Morality and the ethics of OD: A timely provocation from the world of film

Change & Organisation Development

by Kevin Power

31 January, 2018

As January comes to a close, I was reflecting that I quite like this time of the year though that’s not a sentiment I hear very often. It’s not that I don’t carry my own guilt about over consumption or a vague existential angst about what I am doing with my one precious life. Indeed this month was named after a very particular Roman God for a reason. Janus signified beginnings and endings and was perhaps most familiar from old Roman coins that had a caricature of a head facing backwards and forwards. In other words, Janus was the god of transitions who represented the need to pause and reflect as we pass through the thresholds that represent the cycles of life.

It seems appropriate therefore that during January, the film industry, on our side of the Atlantic at least, chooses to release some of its more profound offerings. It’s not that there is any lack of quality getting released in other parts of the year but it does seem like we become a bit more spoilt for choice than usual in our local ‘art-house’ cinemas. I’m talking about the movies that have a bit of theatre and meaning about them – the ones that seem to avoid the usual clichés of sentimentality, linearity and tidy endings. The ones that get to the heart of the matter. The ones attempting to make some sense of the world we live in.

One such film is: ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’. The film deals with the consequences of guilt and unfettered rage for a grieving mother, who is seeking a police response that is commensurate with the nature of her daughter’s murder. I experienced it as a twisted morality tale, where notions of good and bad are not so clear-cut. Here we have a woman who has had enough of judicial procedure. She has had enough of half-heartedness and apathy. She is confronted with plenty of reasons to back off and tone down her behaviour but she is relentless and uncompromising. Direct action is all that she can offer.

Given the subject matter, it is deadly funny at the most unexpected moments and by the end there are no comforting conclusions and an awful lot of carnage along the way. Three Billboards does have a message though and a beautifully crafted one at that. Even amongst the ugliness and brutality of human nature there are occasional glimpses of compassion. Yet, what struck me most was that this was a film that seemed to confront the cosiness of our ideals and certainties about how we wish the world to be and, how we expect people to behave. It deals with gender norms, race relations, family dynamics and our attitudes to death in such a robust fashion that I would imagine many of us would be a lot more reflective about our liberal and humanistic values after seeing this.

So what has all this got to do with our practice as change consultants?

This is the kind of art that demands that we look inwards and outwards at a deeper (higher?) level. It reminded me of the moral certainties and assumptions that we carry, particularly in our professional lives. It reminded me that, now more than ever, we need to pay heed to the ethical foundations that provide the bedrock to the field of practice that we still choose to call ‘OD’.

I have been working in the field of organisational change for a long time and it made me wonder about how much I am prepared to be changed when I think about my own moral compass – how I deal with shades of black, white and grey.  I wondered about what would be our equivalent to the Hippocratic oath that is held so dear by those in medicine – the notion of “doing no harm”. I would like to think that I am part of a profession that holds humanistic values and ethics at its core. Perhaps our advocacy would take in the principles of dialogue and equal voice as well as the foundational importance of relationship and behaviour, in context. But could we be more explicit about our ecological stance and might that influence our choices about the work we are prepared to do? Would we be prepared to challenge the primary metaphors or lenses through which we choose to see organisational life? How in reality do we uphold our stance of ‘doing no harm’ to people or planet?

In a recent interview with the writer/director of Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh, he suggested that his script was a story of hope, though he accepted it was hard to find. I found this simple message immensely helpful. The sense I am making is that this was not a film about redemption. It was about the glimpses of an alternative possibility that subverts the caricatures, and ingrained assumptions, that we often carry about people and situations.

It is a reminder that sometimes we can discover surprising contradictions when we stay around and look closer for long enough. This demands we take a more phenomenological perspective. Translate that into consulting speak, and it demands we value immersion and dwelling over our natural tendency to advocate premeditated solutions for what has already been categorised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Perhaps our purpose too is to help each other to find hope and to perhaps linger for a while longer.

We might even get to notice that January is not the only threshold when we could be taking the time out to reflect on what we are really trying to uphold in our professional and personal endeavours.



Morality and the ethics of OD: A timely provocation from the world of film

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