Today’s dominant thought collective[i] of practitioners, consultants and academics concerned with leadership, management and other organisational matters is characterised by thought styles[ii] which, in a completely taken-for-granted way, equate success with positives, sharing, harmony and consensus. Leaders are called upon to communicate inspiring, compelling visions of desirable futures shorn of all problematic features. Followers are to be converted to sharing the vision and committing to the mission so that everyone ‘is on the same page’, ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, ‘climbing on board’, ‘on the message’ and ‘a team player’. This whole raft of idealisations is taken even further when it is accompanied by a relentless emphasis on the positive aspects of all situations. There seems to be a scarcely-concealed dread of ‘negatives’, such as conflict, and a half-expressed conviction that success can only be achieved when all share the same view, with breakdown as the consequence of not doing this. If conflict is noticed it is immediately followed by calls for the practice of ‘conflict resolution’ or approaches which rapidly move people from anything negative to a focus on the ‘positives’. A popular example of the prescription for positive consensus is provided by Appreciative Inquiry. Proponents[iii] of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) point to how the dominant approach to leading, managing and changing organisations focuses attention on problems, deficits and dysfunctions. They argue that this approach is demoralising and ineffective in bringing about change and call, instead, for a focus on opportunities and what is working because focusing in this appreciative, positive way raises morale and promotes generative inquiry. It is claimed that AI generates spontaneous, transformational action on the part of individuals, groups and organisations which leads to a better future. Critics[iv] of AI problematise the focus on positiveness, arguing that positive and negative feelings are intimately connected and conclude that AI is a method whose proponents show little self-reflection or evaluative critique of what they are proposing. In response, Gervase Bushe of the Segal Graduate School of Business has published a paper titles ‘Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About the Positive’.[v] Bushe agrees that AI can become a form of repression when it suppresses dissent and focuses on the positive as a defence against the anxiety of dealing with reality. However, he then immediately goes on to say that when AI is used in appropriate ways, which he does not identify, then people do not wallow in mutual pain but tell each other uplifting stories instead, which sooth tensions and release energy. Instead of focusing on conflict, bridges are built between conflicting groups. In his view, people who want to talk about what they do not like should not be stopped from doing so but they should not be asked to elaborate on these matters. They should be encouraged, instead, to talk about what is missing, what they want more of and what their image of their organisation ought to be. He talks about small group meetings where everyone reads the same story together. Much the same points can be made another positiveness movement called Positive Deviance which is basically an idealised form to ‘benchmarking’ and a sanitisation of ‘deviance’.
This unrelenting emphasis on the positive, on harmony and consensus functions to cover over conflict, difference and real-life attitudes towards deviants because to bring these matters out into the open is to reveal patterns of power relations, the dynamics of identity-forming inclusion and exclusion and the ideologies sustaining current power figurations. As a consequence, public discussions of organisational life take the form of a kind of rational, positive fantasy that focuses our attention on only a small part of what we ordinarily experience in our daily organisational lives. People continue, as they always have done, to disagree and subvert what they disagree: organisational life is characterised by ongoing conflict in which, at the same time, people normally manage to achieve sufficient degrees of consensus, tolerance and cooperation to get things done together. In order to understand what we are ordinarily engaged in during the course of our daily organisational lives we need to avoid thinking in terms of a duality of consensus and conflict, where we can decide to move from the one to the other, and think instead in terms of the paradox of consensus and conflict: we engage in, we are heavily invested in, organisational games displaying the paradoxical dynamics of consensual conflict or conflictual consensus.
The American pragmatist sociologist, George Herbert Mead, articulated these dynamics particularly clear a century ago. For him, the evolution of social forms emerges in interactions between different groupings of people.
