear with each other?

Ralph Stacey Posted by Ralph Stacey.

Ralph Stacey is a professor of management at the Business School of the University Hertfordshire and also a visiting lecturer at universities in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Malta. He is an active consultant to top management teams in major companies and the author of a several books on management and organization.

Over the past couple of months I have come across Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership method being promoted by a number of OD practitioners and institutions, so I thought it woul....

Over the past couple of months I have come across Gervase Bushe’s Clear Leadership method being promoted by a number of OD practitioners and institutions, so I thought it would be worth spending a blog post discussing the ideas that he puts forward and to offer a critique from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. By inquiring into this set of methods I am interested to know if there is anything genuinely knew in what is on offer.

Clear Leadership – the basics

Clear Leadership is a set of tools, techniques and practices which promise to change the culture in organisations. They help turn organisations away from management methods more suitable for outdated notions of command and control management, which do not promote collaboration, and into flattened organisations where genuine partnership and collaboration are possible. A student interested in learning to exercise clear leadership can do so in a four day course, and the methods  can then be cascaded throughout their organization.

What are the basic premises of Clear Leadership? Firstly, Bushe argues that it is not possible to create organisations where genuine partnership and collaboration can take place without changing the leadership culture. Secondly, changing the culture means clearing away the ‘organizational mush’, by which Bushe means the inevitable miscommunications and misinformation that is generated in any organisation by people making up stories about each other which are not true, and thus creating distrust. They do this because they are frightened to say what they are really thinking about each other, or they do so unskillfully by making judgements and putting others off. He adduces research to claim that four out of five conflicts in organizations are due to people making things up about each other: ‘people need to be able to get conflict out in the open, uncover the real level of alignment or lack thereof, get clear about what everyone really thinks, feels and wants, and clear out the mush.’ [1]Thirdly, Bushes claims that his techniques help people communicate with each other skillfully and clearly so that much of this ‘mush’ is avoided. The techniques he offers are about holding ‘learning conversations’ with others where people speak from something called an experience cube so that they become clearer about their own experience, and thus known to others. The experience cube describes what he considers to be the four areas of experience: observations, thoughts, feelings and wants. The idea is that when leaders/managers express themselves with greater clarity about how they understand their own experience, speaking about their thoughts, or their feelings, their wants or their observations, so it becomes less easy for others to fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand. They are less able to make up stories because leaders have said what is really going on for them. This clear communication enables people to identify and resonate with the positive intent of each other and so task, responsibility and accountability all become much more transparent. One company that Bushe worked in even had an experience cube rug made so that managers could go and stand on it and identify which of the four areas of their experience they were speaking to at a particular time.

Conceptual underpinnings

Here are a number of assumptions which I think are either implicit or explicit about Bushe’s set of methods.

Firstly, the method rests upon the familiar idea of organizational alignment, parts with whole, individuals with each other, and alignment with the ‘organizational values’. It is assumed that organizations work best when we all conform and chime with each other’s positive intent. In this sense the method borrows heavily from systemic, appreciative and humanist traditions, which rest upon assumptions that life in organizations can enable us to realize our best selves in a state of appreciative equilibrium with each other. In this sense many forms of OD formulated in this tradition are a kind of utopianism, which appeals to the religious imagination.

Secondly, and in this utopian vein, the method turns on a number of idealizations which involve dualisms of a moral kind. So partnership and collaboration are an assumed ideal, as is clear, uncluttered communication which is without ambiguity (Bushe claims that there is psychological research to prove that when humans encounter ambiguity they interpret this as a threat. Clearing away the ambiguity thus mitigates people’s anxiety). So partnership is good, command and control is bad. Clear communication is good, ambiguity is bad. Trust and transparency are good, unmanaged conflict and making up stories about each other is bad. Alignment based on shared values and commitment to Clear Leadership are good: lack of alignment, particularly with Clear Leadership principles, comes with organizational consequences, which I deal with more below under discipline.

