Dialectics at work
Wright, N. (1999) ‘Dialectics at Work: Relational Dynamics and Development’, Organisations & People, Association for Management Education & Development, August, Vol 6, No3, pp2-9.
As you look at the main title of this article, a whole range of different thoughts and feelings may well arise for you, for instance:
“What on earth is dialectics?” Frustration
“Isn’t it something to do with Marxism?” Interest
“Sounds like a new industrial disease.” Confusion
“Our old friends from Doctor Who!” Humour
What is more, if you were to take a straw poll among readers of this article, you would probably find that there are a wide range of reactions. This is principally because each of us reads the word from what might be described as our own ‘experience base’. In this brief article, I will seek to:
· Explain what I mean by ‘dialectics’ and its significance for management/development
· Comment on ways in which ‘experience base’ affects our workplace relationships
· Explore positive methods to identify and work with inter-personal/contextual dynamics
· Suggest practical ways to minimise the negative aspects of relational conflict
Dialectics and Experience Base
The notion of dialectics was first popularised by a German philosopher, Hegel, who noticed that ideas tend to evolve through interaction with one another. So, for instance:
I mention ‘dialectics’ to you
You react to my explanation of this principle
Your ideas are reinforced and/or changed as a result
My thoughts on this issue are influenced by your feedback
This process itself may be regarded as neutral, but the nature of your reaction will probably depend largely on your previous experience; that is, of the word ‘dialectics’ or, perhaps, the kind of articles that tend to talk about things like dialectics!
So, for example, if you are a student of politics who associates dialectics with Marxism (since Marx believed that history evolves by the same essential process as Hegel’s ideas), and you believe that Marxism is an outdated/erroneous political philosophy, then it is very likely that your experience will influence how you ‘hear’ the word dialectics here. It is true, also, that such experiences can carry powerful feelings as well as judgements of a more rational evaluative nature.
In fact, we experience not only words like dialectics but every new experience from our existing experience base. Each new experience, in turn, has its own transforming effect on our experience base; that is, there is a reciprocal inter-activerelationship between our past experience and what we experience now. This suggests that when we talk about experience, we are really talking about an on-going and dynamic process of change.
Allow me to illustrate this point by assuming, for argument’s sake, that before reading this article you had never heard of Hegel. Having read this far, however, your experience has been changed so that you now know not only Hegel’s name but also the essence of one of his core ideas. This principle has positive personal and organisational development implications since you can imagine how much change and growth takes place even at a subconscious level, every day of our lives.
I have attempted to list in chart form below some of the most important contextual factors that I think tend to influence our experience, although categorising in this way imposes a static structure that feels very inadequate when seeking to describe the ebb and flow, complexity and diversity, quality and ambiguity of real human experience. Examples are given after each heading in bold but the list is not exhaustive and you may find it helpful to add additional words of your own.
Personal: e.g. appearance; ability/health; race/gender; age; disposition
Geographical: e.g. nation/state; island/continent; urban/rural; climate; terrain
Socio-Economic: e.g. family/friends; wealth/poverty; employment; housing; education
Political: e.g. power/authority; structures; systems; stability/security; class/tribe
Spiritual: e.g. faith/belief; truth/relativity; values; purpose; meaning
Cultural: e.g. history; language; norms/traditions; individual/group; art/symbols; uniform/diverse
Ethical: e.g. morality/values; idealism/pragmatism; justice/responsibility; rewards
Philosophical: e.g. free-will/deterministic; absolutes/contingents; objectivity/subjectivity; rational/existential
You will notice from this list that different areas overlap and that, furthermore, different dimensions of our experience have an on-going influencing effect on one-another; that is, different aspects of our experience might be said to interact dialectically within us. So, for instance, the socio-economic experience of a manual/skilled worker is likely to influence his or her political views about organisational management practice. Or, using a more personal example, when I became a Christian at the age of 21, my spiritual experience had a profound impact on all other dimensions of my life and led to my decision, currently, to work for a faith-based development and relief organisation.
In metaphorical terms, it is as if our inner ‘self’ engages dialectically with each new experience in such a way that we are continually transformed by the process. These dimensions exercise more of an influencing than determinative effect on our lives however, since, within this process, we do retain a degree of free choice. This includes, for instance, how we might choose to respond to various experiences, situations and circumstances; at least insofar as they are conscious to us.
It is also apparent that different aspects of these dimensions carry greater or lesser influence in our experience, that some are more or less conscious than others, and that the relative degree of influence/consciousness changes at different times and in different situations. In other words, real experience is far more fluid, dynamic and, at times, ‘colourful’ than simple words are able to convey.
What happens, then, when two people meet one another; each approaching the other from his or her own unique experience base? What are the dynamics that are likely to be played out when they interact?
We know from our own development experience that dialectical relationships at an inter-personal level can result in tremendous learning and growth. Indeed, diversity in human experience provides a rich source of creativity and energy and can generate, dialectically, all kinds of new possibilities for development and innovation. This is, of course, one of the principal benefits of team-working where open opportunities are created for mutual sharing of contrasting ideas, experiences and insights in order to enhance learning.
On the other hand, our experience base can lead us to hold beliefs and perspectives, sometimes unconscious and often unquestioned, that make certain issues/ideas appear categorically obvious to us. So, for instance, when I say “of course” in the paragraph above, I assume that you will agree that the statement that follows is self-evidently true. The overall thrust of this article suggests caution, however, since self-evidence may well say more about a person’s own experience base than about actual issues of truth.
This experiential conditioning at an individual level is often compounded by cultural influences at a shared level which both arise from and result in certain beliefs, ideas and ways of looking at/doing things being shared, encouraged, reinforced and rewarded. This is true whether we are talking about broad social cultures or organisational sub-cultures. Strong cultures have the positive effect of engendering a sense of belonging and supporting social/organisational coherence but can result in blinkered perspectives, resistance to change and difficult relationships when assumptions are challenged.