A highly developed and organized society is one in which the individual members are interrelated in a multiplicity of different intricate and complicated ways whereby they all share a number of common social interests – interests in, or for the betterment of, society – and yet, on the other hand, are more or less in conflict relative to numerous other interests which they possess only individually, or else share with one another only in small and limited groups.[vi]
Mead is arguing that a complex society of interdependent individuals can only exist if those individuals share common interests to some extent but that this can never be complete because of the conflict between different interests. The implication, I think, is that society can only evolve through the conflict of interests: the evolution of organisations occurs through processes of identification with others and economic exchange and these processes are essentially conflictual as well as consensual. Mead goes on to argue[vii] that there is a conflict between two aspects of the self: the social, which is impersonal and ethical in the sense that it integrates selves with each other and so is conducive to the well-being of society in which individuals cooperate with, and are equal to, each other; and the asocial, which is personal and unethical in the sense that it creates unique oppositions between people in which they have feelings of superiority over others which disrupts society. The asocial self is socially (in a non-ethical sense) formed just as the social self is and they cannot be separated. So Mead is here using the word social in two different senses: the first and most usual sense is simply to denote any and all processes of interaction between persons without any ethical implications; and the second restricts the word social to mean cooperation and equality which he takes to be ethical and contrasts with asocial, that is, acting according to personal or parochial interests, which he sees causing ethical problems. It seems to me that the first notion of social points to universal processes of human interaction that do not necessarily reflect any ideology. However, the second use immediately reflects an ideology which enables the making of judgements about what is ethical and what is not. However, this cannot be a hegemonic ideology because of the conflict between the social and the asocial emerging in the wider social processes. Ideology emerges in these wider social processes. For Mead, the ideal social situation[viii] is one where everyone takes the attitudes of all of the others so that there is no competition or hostility. However, actual conduct also involves the asocial when individuals compete and are hostile to each other. It is essential for the order of society (p323) that individuals have common attitudes ‘but over and above that sort of social endowment of the individual, there is that which distinguishes him from anybody else, makes him what he is. It is the most precious part of the individual.’[ix] Social evolution can therefore be understood as conflict between ideologies and as such is absolutely dependent on difference.
The complexity sciences make the same point about the evolution of nature and of life. Reynolds’ models of flocking show that when interacting agents all follow the same rules (consensus) then they are restricted to one pattern of behaviour.[x] Ray’s models show that when agents differ from each other (conflict) then their patterns of interaction evolve.[xi]
Allen and his colleagues[xii] work in the tradition of Prigogine to argue that change in organisations occurs through an ongoing process of co-evolution in which behavioural types interact with each other. The underlying mechanisms of such evolution involve micro diversity and it is this that drives ongoing, emergent, qualitative changes. Diversity is defined in terms of the number of qualitatively different types of individuals, each type having different attributes. As an organisation evolves, changes occur in both the attributes internal to each type and the configuration of interactions between types. Evolution requires the invasion of a population by new behaviours which grow to a significant level. The model shows how an ecology of strategies emerges indicating that agents are not susceptible to adopting the same strategy, contrary to the prescriptions for best practice or benchmarking to be found in the organisational literature. Diverse behaviours and learning rules lead to more rapid evolution of market structure at a lower cost than benchmarking. However, the explorations / innovations tried out at a particular time cannot be logically deduced because their overall effect cannot be known ahead of time. The conclusion is that co-evolving agents with underlying micro diversity, idiosyncrasy or deviance, automatically lead to the emergence of new structures. Consensus and the positives would simply kill evolution.
So how might we understand consensus and conflict in organisations? Pure consensus can only exist in extreme cults where all the members give up any independent thought and simply act out the absolute beliefs of the cult. Of course this sometimes happens in this extreme way but something approaching this condition does also appear in ordinary organisations as people come to act out fantasies of subscribing to visions and seeing only the positive rather than thinking about what they are doing. At the opposite end of the spectrum pure conflict occurs only when social norms and conventions break down completely in conditions of highly anxiety provoking crisis. In less extreme forms, differences become polarised and such polarised conflict can be expressed in violence. In ordinary organisations, the closer people move towards polarised conflict, such as in intractable labour disputes, the closer they move to organisational breakdown. However, in ordinary, everyday organisational life, consensus and conflict are held in dynamic tension which reveals important differences and provokes the reflexive thinking and acting in which organisations continue to evolve. The problem about talking about two extremes and about a dynamic between them is that many immediately conclude that it is the role of leaders and managers to operate on processes of consensus and conflict to design the ‘right’ balance. This is a misguided move in thought which immediately loses the notion of paradox. The dynamic of consensual conflict / conflictual consensus is emerging in the interaction between people in an organisation, in the interplay of their intentions and those of other groups of people outside the organisation. No one can design or control this interplay. However, what we can do is become more aware of the pattern of consensus and conflict at the same time and in in our own participation avoid take up positions at the extremes.