Thirdly, Clear Leadership appears to be informed both by social constructivist ontology and sender received communication theory – that is to say that individuals apprehend the world separately and discretely, and then only latterly find ways of socializing their perceptions through unambiguous communication. There is an assumption in the theory of communication that what people intend to communicate is exactly what is communicated, and subsequently, with the application of the recommended techniques, it will be understood by the receiver of the communication unambiguously. In this we recognize the same distrust of ordinary every day conversation common to many manifestations of OD so that talking to each other needs to be proceduralized, step-wise. Recommendations for how to do this are quite abstract: speak from your here and now experience; check out that you have understood each other; own what is true about what the other person says about you. With all of these prescriptions, there is little guidance to know when we will know that we  have understood each other, that we can be confident that we are speaking from our here and now experience unambiguously and that we have ‘owned’ what is true about us.

In Bushe’s social constructivism ‘reality’ is both disavowed and avowed at the same time. So, for example, he asserts that everyone has their own unique experience, and this experience is incommensurable with everyone else’s: we are each monads separated from each other unless we learn to relate through unambiguous communication. So, there is no one truth but many truths about ‘what really happens’ in organisations. At the same time these many truths can be brought together through clear communication, speaking from the experience cube in learning conversations with openness and transparency, so that everyone can learn from the collective. Everyone then has access to the same information and can thus participate fully. We are able to transcend our separateness and misinformation about each other and be part of an unambiguous transparent whole. We can learn from the collective. So, on the one hand there is no reality, just many truths, yet on the other we can discover reality by communicating unambiguously about what’s ‘really going on’. The transition is achieved by following Bushe’s ‘breakthrough insights’, which achieve trust, cooperation and true partnership.

Fourthly, and as is often the case with high-sounding OD methods which appeal to the best of what it means to be human, the disciplinary and authoritarian aspects of Clear Leadership are implicit and/or understated, but are nonetheless there. For example, Bushe gives an example of one organization he has worked in where there was an expectation that everyone would use Clear Leadership methods to the extent that: ‘It became a “cultural annoyance” to run into a part of the organization where clarity had not taken hold.’ Using the language and techniques denotes membership of the in-group, but also a willingness to conform: over time it becomes unacceptable to resist Clear Leadership principles. Bushe goes on say that by year three of using his techniques in one organization ‘more poorly performing directors were made more visible and were let go a greater number than anyone can remember.’ One of the markers of success for Bushe of applying Clear Leadership in an organization, then, is that it acts as an effective appraisal system weeding out those who won’t comply, can’t be transparent or are not sufficiently ‘motivated’ to align with the values. Clear Leadership is also a self-referential disciplinary method, and one marker of success is that more and more ‘underperforming’ managers will leave.

Lastly, unusually for OD recipes, in Bushe’s method recommendations come in fours rather than threes, and are illuminating about his theory of the self. So ‘my’ experience is parceled out into thoughts, feelings, wants and observations. Meanwhile, adherents of Clear Leadership are exhorted to be an Aware Self, a Descriptive Self, a Curious Self, and an Appreciative Self, again a clutch of four. Being aware means speaking from the experience cube, using clear language, talking about the right here and right now in order to get round my defences about being aware, and identifying my mental maps. Notice how Bushe’s monad leader is a discrete and cognitive self, expected to achieve awareness through self-scrutiny – a Clear Leader pulls herself by her own bootstraps. Being a descriptive self involves becoming transparent without being intimate (?), making statements before asking questions, describing the impact of what’s being said before responding (although, perhaps, this is a response) and describing experience not judgements. Becoming a curious and appreciative self involves many of the same kinds of prescriptions which assume that it is possible to stop reacting, to withhold judgement, and to confront each other ‘constructively’. The idea of appreciation is based on the social constructionist (on this occasion constructionist, rather than constructivist) idea that the world is created through language. Paying attention to the ‘positives’, ‘fanning’ what we want to see more of, creates a more positive world.

