18 February 2009

Violence and Identity

My blog posts are usually automatically sucked into my Facebook profile as notes. This is a case in which I was updating my status and felt drawn to "export" those Facebooky thoughts into a blog post.
Mark Federman is contemplating McLuhan's observation, "When deprived of his identity, man becomes violent in diverse ways. Violence is the quest for identity." 2 seconds ago

Mark Federman at 11:32am February 18
And the obvious probes: In what diverse ways do we collectively and systematically deprive people of their identity (especially in organizations)? What are some of the diverse ways in which that violence might be manifest? And in both instances, how are the respective ways of violence constructed so as to seem acceptable, normal, and perhaps even desirable?

In geopolitical contexts, I think McLuhan's observation-cum-probe is easily understood on its face - one need only consider the various liberation movements scattered throughout modern history among numerous countries to see how violence and the quest for identity are intimately linked. But my attention is focused on organizations, and in particular, organizations in transition or those facing cultural change. Identity is one of the five valence relationships that I have identified as being fundamental to the emergence of organization.

Throughout my research, I am finding that the identity-valence seems to hold a special place in relation to the other four valence relationships (economic, socio-psychological, knowledge, and ecological). Especially when confronted with organizational change, people struggle with issues that connect directly with preserving their individual construction of identity. Sometimes, this manifests as preservation of (or gaining improvement on) a title – the bureaucratic “office” through which proxy authority is conveyed and exercised. In other cases, it manifests as preservation of scope of responsibility, akin to a more primitive, predatory instinct for territoriality. One participant describes behaviour after a merger as a “feeding frenzy” during which individuals competing for what they perceived as scarce, rivalrous, identity-preserving resources would deliberately withhold information necessary for colleagues/competitors to perform their own job functions. This form of violence not only had the potential to damage those suddenly perceived to be competitors, but also the company’s effectiveness as well; an odd set-up for any company to create, but especially for one that subscribes to the modern myth of the knowledge economy.

Even more troublesome is the circumstance in which the framework used by individuals to construct identity within an organization changes. Not only are people’s constructed identities threatened; their previously learned ability to construct identity is also ripped asunder! As most people – especially in corporate environments – have been socialized to construct identity via external markers of status success (creating an “exo-self” as I have described elsewhere), the prospect of a restructuring that affects those external markers is threatening enough. However, when confronted with a shift in organizational culture as significant and traumatic as transforming from BAH to UCaPP, in which wearing those external markers of status, class, and privilege are no longer considered as being acceptable behaviour, the identity-construction framework itself changes. And that is undoubtedly a provocation to violence, manifest in diverse ways, ranging from resignation to active mutiny against the leadership.

One of the key lessons to emerge from my research is directed towards the leadership process (in a UCaPP organization, leadership is not embodied in one, or even several individuals, but in a complex process from which the organization’s impetus emerges): When attempting to effect an organizational change of any sort – but especially when that change is culturally transformative – it is vital to focus on helping people through the psychological apparatus of preserving, or reconstructing (or both) identity. This is doubly true if the changes affect the apparatus itself, as when moving from a status-based recognition system in which divas are lauded, for example, to one in which collaboration is valued and spotlight-seekers are shown the door. Leaders fail in this critical aspect at their own violent peril.

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