So why can we never escape the tension between consensus and conflict, other than in resorting to idealistic fantasies? The answer lies in the fundamentals of human interdependence and human interaction. If no one can control the interplay of intentions then all of us has no option but to exists in conditions of uncertainty, or more accurately, in the paradoxical dynamic of certainty and uncertainty as displayed by the modelling of natural complexity scientists. When we undertake any task together, therefore, none of us can know with certainty what the ‘right’ thing to do is. We inevitably see situations differently and therefore have different views on what to do next. Such difference is the basis of disagreement / conflict which prompts us to negotiate next actions on which we do not totally disagree even though do not totally agree either. Conflict is an inevitable consequence of uncertainty. Furthermore, conflict is an inevitable consequence of human interdependence. This interdependence means that we enable and constrain each other and since this is what power is, it follows that patterns of power relating are central to human life. But power is tilted to some and away from others and this too is the basis of conflict. Power relations can be felt as patterns of domination and this will always evoke patterns of resistance. We are skilled at practising the arts if resistance, at operating on hidden transcripts while publicly expressing the public transcript.
The consequences of not noticing what we are engaged in is a diminished understanding of the nature of the game we are invested in, leaving us open to the manipulation of the more perceptive. If the immediate response to conflict is to avoid it and to develop defensive fantasies of harmony, we avoid more open discussion, we avoid inquiring into difference, we avoid critique and criticism and so we are trapped in repeating clichés that block our further evolution.
[i] Fleck, L. (1979) Genesis and development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[iii] Cooperrider, D. & Srivastva, S. (1987) Appreciative inquiry in organizational life, in Passmore, W. & Woodman, R., eds. (1987) Research in Organizational Change and Development, Vol. 1, CT: Greenwich Press, 129-169
[iv] Fineman, S. (2006) On Being Positive: Concerns and Counterpoints, Academy of Management Review, 31: 2, 270-291. Grant, S. & Humphries, M. (2006) Critical evaluation of appreciative inquiry: Bridging an apparent paradox, Action Research, 4: 401,
[v] Bushe G. (2007) Appreciative Inquiry Is Not (Just) About the Positive, OD Practitioner, 39:4, 30-35.
[vi] Mead, G. H. (1934), Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p307.
[vii] Ibid., p321.
[viii] Ibid., p322.
[ix] Ibid., p324.
[x] Reynolds, C. W. (1987), ‘Flocks, herds and schools: a distributed behaviour model’, Computer Graphics, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 25–34.
[xi] Ray, T. S. (1992), ‘An approach to the synthesis of life’, in Langton, G. C., Taylor, C., Doyne Farmer, J. and Rasmussen, S. (eds), Artiﬁcial Life II, Santa Fé Institute, Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, vol. 10, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
[xii] Allen, P. M. (1998a), ‘Evolving complexity in social science’, in Altman, G. and Koch, W. A. (eds), Systems: New Paradigms for the Human Sciences, New York: Walter de Gruyter. Allen, P. M. (1998b), ‘Modelling complex economic evolution’, in Schweitzer, F. and Silverberg, G. (eds) (1998), Selbstorganisation, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot. Allen, P. M., Strathern, M. and Baldwin, J. S. (2005), ‘Complexity of social economic systems: the inevitability of uncertainty and surprise’, in McDaniel Jr., R. R. and Driebe, D. J. (eds), Uncertainty and Surprise in Complex Systems: Questions on Working with the Unexpected, Heidelberg: Springer. Allen, P. M., Strathern, M. and Baldwin, J. S. (2006), ‘Evolutionary drive: new understandings of change in socio-economic systems’, Emergence: Complexity and Organization, vol. 8, no. 2.