Bushe’s monad leader is best described in his concept of the ‘differentiated self’. Contradicting the idea of alignment expressed earlier in terms of values and commitment to Clear Leadership principles, the differentiated leader takes responsibility for herself and avoids being fused with the group. Leaders come to know their own inner mind. On the other hand they also have to avoid disconnection and isolation from the group. The recommendation, then, is that the leader brings these twin poles into balance, although it is not clear how they do this, so that they are neither fused nor isolated, but take responsibility for themselves and are curious about others. They are a discrete self in harmony with a group of other discrete selves.

Brief critique from the perspective of complex responsive processes

I am guessing that regular readers of this blog may already be formulating their response to this set of tools and techniques if they take a perspective interested in the radically social self, engaged in dialectical processes of becoming with others.

So just to push things along and to set out a few obvious differences with what I have described above:

From a complex responsive process perspective, organisations can never be ‘aligned’ to an abstract set of values, because abstract values always require functionalizing, to be made concrete, through everyday conversation involving conflict, negotiation and power relating. There is never an  ideal equilibrium state of perfect alignment with each other and with an abstraction: indeed if there were possible to bring about equilibrium in social life one would be committing to no evolution, no creativity, no change. The idea of alignment carries with it abstract parts and whole thinking. Instead complex responsive processes understands organisations as a figuration, an ever-changing pattern of relationships which are constantly in flux and never perfectly stable. The relationships have the quality of stable-instability or predictable-unpredictability common to complex systems modeled in the complexity sciences.

Rather than formulating dualisms where it is thought possible for leaders to choose one side of the dualism at the expense of the other, i.e. transparency good, ‘mush’ bad, positive alignment good, misalignment bad, a complexity perspective reframes dualisms as paradox. For example, Ralph has written about the paradoxical properties of trust here, pointing to the positive aspects of mistrust and the negative aspects of trust (ie, blind trust). From a Hegelian perspective, becoming a self simply and only because there are other selves generates a variety of paradoxes, which I explore in much greater depth here. From a complexity perspective there is no Goldilocks position: not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

Nor can there be unalloyed communication which is unambiguous and clear, but a conversation of gesture and response where we call out in ourselves a response similar to one(s) we call out in those with whom we are engaged in conversation. Without the similarity there would be no possibility of our anticipating or understanding each other (or ourselves); without the difference there would be no improvisational quality to conversation. So there is always room for misinterpretation, misunderstanding and ambiguity, and it is from this very ambiguity and difference that emergence, movement, creativity, are possible. The responsive conversation of gestures is also paradoxical, being responsive to both the general other and the particular other. So I would not go so far as Bushe in claiming as he does in a radically individualist move, that everyone’s experience is different and so everyone’s truth is different. Foulkes, the founder of group analysis, sums up the alternative position well with his idea of the paradox of resonance: there are experiences in groups which are of a general and universal kind at the same time, to which everyone in the group will resonate in their own particular way. Experience is particular and general both at the same time.

When the pragmatists, Dewey in particular, write about experience they do so from a social perspective. What I mean by this is that I imagine Dewey wrestling with the idea that experience is just four things, or even that there is such a thing as ‘my experience’ and ‘your experience’, any more than it makes sense to say ‘my conversation’ and ‘your conversation’. Conversation is only possible because we both participate in conversing. Experience, like conversation, is only possible because we are immersed together in nature – there is no ‘inner’ experience of nature, of which we are all part, which stands discrete and alone. As Svend Brinkmann puts it in his book on Dewey:

‘Experience is Dewey’s name for the entire process by which we actively intervene in the world and feel the consequences of our intervention, and by which both organisms and environment are changed. The process of experience is not exclusively individual but is also social and collective, for all knowing and creation of experience takes place in a specific social context.’ (2013, 51)[2]

