Attending to behaviour in organisations – the antidote to weariness?

posted in: Social innovation | 1

The fabulous team that I lead at Suffolk County Council is up for a national Behavioural Change Award next week. We focus on young people with disabilities.

Many arms of young girls with hands making circle isolated on black background. Many arms of young girls with hands making circle above green grass. The children hold their hands touching each other and showing a circle. Five teenagers have bare arms stretched with hands making a round shape. Concept of team, teamwork, together, group, unite, binding, bond, agreement, trust, combine, connection, contact, friends, friendship, girlfriends, play, fun, enjoy, partners, colleagues, support, motivate.
Esmee Wilcox
Esmee Wilcox, Head of Moving into Adulthood at Suffolk County Council

Perhaps unusually, we are taking a punt on being recognised for work that is deliberately invisible in organisations – the really subtle behavioural change that creates tipping points for innovation and does not end up creating expensive, disempowering, innovation bureaucracies.

But what is the interest in weariness, when we are up for an award?

About a year ago I started reading Paul Tracey and Neil Stott’s work on identity in organisations [1], and talking to Neil about the notion of isomorphic pressures in public sector organisations. This resonated with how I and my colleagues were feeling. Public sector organisations are hard places to be at the moment, and particularly if you are working on social issues. The ideology has changed: “Are the people you serve really worth it?”. Isomorphic pressures mean we have to look to far more commercial organisations for our leadership: “Don’t you just need to be more like the commercial sector?”.

We do not yet have a new narrative that reconciles the technical methods we are employing with our personal experiences and the political context.

So to respond to this weariness, my team is all about connecting people’s current experiences with innovation and policy changes.

We have learnt from health and social workers that how young people are behaving is a product of what they are trying to express. This ‘behaviour is communication’ is a basic tenant of social work, anthropology, psychology and many more. But we are congruent and credible by applying this to how we work with commissioners, practitioners and families in our organisational change work.

We work with the complexity of social issues that practitioners experience as a source of creativity and innovation rather than reducing it or ignoring it. So we are deliberately sitting on the edge of existing structures to create and amplify small shifts in thinking and behaving. It is more fragile that way, but we can do it because we have a small purposeful team with a deliberate mix of strategy and practice skills that means we are credible with a range of colleagues.

Too many organisations fall into the trap of deciding on policy without understanding people’s experiences of the system, and so miss what is valid and important about the way things work.

They do this because the policy-makers (in all their myriad of job titles) are allowed to be disconnected from the people experiencing the changes. Dimaggio’s work on isomorphism [2] helps to explain this separation as part of any professionalised work. However, the current pressures on social issue organisations have amplified this and it means weariness.

At a time when we are desperate for solutions to extreme pressures, with lots of blame for the current architects and practitioners, my hope is instead being able to look to my colleagues as a source of energy and practice for the future.

Changing our collective behaviour is messy and complicated and slow. We need highly skilled people working together across a diverse range of professions.

Tomorrow us social policy changers might not be so privileged to work where we do – using all the know-how available to have an impact on people’s lives. In the meantime, I’m grateful that we can keep learning from academics and practitioners and keep on attending to people’s behaviour in the search for better social policy systems.

Note: These are personal views and not the views of Suffolk County Council.

See #transitionslessons for more on the approach that Moving into Adulthood has taken >
Follow Moving into Adulthood on Twitter @Suffolk_MiATeam >
Follow Esmee Wilcox on Twitter @bk2thevalley >


[1] Tracey, P. and Phillips, N. (2016) “Managing the consequences of organizational stigmatization: identity work in a social enterprise.” Academy of Management Journal (published online Mar 2015; forthcoming in print).

[2] DiMaggio, P. and Powell, W. (1983) “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.” American Sociological Review (Vol 48, Issue 2), reference to ‘normative isomorphism’, p.150.

Esmee Wilcox

Esmee Wilcox

Esmee Wilcox

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  1. Gilly Conway

    That’s really interesting. I’m in the middle of writing up my MBA dissertation and am looking at isomorphic pressures from a voluntary sector point of view. Of course the public sector is under those pressures too and it gets passed on.

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