An introduction to phenomenology in the workplace

Phenomenology

Phenomenology is a concept from one of the many theories and academic texts on the subject of business management, and most of these see the discipline as a subset of social science. By this, I mean they look at sociological theories, assumptions and principles and then apply them to the business setting, presenting the conclusions to business leaders as ready-made solutions to the problems they might face.

This is well and good from a theoretical perspective, but these solutions are not always so easy to translate into specific actions that bring measurable results. And in the business setting, I see that as a big problem.

A phenomenal approach

Phenomenology is a discipline that was first broached by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl in the late 19th century. The basic idea is that we should be more attentive to the phenomena within our consciousness, and these might lead us to very different conclusions to those that the grand theories of social science might otherwise suggest.

Without getting too carried away with metaphysics, phenomena are those aspects of the self that we become aware of if we take the time to really contemplate our innermost thought processes. Husserl suggested that, by paying close attention to these phenomena, we can gain insights relating to who we are, along with how and why we interact with other people and external stimuli.

In essence, the discipline sets out to discover from a subjective perspective what life is really about, by looking below the surface at what we are really thinking.

Any method that helps us to get a better grasp on who we are and what makes us tick can only be of benefit when it comes to decision making, and that in turn means better interactions with others and a more fulfilled and productive life.

We can see how this can have valuable business applications. Being successful in a business setting is all about making the right decisions, having good working relationships with others and optimising the productivity of ourselves and those around us.

It follows, then, that the insights of the phenomenological method should lead to a business that interacts more effectively and, by extension, performs better.

The phenomenological method

There is no single phenomenological method, but there are several aspects that all phenomenological approaches have in common:

  • Qualitative as opposed to quantitative
  • Subjective point of view as opposed to objective
  • Focus on experience and mental processes, and setting aside the specifics that underlie them
  • Directly entering into the experience of the others
  • Suspending judgement or our own point of view
  • Setting aside preconceptions
  • Evaluating what is unique and what is shared among those involved

Phenomenology provides a perfect adjunct to other behavioural and psychological approaches that are used in business management. The fact that it is not burdened with a raft of theories or fixed methodologies means it can fit well with real world business practices.

It also helps us to take a long, hard look at ourselves in terms of what we do and why we do it – and that can never be a bad thing.