Moreover, from a social perspective we need each other to discover experience, to understand what we mean by what we say, through the radical difference of the encounter with otherness. This is not a process which is individually generated, as though it were possible to scrutinize ourselves, identify our mental models, or even be honest with ourselves. We may never know which part of the ‘experience cube’ we are speaking from, and what little insights are available to us only come from radical engagement with each other and with nature. Nor can we take a view on an equilibrium spot midway between taking and interest in others and not fusing with the group – there is no such ideal spot, but we will always be wrestling with the paradox of inclusion and exclusion, individual and group identity, self and other as long as we are alive.

From a complex responsive processes perspective organisations are necessarily imperfect places where misunderstandings and misapprehensions may be destructive, and they may also be helpful and move things on. There will always be conflict and discord, but not necessarily of a positive kind, not even of a kind which can be ‘managed’, but there will also be laughter, agreement and mutual understanding. The complex responsive process perspective assumes that we can only come to know ourselves through and with others as we wrestle with who ‘we’ think ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ think ‘we’ are doing together. When organizational conversation is free-flowing and improvisational, when people are struggling to understand one another, it is as far removed from Bushe’s prescription for a ‘learning conversation’ as you can imagine. Indeed, people often need to overcome the idea that there is a particular way to have a ‘quality’ conversation in order to have one, and to let go of the all the rules and techniques they have previously learned.

As with many methods for sale which promise ‘breakthrough insights’ and enhanced performance if you follow the prescriptions, and particularly those which originate from North America (acknowledging that Bushe is based in Canada), Clear Leadership is brimming with positivity and boosterism which threatens to cover over politics and the exercise of authority, which is imminent in any method of managing.   The ideological sleight of hand that I perceive in this particular method is that is purports to appeal to our best selves – who reading this blog is against honesty, transparency, participation, collaboration? – while at the same time creating cult-like conditions in an organization where to belong, to show oneself to be properly motivated, is to conform to Clear Leadership principles and methods. Of course, to a greater or lesser degree, this is the way of managing in any organization – all employees need to demonstrate to an extent that they conform – but discussions of how to belong and what this means usually admit to more than one way of behaving with each other. This is disciplinary control dressed in idealized and humanist clothes and one of its intentions is to ‘rank and yank’ managers and keep them under scrutiny. If you have expressed yourself ‘clearly’ then you are on your own and responsible for your own actions.

Concluding thoughts

I started this blog by asking the question as to whether Clear Leadership brings anything new to the discussion of what it means to develop organizations. I am of course interested to find out from readers of this blog what they think, but from my perspective it seems that Clear Leadership is underpinned by a variety of contradictory and sometimes untenable assumptions about social life and human behaviour, which have been recycled again and again in a variety of different packages for decades. The idea that we can all get along better by learning to be more open and honest with each other and acting with authenticity, is of course very uplifting; many political movements are inspired by similar ideas of bringing about utopia, where things get better and better endlessly into the future and help us to realise our best selves. Is this part of the appeal to well-motivated, thoughtful OD practitioners who want to do good in the world. Or have you seen it all before?

The interesting thing to ask, then, is how it is we go on co-creating this phenomenon of attending endlessly ‘new’ types of leadership training, servant leadership, distributed leadership, strengths-based leadership, dialogic leadership, even complexity leadership, which promise to reveal to us the secrets which we long to know about how to get along. It strikes me that they are both new because have a new label and promise new insights never before realized about human relating, but also familiar because they repeat what is already taken for granted. From whence comes our hunger for simple recipes, particularly for those of us who have been round the block who know that things are never as easy as they are presented?


[1] This post draws on Bushe, Gervase R. and O’Malley, J (2013) Changing Organizational Culture Through Clear Leadership, New York: John Wiley throughout, and sundry YouTube videos where he explains his methods.

[2] Brinkmann, S. (2013) John Dewey: Science for a Changing World, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.