An encounter with Lisl Klein: “Management as you see it is ‘transitional’”
Lisl Klein died a few time ago.
Lisl Klein worked closely with Joan Woodward, the sociologist who, more than fifty years ago, founded the empirical study of industrial organisation; research that would refute the universal value of the Scientific Management – “there is no one best way” – and helped to define contingency theory. I discovered Klein when I was looking for material on the large group of women who worked on these studies: Klein, herself – the most important of these scholars-, Margaret Simey, Marie Jahoda, Nancy Seear, Silvia Shimmin, Dorothy Wedderburn, Enid Mumford and Margaret Stacey. A continuation of the thought of Beatrice Webb, co-founder of the London School of Economics. I had asked to meet her because I wanted to clarify some aspects of that experience. She agreed, and we met on 14 November 2014. I wrote down a few parts of our conversation.
Lisl Klein, 86, is confined to a chair due to severe arthritis. She greets me at her home in London, alone with all the commands to open the door, control the thermostat and so on. I start by telling her something about myself, my books (especially Le donne il management la differenza, which I give her as a gift), and the association Donnesenzaguscio. As well as the new project we have under way.
I explain what I want to talk to her about. First of all, if the fact of being a woman has influenced the approach of Woodward: to verify the academic theories inside real companies. I hypothesise: because as a woman she was more rooted in real life? Less brought up to follow defined patterns? Not having predefined goals in her research, more willing to accept the results of the findings? Klein wrote a chapter on this issue (in a publication by Dorothy Griffith): Woodward was not feminist. I say that it is not necessary to be a feminist. Even many managers I know would not use this definition to describe themselves, but it is a question of being aware that women have a different point of view on life and take that also into the workplace. She nods in agreement.
She accepts that being rooted in reality was one of Joan’s features, and it is a difference compared to men: ‘Joan was very grounded in reality.’ She recounts an incident: during a conference in France, they listened to a presentation by a ‘Laboratoire’ (she says this with irony about the high-sounding French), that was worth a look into more closely. Lisl suggested staying for the weekend to meet the people involved. But Joan replied: ‘No, I want to get home for Sunday lunch.’ An example of her connection with reality, that started with her own family life. I make the comment that this is typical of women: i.e. to not separate bits of life, and work does not dominate everything. Again she nods her head. She adds that at that time also many men in academia were more realistic than today, in the sense of paying more attention to reality. What happens today in universities? Men do not want to recognise their debt to the theories and discoveries of their predecessors, they want to invent their own, because the university rewards those who bring something ‘new’, even if it does not constitute a development, but perhaps just another name for things already known and reworked . ‘Universities train students to do research not to use it.’ They promote theories regardless of the practical effects. Instead, she says, is more important to make actual use of what you already know, than engage in mere theoretical innovation.
I ask her how she explains the marked presence of women in universities dedicated to empirical research in companies at the time of Woodward. She tells me again (she had already given a written answer) that there were just as many men. I show her the site of the Bayswater Institute where these women are lauded as “the vanguard of the golden age of British sociological research”. It is a curious moment, it seems that she doesn’t believe it, and is then surprised to see that I’m right. I insist, because, in any case, it was not ‘normal’ just after the war find so many women in important positions in the university and with research funding. Her explanation is historical: in those years the Labour government wanted to encourage the development of manufacturing companies and therefore provided funding for a lot of applicable research with practical goals and that would produce results within three years. I concluded that it was this abundance of funds that allowed access to women, otherwise it would have been more likely that men – more powerful – would have seized much more. But she is stubborn about this: ‘Before asking for an explanation, you have to be sure there is something to be explained.’
We then come to the question of ‘common sense’, which she has often discussed. I say that women act not starting from theories and models, but by looking at the real situation they face, and trying to find a solution they consider right and appropriate. But because women do not operate on the basis of acquired theories in the culture of management, such practices are not recognised, and labelled by men as common sense. And yet, this is how new ideas and new management practices are created. Lisl confirms this: ‘Common sense: I still have this problem today, in order for the value of what you do to be recognised, you need to have a theoretical name for it. But common sense is your experience. … I instinctively look in a contingent way .’
It is precisely for this that, returning to the new project I’m developing, I say that we want to express in organised thought the criteria that have emerged from the new experiences of women managers. I outline the main points. Lisl finds it all surprisingly interesting (‘very interesting, what you do is very interesting’).
She asks for an explanation of a few concepts. Especially when I say that contingency stimulates solutions, but the solutions must not be contingent, but rather change the corporate culture. ‘ Give me an example,’ she asks. I give her a few. She is intrigued (you can tell by her admiring expressions and small exclamations of surprise), and says she will report these stories to those who have worked with Marie Jahoda and to Lotte (I think her daughter, a professor of management at MIT). She repeats several times the names of the women I mention, puts paper clips at those points of the book. Then she tells me something illuminating.
This way of being a manager that I tell her about, is a ‘transitional approach, as in the Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object: the bear, the blanket … the objects that for the child constitute a bridge in the transition from childhood to an unknown future. Because it’s not having immediate answers, it’s more an exploration of what could be.’
And then I take my leave. She asks if we can translate the book into English (compared to her publisher, mine is a giant). She loves the cover by Pat Carra (an amused smile). When I say that we have sold nearly a thousand copies – it’s actually 900 and something, but never mind – she was incredulous: ‘More than all my books together.’ So, after two hours I left. She said goodbye adding that she wants to see me again with the new book: ‘if I don’t die.’
I came away happy and amused. I was walking on air, even though it was pouring. I was grateful to this great scholar who had listened and wanted to learn from women with no qualifications but who act with courage and think about the value of what they do. And you might say: But what is there to be so happy about? I think what there is, is great recognition. And this makes me think we are doing something that has even more value than we imagine.
I was supposed to meet her again in this period in London. I miss this meeting, I am moved by the absence, but I’m glad that Lisl is remembered and that she will be present in the new book.