Physics Metaphor in Organizational Life

Exploring the Metaphor of Power in Organizational Life

A Story

Congratulations! You, Liam, have been appointed the new Chair of the Science department in your high school. At last you will have a bit of power to make a few of the changes which seem to you to be long overdue. As you begin talking to the faculty in your department, your intentions and your actions do not routinely achieve the desired results. Being a thoughtful person, you discuss this with a trusted colleague, Jamie.

“You know, Jamie, I thought that once I had a little power and I would be able to move this department forward – make progress on a couple needed changes. But I seem to be stuck – like I’ve run into – not a wall exactly, but more like I’m pushing on the accelerator but someone I can’t see is stepping on the brake at the same time. Any ideas?”

“Well, Liam, let’s think out loud together about this. You say you thought you’d have a bit of power. What do you mean by power?”

“Obviously not like the kind you get from the engine in that car, or from an electrical outlet. But … you know … the power to move things along, to get things done.”

Jamie thinks for a few seconds then offers, “This is the science department. Everybody here presumably has a rudimentary understanding of physics. What’s the definition of power in physics?”
Liam responds, “Well, power is work divided by time – how much you get done and how long it takes to accomplish it.”

Jamie nods. “And work is … ?”

“Work is force times distance. How much force it takes to move a certain distance,” Liam says. “But I’m not trying to force anything. I suppose, though, that I am trying to get this department to move, and that seems to imply a sense of distance. Like Newton’s first law, right? An object – or department – at rest tends to stay at rest unless some force acts on it. I thought you were going to help me out here, not re-visit Physics 101!”

Jamie nods. “Remember that the concept of power in organizations is really just metaphorical. Its not ‘real’ like electrical or auto engine power. Even though we consider ourselves to be scientists, we are not living in a Newtonian world where mechanical metaphors are good enough. David Noble, a non-scientist, tells us that if we see ourselves as living world in which everything is related to everything else, we need more organic metaphors where part interact meaningfully in relationship with the whole. And often in ways that we don’t see. The metaphor highlights one aspect of power – it can be managed and used to do work – but hides other aspects. It is not controlled by a switch. And it can be undermined by people who disagree with how you’re using it. And power in physics leaves out any consideration of direction, as well.”

“Bear with me a little longer, okay. A few minutes ago, you mentioned that you were stepping on the accelerator but something invisible was stepping on the brake. Of course, that was a metaphorical brake,” Jamie smiled. “That’s physics, too. Liam, what is it you were trying to accelerate, what were you intending to do with that force?”

Liam answers, “I have a couple things going on. Mostly related to two topics. One is creating more opportunities for identifying cross-discipline connections for the students. That is, here is an idea from chemistry and here’s how it connects to physics. And the other is reminding the students that this is actually useful beyond the school walls. What Newmann calls ‘authentic achievement’ … knowledge that has some value or meaning beyond success in school.”

Liam continues, “I think that you and I agree that under the previous chair, we had too many things going on at one time even though each one seen individually looked good. So I wanted to focus at first on just a couple. Doesn’t that seem like a good approach?”

“Ahhh,” Jamie sighs. “I do agree that we had likely gone beyond what most faculty members could cope with. As you know, I read books from other disciplines that may not seem relevant to education at first glimpse. Here’s a secret: schools are really organizations, too, just like businesses or nonprofits. I think we can learn from them. Not like we make widgets or anything. One of those books talked about an organization’s capacity to act being limited. If we drift away from a focus on the main thing, if we focus on mere activity instead of real results … well, people can get overwhelmed. And when the next big idea comes along to be added to our plates, things just grind to a halt. People just don’t have the capacity to take on one more thing despite how much sense it might make in isolation. There is an old adage: the person who chases two rabbits catches none.”

Liam smiled broadly. “Yup – been there, done that, don’t want to go back!”
Jamie continued, “So even if you focus on just a couple initiatives, they still need to make sense to people. People need to be willing to … enroll. Remember, this is all about people. This is not Newtonian physics dealing with billiard balls on a frictionless surface and all that. I mean, we’ve already talked a little about force and work and power. But there’s also friction. And that can manifest in many ways, right?”

Liam paused, searching his memory for something. “Okay – I’ll grant it’s not as simple as Newton’s third law – for every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction. Hmmm … Yes, now I remember. Before there was social media like we understand it now – a lot of triviality and fake news and such – it was Listservs and people with shared interests – well, I guess some social media is still that. But I remember one quote that really struck me – brought to my attention by someone from … gasp … the English department. Paraphrasing, it went like this: ‘There is confusion between cause and because. Physical things move when there is cause. People behave when there is because.’ People need a why not just a jolt from another billiard ball.” Rather than power and force, maybe we need to shift our thinking to attraction. Maybe not gravity exactly but … How can we create a strange attractor like Lorenz talked about? Create a community that draws others in, gives them a ‘because’.”

