Project funded by the Danish Working Environment Research Fund.

The project was carried out between 2008 and 2011 by Dacapo A/S under the leadership of Henry Larsen, who as of August 1st, 2010, took office as a professor at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. Henry finished the project in cooperation with Dacapo, and several Dacapo employees have contributed to the work.

The development and results of the project were frequently discussed with Professors Patricia Shaw and Ralph Stacey. Additionally Professor Henrik Holt Larsen from Copenhagen Business School has been involved in relation to the management perspectives of the project. The project was evaluated by TeamWorkLife.

Summary

The idea to focus on processes of relating emerged from recent research in organisation theory relating to complexity theory. Complexity thinking focuses on the significance of local interactions between involved parties from which overall pictures and patterns emerge.

This means that when we communicate with each other we simultaneously negotiate our identity, our tasks and what goes on in the organisation. Compared to more classical ways of thinking about working environments the focus is moved away from understanding working conditions for individuals as the result of structures and individual sense-making as a consequence of individual mental models. This line of thinking puts focus on the ongoing interaction between people who continually influence each other and each other’s creation of meaning. The results that emerge from such interaction cannot necessarily be predicted.

In this project there has been an intention to encourage involved parties to reflect on the impact of their interaction with others, e.g. their colleagues. The project was carried out during the financial crisis while companies underwent restructuring processes. Our focus on processes of relating does not imply that we have belittled the significance of restructuring processes, but we have come to regard local sense-making as crucial to the well-being of people and to emerging changes. At the same time we have seen a general tendency to underestimate the significance of these local interactions.

In the course of the project we have also experienced the impact of shadow themes. By shadow themes we mean themes that are perceived as illegitimate to talk about in public. Such themes, and the conversations about them, generate strong opinions among the people involved, opinions that are significant to the individual and to the organisation as such. The effects are not merely negative, although illegitimate themes are often perceived negatively. However, there is a tendency to underestimate their impact and to regard the emerging opinions as wrong, as something to be corrected and kept in the shadow. During structural change processes in particular, strong themes that are considered illegitimate to bring up come into play.

The project indicates that taking shadow themes seriously can be beneficial – first and foremost by recognising their existence and by contributing to make room for them. Furthermore it indicates the benefits of allowing the discussion of shadow themes under more public conditions. In relation to management we have seen that shadow themes easily emerge in which managers play a role themselves, and we recommend that managers be aware of their own contribution to the creation of shadow themes around them.