The word ‘bastard’ does not have any satisfactory equivalent verb.

I enjoyed and recommend David Sims’ paper “You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations” (abstract). Sims is a B-school type, an organizational theorist. The question at hand is what’s up when we loose our patience with those around us. As this unfolds we give license to our indignation. We relax our efforts to construct a positive model of the other guy. We demonize him. In short: we declare him to be a bastard.

My wife brought my attention to this paper by way of one of Ms. Manners’s columns titled “Best. Paper. Ever.” Now that’s high praise from a great height!

In this paper I got to learn a new word: ’emplot’ or the short form of narrative emplotment‘. The idea here is to repurpose the tools of story telling or theater to talk about how we make sense of the world. We make sense of the world by mapping its raw bits into plot lines. The paper is a very preliminary run at the scenario where we map somebody in our organization into the role of the evil bastard.

The nice thing about taking this path, i.e. thru storytelling, sensemaking, and narrative, is how it serves up different perspectives on the problem about what is worked thru in as the demonization unfolds. I.e. the story has to work for all parties; the demonizer, audience, colleagues, etc. This approach lets us dig into the functional benefits that might arise for each of these. For example we get this delightful sentence: “St George needs his dragon as a matter of narrative necessity (Pratchett 1992).” The paper is most interested in the functional benefits for the demonizer and I find that refreshing.

Three species of bastards are mentioned, but to be clear these are not presented as either exhaustive or even the most common types. We get to imagine the joys of having an avuncular leader who seems incapable of using his power when we need him. We follow the very clever consultant only to discover he’s led us right down the drain. And we observer the middle manager who it becomes apparent is unwinding a devious and vicious plot. These aren’t uplifting stories; at the end somebody is irredeemably lost; evil even. They are a kind of tragedy; or if they were a musical they would be the end of the second act.

These are not uncommon stories. The entertainment industry tends to mislead us abut how common happy endings are. But it is amazing how rarely they are told and analyzed in the B-school literature. Since many b-school candidates are victims of these emplotments you would think it would attract more analysis (though there is a little).

This paper suggests that organizational actors are generally reluctant to cast their peers into the role of bastard that hasn’t been my experience. Many are reluctant, but most are aware that it’s a common move in the game; and some are very quick to play the move. Some play it quite effectively. And the move is not without it’s benefits, benefits beyond the ones he outlines in the paper. Just to mention one: it can be difficult to act and be reasonable at the same time. Some folks just skip the bother.

This paper is a start, but there is a lot more to be done. Maybe Sims will become “The Bastard Guy.” Maybe that’s why the literature on the bastard question is so thin. Who’d want that title?

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