There is a huge gap between intention and reality when it comes to organisation development (OD). Many of us comfort ourselves that OD improves the workforce’s lived experience and supports improvements in effectiveness. We take solace in the idea that the former precedes the latter. 

I take a contrary view. OD is exclusively about meeting the expectations and demands of a managerial agenda. It achieves this by creating the illusion of partnership with the workforce. We have the potential to help to smash the locks and break the shackles that inhibit us all in corporate life, from shop floor to boardroom. In reality, by leaving power intact and unquestioned we kid everyone into accepting bigger cages and longer chains.

OD in practice 

Recently I spoke to David Gurteen. He began his career in knowledge management but now works as a consultant supporting organisational conversations. David observed that he constantly hears people in corporate life – from the front line to the boardroom – saying: ‘If only they would…’. ‘They’ tends to be the workforce or groups therein, who are being implored to do something that others want them to do, such as follow a policy, accommodate to a change that has been introduced, or accept a way of doing things.  

An example of this arose in my practice. The NHS HR department where I worked was set the task of getting 55% of the 1,400 headcount to complete the annual national staff survey. Everyone, including me, was haunted by the question of why ‘they’ wouldn’t complete the survey when asked.

These sorts of challenges have become the preserve of OD. We assume the responsibility from management to get ‘them’ to ‘do’ something. We work with people in organisations to deliver improvements in terms of effectiveness. This often involves working with teams referred to as ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘challenging’. I have worked with groups that are being asked to review their working practices or to accommodate to new expectations. I have also worked with people who are expected to address collectively matters of performance regarding quality or efficiency.

Putting power into the picture 

Most people working in the field would recognise this. Yet, it is also the case that this sort of OD work links to a very specific idea of power in the workplace. This is not usually a topic that we discuss. Ordinarily, [power] is bracketed out of any conversation in a workplace setting. We speak freely about power in terms of politics and the wider social context. After all, we live in what is invariably referred to as a liberal democracy. We rarely openly discuss power in our corporate lives as a key aspect of the business in which we work. Yet power is present in all the examples of OD work outlined above. 

OD is instrumental in veiling power, despite its presence as a vital aspect of organisational life. This denies people the opportunity to have a crucial conversation about working life. OD serves the management agenda rather than delivering on its humanistic, democratic and engaged promise. 

A fresh view of power 

Traditional academic thinking envisions power as a thing that we own and use to affect others. That power is based on a range of factors, for example whether someone can offer reward or legitimacy. It is a tired, unidimensional vision that still enjoys currency. 

Instead, it is useful to examine Michel Foucault’s theory of disciplinary power. He argues that we like to assume that we have made progress from circumstances where a sovereign had absolute power over us, literally able to have direct control of whether we lived or died. Quite simply, a king or queen could command that I be hanged, disembowelled and bodily chopped into four pieces at a mere whim. Foucault’s key argument is that while our experience of power has altered in keeping pace with wider notions of citizenship and suffrage, power continues to constrain and limit us as human subjects. Even in the flattest of flat organisations power persists largely unaltered, despite the hype about these models being progressive and more engaging.  

In organisational life, it is possible to see some parallels in the shift from sovereign to disciplinary power. The age of scientific management was one where oversight and control in the workplace was clear. The worker was directly constrained and compelled to behave in ways acceptable to management. But our status as supposedly free subjects in the current context needs to be reflected in our work as well as social and political lives.  

The example of formal education is often cited. If we compare pictures of a classroom from the late 19th Century to one from the current day, they seem very different. The former will feature strict rows of desks and a central position for the teacher in front of a chalkboard. The latter is likely to show tiny chairs around little tables and the space broken into different areas of activity. We have seen a change in this context, but power continues to underpin education. 

This, then, is a time of what Foucault describes as ‘disciplinary power’, where the focus is on management of the soul and not coercion of the body. This type of power creates an idea of normality, which stands in contrast to ‘otherness’. In crafting this distinction across a range of social settings – our families, our communities and (crucially) our organisations – disciplinary power encourages us into docility. We strive for normality and seek to avoid being seen as ‘other’ – and our behaviour reflects that. 

Scientific management used oversight and control in the workplace, so the worker was directly controlled and compelled to behave in ways acceptable to management. But our status as notionally free subjects in the current context needs to be reflected in our organisational as well as our social and political lives.

OD and power 

Enter OD, a practice that dances to the tune of management while nurturing the illusion among the workforce of engagement and freedom. We can dispense with the stopwatch-wielding overseer that first appeared in the early 20th Century, scowling over the shoulders of those on the production line and forcing them to work at an unreasonable pace. Instead, we usher in the OD consultants, with their pockets packed with Post-its, felt pens and Blu Tack, seeking to sanitise corporate life with the notions of staff involvement, engagement and empowerment. These efforts are hollow because they seemingly offer space and opportunity for people to play an active part in the workplace when, in reality, the old constraints of power remain solidly in place. 

