Frontend and backstage


A recurrent tension consultants have to manage is the interplay between ‘frontstage’ display/interaction (2nd person sociological/behavioural reality) and ‘backstage’ percept and thought activity (first person experience) (Goffman 1959).
On the one hand one deals with interpretations others may have of you and what you’re trying to achieve in the consultative role, based on the interplay of the impression given, and on the other behind the scenes one is trying to make sense of impressions perceived in the interpretive view one holds as an individual and in the role of consultant. Tensions will likely be high in the contracting stage, simply because the client is in a position where they feel the need for external help, compounded if they are in a position of high responsibility, with little insight into the causes of the issue – they may well be inextricably linked up in the causality behind the issue (DeHaan 2006). It is here that models such as Spiral Dynamics can be incredibly useful in understanding the dynamics behind what makes up the sociological landscape of a given context.

We have to dive in the soup of actually interacting and find our confidence in the moment – preconceptions are useful and needed, but something more is required. How to make sense of this when you are in the swing of things? My observations of the consultation exercise showed that there is merit in the view that: ‘people, whether individually or in groups, pursue their own ends with a cynical disregard for others’.
‘On the rare occasions when audience and performer co-operate, both endeavour to return hastily to the shelter of their various masks and disguises and to avoid disclosing their inner selves’ (Smith 2002, p143). To unpack this I realise ’Face-to-face interaction is socially organized and thus warrants sustained sociological treatment’ (Smith 2002, p2). and further that ‘Cynicism’ and ‘manipulativeness’ are, in ordinary usage, predicates that apply to individuals: such predicates serve to impute psychological predispositions’ (p144).

Although this seems cynical in one sense, Smith points out that this refers to sociological rather than psychological phenomena, which in my experience and interpretation would be to say that these phenomena arise as a result of the social complexity that is an organisation because of subconscious biases – simply because that’s how the organisation has developed, rather than seeing (some) people as fundamentally (mostly/all) manipulative and selfish. Another way of saying it, is that these sociological phenomena are the collective manifestation of aggregated individual unconscious psychological phenomena, and we have to learn the skill of fitting in sociologically without losing our integrity – learning for example the kind of fierce integrity, which is unlocked through embodiment – getting truly back in touch with our bodies. To me that also means one needs to constantly work on understanding ones intention in the moment, which is once again where sober reflexivity becomes extremely important.

I wonder if in cases when frontstage is a process that is seen through an overly psychological lens reveals/leads to a narcissistic view in the consultant, as he sees coercion and power-play as something a consultant has to do in order to effect change, which implies a perceived elevation and legitimacy, and the need to coerce. If political elements are seen as part of a sociological phenomena, that arises just because (emerges as part of the ‘biography of an organisation), then one can enter into it with humility, without being naive and ineffective – or coercive.

If I know myself at all, I know that I do have very strong values with regards to human dignity, and have a definite leaning in the radical humanist paradigm (Burrel et al 1994), and the overall message is one of balance – not giving up one’s values full stop, rather momentarily and periodically putting them to one side to see a fuller picture. ‘Consultants will be better able to act on their values if they are fully aware of the negative consequences of their chosen path and the positive features of the rejected choices’ (Nevis 1987, p205).

In Opening the doors (McAuley 2013) one needs to very quickly find ways to diagnose the bigger picture, and the approach to diagnosis can take on a number of forms. Becoming aware of the unique context-specific facts & trends, powerplays, stories, (Nevis 2013, Schein 1999) and formal and informal systemic elements (Cummings & Worley 2008).

The most resounding impression from witnessing the consultancy simulation is that all preconceived ideas behind a consultancy contract can get thrown out of the window very quickly, and in developing strategies for moving forward, it is extremely important to quickly gain a sense for what values and ‘language’ members of the client group are aligned with, by being aware of the client, and to try to see beneath what they are asking.

Burrel and Morgan’s (Burrel et al 1994) seminal work on sociological paradigms offers the OD consultant a useful integrative tool with which to better understand and apply their toolbox of multidisciplinary theoretical insights as well as to become aware of the disinterested hostility (Deetz 1996, Smith 1999) that may be at play between the different ontological world views that the different paradigms build their epistemological deductions and methodologies upon, and it is well argued that one still has to ground one’s practice within a predominant paradigm in order to understand it more deeply and avoid a shallow associative sweep that skims over underlying basic assumptions (Deetz 1996). What is undoubtedly of important value is one the one hand the integrative stance of checking limits to one’s approach, and on the other, a tool with which to better understand different views within members of the client organisation, in order to better speak the language of colleagues and stakeholders. I have found the value in learning to know others’ languages, which I first gained by studying the integral model, as one of the most useful expansions of awareness that a person in a consultative or facilitative role can make.

As OD consultants we have to be aware of the necessity to integrate paradigms, and be able to relinquish preferences (Nevis 1987), and I know for myself I will have to watch I don’t develop a one sided ‘value or ideology, e.g. a bias towards participative management and involvement of members of the client organization in a drive for empowerment.’ (p205).

If I know myself at all, I know that I do have very strong values with regards to human dignity, and have a definite leaning in the radical humanist paradigm (Burrel et al 1994), and the overall message is one of balance – not giving up one’s values full stop, rather momentarily and periodically putting them to one side to see a fuller picture. ‘Consultants will be better able to act on their values if they are fully aware of the negative consequences of their chosen path and the positive features of the rejected choices’ (Nevis 1987, p205).

The key to enabling this challenging remit from within is self awareness (Schein 1999) – being alert, present and observant (Nevis 2013). ‘The effective consultant draws power from awareness and teaches client systems to do likewise’ (pxi), which is an ongoing process, differentiated from looking back in reflexive introspection. ‘True awareness is the spontaneous sensing of what arises or becomes figural, and it involves direct, immediate experience.’ (p23), which for me is a ‘learners stance’ expressed prophetically by Eric Hoffer: “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

This connects to the concept ‘beginners mind’ (Suzuki 1987) – a state where there are many ‘possibilities (but in the expert’s there are few)’ (p1), but it also in my experience, this presence of mind takes cultivation – not so much in the practice of mindfulness meditation (though that can help), but in finding that inner space of ‘effortlessness’ within mundane, day to day tasks (Suzuki 1987), which is also a dedication to work. Paradoxically I find that this comes about by embracing in myself all of my failings, or ‘mind weeds’, which allows me to better see and understand them as they arise, either in others individually, or as part of the sociological system (Smith 2002) one is engaging with. ‘You should rather be grateful for the weeds you have in your mind, because eventually they will enrich your practice’ (p20).

In the movement phase issues are in the discussion that has followed on from the initial contracting and diagnosing phases (DeHaan 2006). There is a suspension as we try and make sense of the emerging situation, where expectations brew that need to be managed, which can pull a less experienced consultant into wanting to prematurely diagnose the situation in order to offer satiation to these frontstage processes.

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One thought on “Frontend and backstage

  1. Pingback: The ‘soft power’ of Integrity | Organic Fusion Integrated

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