Letting the light in: how think tanks can be more nourishing places to work

27 February 2020
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

 Work is love made visible
Kahlil Gibran

Many thinktankers will find their work hugely satisfying. And equally, think tanks can be hugely fulfilling places to work as individuals get to grow their skills, be curious, gain recognition and be part of a close-knit community.

However, think tanks can also be traumatic places to work, where people get hurt, distressed and unhappy. This is all the more so with think tanks under increasing pressure to be more visible, achieve a certain form of research excellence, and to grow their budget to pay for this, taking thinktankers further away from their core aims. In negative or traumatic think tank environments, people’s mental health suffers, some are pushed out and others decide to leave.

But there are ways of making think tanks more developmental and nurturing places to work, as I will explore here.

The dark forces

In many think tanks, unhealthy patterns of relating (or the Organization Shadow as Martin Bowles calls it) are projected onto staff – and usually on those who feel less able to resist them, such as more junior staff, women in predominately male working environments, racial and ethnic minorities, and so on. Examples of such patterns include:

  • overly top-down decision making with senior managers ‘putting staff in their place’,
  • a lack of dialogue among staff,
  • individuals being marginalised, harassed or scapegoated,
  • individuals, especially those with power, pursuing personal agendas,
  • individuals and teams working in silos,
  • lack of trust between staff (perhaps due to envy or rivalry),
  • excessive levels of competition,
  • excessive levels of aggression (expressed either passively and/or actively),
  • blurred accountability lines,
  • a lack of tolerance of new ideas and approaches.

In conversations with OTT-TTI Fellows last year, some reported anxiety and concern about unrealistic demands made on them by more senior managers, not having space to assert oneself with colleagues or managers, and the need to have difficult conversations with people both above and below them in the hierarchy. I’ve also documented my own challenges working in an international think tank.

It seems that the primary task of producing high-quality research and influencing policymakers can get hijacked by primitive emotions, especially of the more powerful.

Very little of this is made explicit

From the outside, most think tanks appear well-polished: people are polite in meetings and they continue to produce glossy publications.

Formal spaces where employees come together tend to be highly structured with little room or capacity to talk about issues that may be troubling them. Those in power usually deny there are issues. Those without power, fear the consequences of being frank.

When difficult issues are brought up, it is done so informally and in private. For example, via messaging apps like WhatsApp, or in corridors, at the water cooler or in a bar after work. These are the think tank’s ‘hidden transcripts’.

Think tanks and teams that refuse to address these issues can suffer from high turnover.

Resorting to management speak

Think tanks spend a lot of time and money routinely worrying about their external context and how to respond to it. They develop visions, missions, goals, strategies and business plans that cascade down to individual objectives, performance appraisals and competency frameworks. They also spend a lot of money on branding and image, anxious about how they will be perceived by others.

But think tanks rarely look inwards. In the rare instances that think tanks do look inwards, they don’t really step back and reflect or understand what’s actually going on. Instead they prioritise action, even if it might be the wrong thing to do.

Their focus lurches from the whole organisation to individuals. Priority is given to scientific management techniques (borrowed uncritically from the business sector), over methods that address more relational aspects. For instance, think tank managers or board members might:

  • Hire a director to restructure the organisation and bring all staff ‘into line’ with their vision. But organisational restructures often lead to more stress and upheaval as experienced by those working for the UK’s National Health Service. And leaders rarely have the right temperament or skills to address challenges that arise amongst staff.
  • Hire an HR consultant to undertake an employee engagement survey (often annually). At an aggregate level, they tend to say the same thing every year, with senior management reluctant to genuinely listen and do something meaningful.
  • Organise an ‘away day’ or staff retreat to discuss plans and strategies. However, these usually have the effect of reproducing existing dynamics, albeit in a different setting.
  • Ask staff to undertake Myers Briggs personality tests, to help them work better with each other. But this is not rooted in robust evidence and rarely digs deeper to consider power dynamics – who works with who and on what terms?
  • Suggest that stressed staff (and sometimes pay for them to) do yoga, mindfulness or call an employee helpline. But this psychologises and individualises problems that may actually be relational.

These activities often have little effect. Individuals who are experiencing trauma tend to respond better to interventions that enable them to explore their feelings and emotions. Describing one’s feelings (rather than acting on them), can provide a guide for what is going on for staff, can facilitate connection, and even resolve conflict. Sadly, this is often seen as unprofessional and inappropriate.

Towards a more nurturing working environment

While think tank managers need to exert some authority and a degree of control to run a think tank, they also need to provide care and support. The relationship dynamics within think tanks play a big part in how they achieve (or not) their strategies and goals.

If think tank managers are genuinely ambitious, they need to create the space for staff to talk about the nature of their relationships, the quality of communication and how they understand each other. They need to bring those ‘hidden transcripts’ or informal conversations into formal organisational life.

A few ways to do this include:

  • Meetings in which senior managers speak to staff in a less formal and more improvisational way. For instance, the director of a think tank I worked at held ‘coffee mornings’ on a weekly basis allowing staff to walk in and raise any concern they had.
  • Less formal ‘away days’ or ‘retreats’ with far fewer items on the agenda.
  • Informal group discussions. Christopher Rance, a group analyst, describes meeting with a group of 10-12 staff for a daily hour-long meeting in a large company as part of an IT project and restructuring process. Conversations were wide ranging including family issues, career plans and, as time wore on, how participants were getting on with each other. The dialogue was valued for the companionship that participants experienced as well as for its technical and commercial effectiveness.

In addition to these conversations, individuals can look inward to understand their own patterns of relating. In our relationships with colleagues, early attachment patterns with parents or early care givers can play out. We can find ourselves replicating family dynamics and relational patterns – as families are usually the first ‘group’ we are a part of. This dynamic is known as transference. So, individuals need to take responsibility for their own actions and not merely point the finger at colleagues.

Of course, understanding and talking about what is going on between staff will not necessarily change relationships. Some dynamics will endure and may be unresolvable. But bringing them to the surface can at least make them more comfortable.

And in some cases, staff may identify positive impacts. For example, in cases of competition or rivalry, if harnessed appropriately could improve the quality of work.

If change does happen, it is likely to happen incrementally over time.

Creating spaces for relational dynamics to be discussed and surfaced needs to be managed carefully. Thinktankers will need to agree on confidentiality and invest the time required to build up trust.

A skilled facilitator might need to be brought in to guide discussions – someone who can draw attention to relationship dynamics, hold the difficult feelings of the group and potentially mediate between individuals where there is conflict.

And for all this to happen, managers with enough authority will need to find courage, stop being defensive, admit there are issues that need addressing, and find some budget to carve out space in the life of the think tank to be more reflective.

In doing so, they will find that the think tank can provide a more nourishing, caring environment in which staff can do work they love.