Conflict, Process, and the Self in Organizations and Large Social Systems — Some Tentative Thoughts.
April 15, 2012
Recently, I had to write a paper for a political theory seminar. I was really uncomfortable with this prospect. I don’t have a lot of background or experience with area of study, but I needed a final class for the coursework phase of my PhD and I thought it could offer me insight into the processes taking place in very large organizations and other social systems.
Even though I’m struggling with some of the material, the class has been a real eye opener. In the recent paper, I tried to build a link between how large systems–in this case political systems–view conflict or group antagonism with the unspoken assumptions those systems have about human beings. Specifically, as a non-political theorist, I tried to compare the view of human beings Marx and Engels used when writing The Communist Manifesto, with the view held by more contemporary political thinkers–particularly those who relate to the power of dialogue to spark emergence.
While much of this may seem abstract and largely irrelevant to organizational thinking, I do believe there is a great deal here that can help us to approach conflict in a way that promotes creativity and innovation. Without going into the paper’s whole thesis, here is the key point I came up with:
Systems that try to ensure efficiency and harmony by removing all potential sources of conflict and disruption (as Marx and Engels attempted to do through abolishing private ownership of capital) actually undermine growth by not giving members the opportunity to engage in dialogue that can help to spark new paradigms that transcend the antagonistic thinking.
I know this is a lot of broad strokes. The paper does a better job of laying it all out. But the key to making this approach work is being able to back off from the traditional ideas that view human beings as fixed social and psychological beings. Instead we need to shift our talk and our thinking in a way that sees us as always in process–always emerging to something more inclusive and encompassing. This is what I’ve tried to express in the paper–and want to be able to those in positions of leadership.
So here is the challenge: since, as I believe, a new more dynamic understanding of human nature is critical if organizations and large social systems are going to confront the “wicked problems” and “super wicked problems” we face every day. How do we shift to a more “emergent-friendly” mindset when all the stressors cause us to yearn for a heroic leader who will just use some good old-fashioned “command and control” to shut the problem down and get us on to the next thing?
One last thing: So the paper. Overall, the instructor liked it a lot and thought I made a strong case. She did point out some shortfalls in my grasp of marxism and political theory–but that is to be expected. If anyone is interested, I posted a copy here–but I do so with a caveat: as I said, I’m not a seasoned political theorist so there are a few glitches. That said, I think it still makes a good case.