This is a fiction to which it is depressingly easy to subscribe. Senior leaders, deprived of the instruments by which to actively direct those who work below them, ponder the question ‘Why won’t they…’. They commission internal or external OD consultants in the expectation that they will nudge ‘them’ into doing what’s expected. The workforce, meanwhile, ponder in hushed voices and away from the prying ears of the layers of management as to ‘Why won’t they…’. The regular complaint is the leaders are failing to listen to what is being said across the organisation. 

In a recent discussion that I organised with other OD practitioners, the term I landed on was ‘unsightedness’. Senior leaders cannot see what is happening in their organisations, relying instead on layer upon layer of metrical information that reveals nothing real across its red, amber and green columns. The workforce peer up into the clouds at the top of the organisation and generate distorted opinions about what senior leadership are actually up to. OD practitioners could act as a channel between these two relatively isolated positions. But we need to find ways to assert our independence and neutrality, which represents a significant challenge. 

Pay attention to the double task

We must encourage a meaningful dialogue within the organisation and avoid defaulting to an unhelpful scripted position. We need to pay attention to the ‘double task’. Our primary task is to deliver on activity that leads to defined outcomes. Our secondary task is to attend to the unspoken dynamics that exist in organisational spaces.  

This was apparent recently, as I did some work in a small organisation with respect to their culture. My OD intervention maintained a steady truce between workforce and senior leaders throughout the day as they worked to build a common understanding. But a misstep at the end of the day on my part led to the unravelling of that treaty. Several participants, at the close of the event, defaulted to negative conversations about the senior leaders, using the term ‘they’ and ‘them’ and attributing motivations to them which, to my mind, were not there. 

Paradoxically, OD declares itself to be concerned with challenging the very notion of power in the workplace. However, its practical orientation on a day-to-day basis in the business context – defined for it by ‘management’ and broadly accepted by its practitioners – acts as a channel through which power flows in the contemporary workplace.  

In practice, OD tends to see power as something to possess as opposed to something into which to inquire. Authors in the field tend to view power as a resource that they would like OD to own, which reproduces existing power relations rather than opening them up to critique. Despite its efforts over time and the notional commitments of those who have given shape to OD, our organisations remain hostile environments to endure. Even those that indulge the absurd fiction of being ‘flat’ or ‘post-bureaucratic’. This can be seen in the cultural constraints that underpin ‘holacratic’ practice at the shoe company Zappos

Looking to the future 

How might those of us working in OD engage differently with power? My advice is to apply these five questions when approaching each piece of OD work: 

  • Do those who are commissioning you appreciate the significance of power in this context, and are they genuinely willing to allow a conversation about it to take place as a major facet of the work?
  • Do the senior leaders recognise this and show a willingness to allow people to speak openly about their work lives?
  • In assessing the system in which you are to start work, what is your personal understanding of the power in that space?
  • In starting work, are you really giving adequate space, time and freedom for people to speak openly and without fear of retribution about their experience of power?
  • Are you content to carry the messages of power through the work and to its conclusion, to see meaningful outputs and outcomes? 

By asking these questions we will be putting our practice under the microscope and reconnecting with the ethics that drew us to move into this field of work. Rethinking our individual practice will prompt us to do our work differently and bring the vital issue of power more to the fore.


About the author

Mark Cole

Dr Mark Cole has worked throughout his career in developmental roles in and around the National Health Service. He currently does OD and systems leadership at the NHS London Leadership Academy, which involves programme delivery and consultancy.

His book entitled Radical Organisation Development was published last September by Routledge. He is currently working with his colleague John Higgins on a new title that will look at how leadership can be unlocked.

Mark blogs about organisational life on his website, through which he invites people to contact him. 

In this series

Thought leadership

How can change and transformation be more ethical?

How can we be more ethical in the way we manage organisation development and change, to ensure it’s done with, not to, our workforce, asks Sally Hopper, Assistant Director of Human Resources, Hertfordshire County Council

Thought leadership

Building a career within organisation development

Paul Taylor-Pitt and Karen Dumain share the steps the NHS community is taking to shape a career path for OD that is fit for the future.

Thought leadership

Achieving international global integration: The crucial role of ‘globalising actors’

This thought piece argues that OD practitioners in multinationals must harness the skills of globalising actors to ensure successful international integration

More on this topic

Case study
Transforming the HR operating model: NatWest Group

A case study of an HR function shifting from an Ulrich+ model towards an employee experience-driven model

Case study
Transforming the HR operating model: Tesco

A case study of a people function shifting to a four-pillar model to deliver a more consistent employee experience throughout the organisation

Thought leadership
How are organisations transforming their HR operating models?

We look at the main focus areas and share practical examples from organisations who are optimising their HR operating model

Job design

Explores the purpose and evolution of job design, its role in creating good work, and assessing job quality.

More thought leadership

Thought leadership
How are organisations transforming their HR operating models?

We look at the main focus areas and share practical examples from organisations who are optimising their HR operating model

Thought leadership
HR operating models

Our series on current practices, future models and successful transformations

Thought leadership
Do current HR operating models serve future needs?

We look at what’s driving change in HR structures, what emerging models look like and what to consider when evolving your current model

Thought leadership
Leveraging L&D tech to organisational advantage

How can L&D teams can engage with new technologies like generative AI to impact performance?