In this article, Professor Kevin Orr from the University of St Andrews overviews his research into ‘organisational ghosts’ – enduring influences or figures with histories, biographies and legacies that stay with us all. He argues that those in local government are no exception to this type of haunting and asks what we can learn from these organisational spectres.
“The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts”
– Italo Calvino
Management orthodoxy encourages us to think about organisations as rational places whose managers engineer better systems, processes, and results. Managers and leaders solve problems, carefully weigh decisions, and skilfully implement strategies. They oil the machinery of local government, making design tweaks or reconfiguring pathways from time to time. Such a view of organisational life portrays a neat and ordered world of logic and evidence-based judgement, free of complicated emotions.
Does that sound convincing to you?
What if, instead, we think about organisations as haunted, troubled spaces?
What if we even take seriously the idea that ghosts haunt our everyday work? These are what I call organisational ghosts. They are remembered figures who visit our thoughts unannounced. They are an affective presence. They disturb and unsettle us: like the ghosts themselves, we don’t know whether we’re coming or going. They are a disquieting force.
Our ghosts could be heroes or villains; sometimes they are ambiguous figures whose actions we still struggle to make sense of. They might be those who moved on to greater feats elsewhere. An old mentor, a role model from earlier in our career. They could be people who left the organisation in disgrace or ignominy, or who we were relieved to see the back of, or who met a sudden end.
- The retired;
- The dispossessed;
- The exiled;
- The outsourced;
- The downsized;
- The leader who lost their seat, or worse.
Maybe these figures are intersubjective – known to a wider collective and perhaps, on occasion, invoked deliberately as a cautionary tale. Others are more deeply personal. Some organisational ghosts are benign – friendly ghosts – but most are more disturbing than that.
Perhaps they remind us of particular events in the storied, bruising history of our working lives. Maybe they call to mind mistakes made or disasters narrowly averted. Moments or encounters that still make us shudder though seemingly long in the past.
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The question is: what should we do with them?
Dismiss them and move quickly on with a swift shake of the head? Or, dwell in those moments of the organisational uncanny and spend some time thinking about what the sudden arrival of that particular figure, at that particular moment, might mean for us?
Ghosts have long been seen as momentous figures, conveying messages or carrying portents. In Ancient Greece the sphere of the dead was both a source of possible help and a mirror that reflects our own world. In the literary arena, many ghost stories hinge upon the ideas of a wraith bearing a transformative message or making a decisive intervention in the life of the haunted. Think of the spectres in A Christmas Carol, of whom Scrooge begs: ‘Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life!’ Or the movie The Sixth Sense where the truth is finally unveiled and justice secured through revelations by a series of ghosts.
The Enlightenment categorised ghosts as mere foolish superstitions. A primitive belief in ghosts could be banished by philosophy. Later, the rise of modernism and the growth of large complex organisations brought ideas of scientific management, bureaucratic rationality, and systems thinking to the forefront of our ways of organising.
These movements encouraged us to banish ghosts, to dismiss them as a sign of childish ways or uneducated thinking. In this context, a manager or leader who talks openly and credulously of ghosts would be to draw concern or alarm. An HR intervention in the making.
But, in truth, we all act with our own ghosts. Organisational ghosts have histories, biographies and legacies. Instead of consigning spectres to the realms of the unschooled, what if we see our ghosts as figures demanding and deserving of respect? What if we understand that figures from the past continue to be ubiquitous, mediating social presence in everyday organisational life?
Thinking across the wider landscape of organisations there is no shortage of examples through which we might think about the enduring influence or figures who are literally no longer there but who nonetheless continue to make themselves felt.
- Churchill in the Commons.
- Nixon in the White House.
- Steve Jobs at Apple.
People who continue to be present even though they ought to be absent. Your old boss, maybe.
Local government – despite its safe narratives of strategy, expertise, competence, and high performance – is also a demotic populated by ghosts.
This theory of the haunted aspects of organisations stemmed from some ethnographic work – observational research in which I spent time shadowing local government chief executives, with the modest ambition of learning more about what they do and how they do it. Instead, what formed was an appreciation of managers as haunted figures, surrounded by their ghosts, personal and professional.
I encountered local government managers who were unsettled or losing their bearings. I listened to them talk emotively about past figures from their professional lives. I heard stories about unresolved social violence in their organisations. I became aware of a constant confrontation between the past and the present in their work (you can read more about it here). The study provides vignettes of organisational life which illuminate how ghosts are insinuated in local government organisations. They illustrate the spectrum of ways in which local government practitioners live with their everyday ghosts.
Jacques Derrida advised we should talk with spectres – rather than dismissing them or running away we should be in a reflective dialogue with the ghosts that we experience in our lives. Sociologist Avery Gordon has also identified the radical potential of the encounters with our ghosts. She describes hauntings as a kind of turmoil:
“[…] when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away, when something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done.”
In this understanding, ghosts speak to an ethics of organising, of transformation, a call to action and intervention.
It is tempting to contain ghosts in a safe space, to think of them as a pleasing, mildly titivating metaphor, restricted to our everyday discourse about abandoning an idea or ‘giving up the ghost’. Though resonant enough, it is the most superficial way that we might think of ghosts. A more radical approach to organisational ghosts is to consider them as:
- A source to focus reflective learning: a figure pointing the way, a means of getting our ethical bearings.
- Unsettling figures who disturb our sense of things; markers of social violence, or loss, which has been inflicted in the organisation. Feeling haunted is a socio-political as well as a psychological state. It can be productive, serving as a call to action.
- An uncanny organisational presence which defies being harnessed for neat instrumental purposes but which speaks to the strangeness of ourselves and the troubled nature of our organisations.
Looking at ghosts, talking with ghosts, therefore can enable an exploration of the ethical conditions of our work. Such a task seems particularly urgent in local government where the social stakes of leadership practices, political management, or managing change could not be higher.
A theory of organisational ghosts provides a concept that highlights the liminality of leaders. It helps us see leadership as a bridge between the past the present and the future. It conveys the idea of leadership as involving both haunting (of others) and feeling haunted (by others).
It reminds us that for all our grand plans and amidst the unrelenting grind of organisational action we will ourselves become ghosts. Hopefully, this thought encourages us to ponder the ethics of our actions and the legacies and traces we leave behind.
If you want to discuss Professor Kevin Orr’s article or research further, please reach out here.
Jacques Derrida (1993) Spectres of Marx. Routledge.
Avery F. Gordon (2008) Ghostly Matters. Hauntings and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press.
Kevin Orr (2014) Local Government Chief Executives and Everyday Hauntings: Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts. Organization Studies. 35(7), 1041-1061. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840614526182
Kevin Orr (2023) Uncanny Organization and the Immanence of Crisis: The public sector, neoliberalism and Covid-19. Organization Studies, 0(0). https://doi.