Jamie agreed. “That’s why it’s important to make sure that the initiatives you want to move forward with are going in the same direction, and not at cross purposes. Like that children’s game where you try to get a marble through a maze by tilting the board – except there are several boards all loosely connected and with several marbles at the same time as well! Going back to physics, if you want movement, then you want the forces to not cancel each other out by pushing in opposite directions.”
Liam paused and thought about this for a few seconds. Then he offered, “I think we need to bring in another concept from physics. When I think about it, it’s not just force and work and power. It also must have direction and velocity in the sense that it is moving in toward the desired goal? How will we know whether we are moving in the right direction?”

Jamie considered this addition to the conversation. “While we’re adding concepts, let’s consider adding the coefficient of friction. How does that play out for you?”
It was Liam’s turn to consider. “Well,” he began, “it seems clear that, as much sense as these two initiatives make to me, not everyone is equally supportive. There is resistance from some faculty … you know who, right? Let’s reframe this from their perspective – not as resistance to change but rather as attraction to the status quo,” Jamie offered. “That is, perhaps those people just don’t see the needs or the advantages the same way you do. Rather than write them off as mindless barriers, how might you find that ‘because’ that will encourage them to enroll in your ideas?”
Jamie expands on the notion of resistance. “Michael Lewis reminds us that it doesn’t usually work to just bully or argue with the people. He quotes the psychologist Kurt Lewin suggesting that rather than selling people on some change or demanding it, you are better off identifying the reasons for their resistance, and addressing those. After all, there are two ways to get moving. First, increase power and force. Or reduce the resistance. I used to do a T chart with Boosters and Barriers. Then decide which might be the most productive and attract more interest.”

“People want to be part of a community,” Jamie observed. They want to work with allies on a shared goal – so help them become allies. Engage them in dialogue to explore how their supporting one another, across disciplines, will help them in their collective efforts to promote Fred Newmann’s authentic achievement.”

Liam was lost in thought again, so Jamie just waited. Finally, Liam spoke. “If we could get a few more on board with the initiatives I’ve put forward, we’d be in great shape. Especially if it were the one or two people whose views and support really matter.”

“Right!” Jamie jumped. “In another of the business books, I read about political savvy. That author suggested … wait … I have the quote here on my phone. De Luca says you can be deliberate about this. You map out who you need to influence, and how to influence them – ‘ethically building a critical mass of support for an idea you care about.’. It’s about following natural paths of trust and credibility.”

Liam paused, then said, “One thing we want to remember: Don’t Leave Anyone Out. That means whenever we talk about these initiatives, we make sure we send out notes of what happened at our meetings. Transparency will be important to build trust and a base of shared knowledge. That will reduce the tendency to form an “in” group and an “out” group.”

“Another approach that might be useful”, Jamie suggested, “is to identify common patterns in science classes. Pattern recognition is important in science, math, English, History, etc. Patterns help us create a context and position what we know so we don’t have to recreate everything. It also can be very instructive to consider the outliers. Everyone thought Newton had everything figured out. Then Einstein showed up. Hmmm, new information may cause us to rethink our approaches.”

“Before we get too excited here,” Liam interrupted, “we need to remember that some people may still be … not resistant exactly, but nonetheless reluctant to join in. One of my old teachers suggested that people may not buy in for any one of several reasons. Or maybe more than one. Or maybe a different one today than they did yesterday. And it’s not a one size – or one message – fits all. It’s people again, and each needing a convincing ‘because.’”

“He had a limited handful of reasons,” Liam continued. “For instance, people might not like the destination you’re heading toward. Or maybe it’s the path you’ve identified. It might be that they just don’t think they – whoever ‘they’ are – will let us. In some number of cases, it might be a values conflict – like you’re not working on their number one priority. Or maybe you just forgot to include them early on and get their input so now they’re digging in their heels no matter what the initiative is about.”

“Jamie,” Liam said. “Thanks for helping me think through this. I believe that with your help I can figure out how to build a coalition of faculty members who would support a shared focus on authentic achievement across their specialties. That would cement the value of their specialties in the larger picture. And at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do for the students, as well.”

As he walked away Jamie said, “Yeah, let’s say in touch on this!”


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