Critical Organisational Psychology: Workplace Applications

Arguably three main factors characterise critical social psychology: a focus on the social; an analysis of power relations; and the championing of oppressed disempowered groups such as the poor, unemployed, homeless, young people, indigenous, disabled, refugees, mentally ill, homosexuals and single mothers. C. Wright Mills (1959/2000) summed up oppression when he argued that social structures, institutions, discourses and ideologies are the cause of people’s marginalisation, as opposed to faulty thinking or defective personalities.

Understanding the workings of power relations in organisations is therefore key to successfully fighting oppression stemming from inequitable practices. However, resisting and challenging entrenched power relations and the oppression they exert is always going to be a challenging task, even when that task is confined to a single organisation. It is likely to come at a cost for the individual or the collective wishing to take this challenge on. One only needs to look at whistle blowers to see the sacrifices and great costs that come from upholding principles of justice, fairness and equity. High-profile examples include Edward Snowdon and Chelsea Manning pointing to both the sacrifice, but also the complex moral dilemmas of acting against the interests of the state.

Another example closer to home is Professor Ian Parker, one of the pioneers of critical psychology. Professor Parker became the focus of international media attention for being sanctioned by his employer Manchester Metropolitan University for questioning management and implicitly its power to make decisions. Parker contested their policy regarding academic workloads and the appointment process of academic staff in his department. Parker, a onetime official of the University and Colleges Union, was disciplined by the University for Gross Misconduct and asked to apologise for his actions. Parker ended up resigning, stating that he and his research programme had been undermined, no doubt as punishment because he was prepared to speak out on an important issue. The issue of academic workloads has become one of the most contentious currently facing academics all over the world who are been increasingly stretched by their university’s to ‘do more with less’, while performance expectations continue to rise sharply. The Vice Chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University was presented with a petition containing 3700 names supporting Professor Parker’s stance and his commitment to scholarship, the names on the petition included other notable scholars, students and practitioners from around the world. On top of this, the university received negative worldwide press over the issue. Yet despite this pressure the Vice Chancellor remained unchanged in his position, Parker was wrong to act in the way he did and therefore needed to be punished. This example illustrates the difficulties in challenging power relations and the sacrifice that people are required to make when they take on organisational oppression. While most of us consider ourselves to be critical psychologists, would we be willing to make the same sacrifices as Professor Parker in order to stand by the principles we espouse to others in our writing?

While there are certainly many less dramatic methods and techniques that that can be employed to challenge organisational power and oppression, such as becoming active in a trade union, building grass roots political coalitions, questioning and resisting unfair decisions, conducting participatory action research, conducting go slows or withholding critical information, they may not always be particularly successful in truly challenging the power of capital (e.g., Prilleltensky, Nelson, & Geoffrey, 2002). As Thompson (2003) argues, it is difficult for employers to act with justice, fairness and equality when global political economic forces are designed to meet the needs of capital as opposed to the needs of the people. The title of Chomsky’s (1999) book Profits Over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order says it all. The struggle between capital and people in organisations is an age-old issue that stretches back hundreds of years. It preoccupied the life of Marx and Engels and more recently Pierre Bourdieu. Challenging these forces is really what is required if the needs of workers are to take priority over profits in the organisational equation.

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