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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Task as an ethical reference point in work-systems

This paper discusses the part task, as understood in socio-technical systems (STS) theory, can play in enabling work groups, and people in role in enterprises, to work in accord with the ethical expectations (the needs, goals and objectives) of their enterprise, rather than to their own local needs or objectives. The authority inherent in task can provide the permission to think, question and act in a manner that supports the task and its part in the enterprise's primary task; rather than in accord with enterprise sub-cultures and the compromises to ethical action often asked for. When used well, it facilitates discernment about what is correct action for local work-groups and for the enterprise as a whole. When task is given clear visibility and regularly referred to, task can support staff and work groups resist the collusive slide into collective actions that support local interests rather than enterprise interests. Two short case studies we will explore task as ethical reference point. In both cases, these groups' investment in work effort diverged from that sought by the enterprise: over time, many participants in these cases came to see the central groups' behaviour as unethical. The paper explores how the seemingly simple notion of task and primary task as reference point for ethical behaviour and purpose, in both settings provided an organising framework to realign disruptive, aberrant work group behaviour towards the functional and ethical expectations of the enterprises.