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Unshrink – review


Title: Unshrink: yourself – people – business – the world
Authors: Max McKeown and Philip Whiteley
Publisher: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002
Format: Paperback - 153 pages
ISBN: 0273656147

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“Unshrink” is an impassioned call for the dismantling of psychological and habitual barriers that hold people back from full lives for themselves, and from effective interaction with each other. It has an evangelical fervour, and its evocations of the release of human potential are enticing, but it can be self-indulgently optimistic. When it applies its energy to organisations and communication, though, it presents a challenging view of where management finds itself today.

Three things are put forward to be unshrunk: Yourself, Other People and Business. Each section identifies myths to be jettisoned, and sets up principles to counter those myths:

Myth: you are what you do
Principle: you are what you can become
Myth: work comes first
Principle: life always comes first

Myth: the boss is superhuman
Principle: we are all human
Myth: the plan must be secret
Principle: only the goal unifies

Myth: people obey orders
Myth: organisations are machines
Myth: all change is good
Principle: only good change is good
Principle: the organisation is a community
Principle: people do what they want

While the focus is on giving more attention to the individual’s potential, the book is worthy but bland and vague. It becomes more compelling when it turns to people’s beliefs about each other, in competition and co-operation, and really hits its stride when it moves on to business. The myths put forward for demolition here are common and influential, and the demolition is accompanied by some further blows that hit home: “Management is a strange world where woolly notions like ‘synergy’ or ‘efficiency’ are venerated, but tangible principles like trust and caring are regarded as soft”.

This book is very much of its time in recommending an acceptance of more equality of esteem within organisations, and it is particularly effective when dismantling the myth that “The Boss is Superhuman”. The authors are also alive to the signs of communication breakdown: “Contrary to another unspoken managerial myth, people do not become more stupid as one goes down the hierarchy. The receptionist, the cleaner, the post-room manager and their dog know when the top management does not have a clue. Departure from comprehensible language is the surest sign of this malaise.”

The insistence on humanity involves another assault on management thinking: the authors refuse to countenance analyses of business success or failure that look primarily at systems rather than at people. This is intriguing and largely effective, but you might well think that it’s not new, since every company has apparently now discovered what its greatest asset is. Interestingly and convincingly, though, the authors suggest that recent emphases on “human capital” are doomed attempts to graft “people-friendly” elements onto the same old inhuman and inaccurate mechanical models. In contrast, they suggest that such systematic analyses have to go completely.

This attack on fixed habits of thinking involves a refreshing, if simplistic, attack on the political analyses of business from left and right. Marx and Adam Smith are set against each other, and put in contrast with a purportedly more “realistic” view of the real rules of commercial society. This is all accomplished rather too briefly, but keeps grabbing your attention back with observations that ring true, like “Most conflict is gratuitous”. I particularly liked the simple, obvious, but so often ignored principle that "only good change is good".

It is fitting that the book closes with an appeal for us to “Keep the Faith”, since its energy is directed more towards expressing belief in liberating potential than towards practical discussion of industrial relations, or even of organisational communication. To be fair, though, it aims to teach “unshrinking”, and its rejection of failed patterns and theories is engaging and provocative.


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