I have found this insight particularly valuable when encountering feelings of frustration or intransigence either in myself or in another person, especially during difficult negotiations when discussions appear to be reaching an impasse. I am learning in such situations to shift my focus from simple questions of what I consider to be true, correct or ‘ought to be’ to consider wider underlying issues/beliefs that might, through sharing and understanding, help to create sufficient space and flexibility to move things forward.
An example that comes to mind is an experience I once had in a new team when I introduced myself as an “evangelical Christian”. For the next 9 months, one of my colleagues expressed deep hostility towards me, dismissing almost every comment that I presented with obvious anger and resentment. This experience left me feeling pretty bewildered until finally, in discussion, he explained that he was homosexual and my mention of ‘evangelical’ had triggered strong defensive reactions as a result of fear of condemnation and rejection. By talking this through openly, we were able to develop a new basis for our working relationship.
What is particularly striking about this account is that beliefs and feelings sometimes carry such powerful psychological/emotional strength that they filter every new experience and cause us to react on the basis of projected expectation, whether valid or not, rather than on the basis/merits of a new experience itself. The account also confirms (see discussion of ‘dialectics’ earlier) that language carries both denotative and, at times, emotionally-charged connotative meanings and that connotations arise largely from experience base and context.
In order to explore this principle further, let us consider two employees, John and Kim. John and Kim meet together, each approaching the interaction from his or her own experience base. The nature of the interaction is dialectical. John and Kim’s past experience will influence how they experience this interaction so that they might, in practice, experience the same meeting quite differently.
Now let us assume, for argument’s sake, that John is European and Kim is Asian and that they have met to discuss their respective strengths/weaknesses in order to enhance their team’s overall effectiveness. John notices in discussion that Kim seems reluctant to discuss her abilities in these terms and concludes that she is being obstructive to the process. A whole raft of experience base factors may influence how they will now react to one-another as the scenario unfolds, for instance (using race/gender categories as examples):
John’s previous experience of Asian people
Kim’s previous experience of European people
John’s previous experience of women at work
Kim’s previous experience of men at work
John’s belief about how Kim perceives him
Kim’s belief about how John perceives her
Examples of common responses might include John attempting to convince Kim of the necessity of compliance, withdrawing from the meeting in angry frustration or reporting Kim’s apparently uncooperative behaviour to their team line-Manager.
Using the insights/principles outlined in this article, however, I would like to suggest that John might consider asking Kim something along the lines of, “It seems to be difficult for you to discuss your work in these terms. Bearing in mind the task that we need to achieve together, might there be another way of discussing how we can enhance our work that would feel less difficult for you?”. This would allow Kim opportunity to offer alternative methods that might fit more easily within her own cultural/relational framework.
I am reminded of a number of interview situations where I have observed people from different geographical backgrounds being asked to comment on their personal strengths in such a way that would, in fact, violate deeply-held cultural views concerning humility and personal modesty. One way to resolve this dilemma might be to try asking instead, “If we spoke with some of your current work colleagues and asked them to tell us what they most value about your work, what do you think they might say?”. There are few golden rules, but sensitivity to another person’s experience base really can help to avoid embarrassment and potential for harmful conflict.
Another situation that I once encountered involved an African colleague who seemed very reluctant to tackle his manager (also African) over an issue that was clearly bothering him. I initially assumed from my own experience base that the issue was one of ‘avoiding conflict’ but discovered, through discussion, that both worker and manager came from a cultural background which dictated that those in authority should not be challenged directly. By exploring together how parallel matters are, in practice, tackled within his African culture, he was able to find a suitable way to resolve this issue with his manager.
Let us return to John and Kim and to develop their scenario further by assuming now, for argument’s sake, that John is Team Manager and that Kim is a member of his team. Once again, each approaches the meeting from his or her own experience base and the nature of their interaction is dialectical.
What becomes clear is that their interaction actually takes place within a broader organisational context which defines, for instance, the nature and parameters of their relationship, the task in which they are engaged together and the methods by which it may be achieved.
We see also that the organisation itself has its own historical and current experience base which parallels, in many respects, the experience of individuals so that organisations and people are often described in analogous terms. This is why, for instance, we sometimes talk about organisations in personified language as having ‘missions’ and ‘values’, or ‘learning’ and ‘behaving’ in certain ways.
You may find it interesting at this point to refer back to the box chart presented earlier (Figure 2) and to consider equivalent categories that you might use to describe your own organisation; for example, Personal Appearance might equal Corporate Image, Personal Health might equal Corporate Assets, Personal Ability might equal Corporate Competency etc. You might also like to make note of the specific nature/content of each of these dimensions.
When we view John and Kim’s relationship from this broader organisational perspective, it is evident that their interaction is likely to be influenced by a number of contextual factors including the way in which their roles are configured hierarchically since, apart from the inter-personal factors we considered earlier, John’s position carries with it structural power. This power may affect what takes place within the relationship in a number of different ways; for example, defensiveness on Kim’s part or insensitivity on John’s part owing to his position of relative security.
One method that I have discovered to help tackle this problem is to explore explicitly the nature of the relationship, including power dynamics, at an early meeting. Although this can feel difficult and does need to be handled sensitively, feedback from team colleagues has suggested that this approach does sometimes help to break the sense of uneasiness that can arise when both parties are aware of the power implicit in their relationship but neither addresses it or its implications openly. Having acknowledged the power dynamic, both parties are more free to decide on how they might now choose to work together.
What is also interesting to note in the illustration above is that John and Kim’s working relationship has its own reciprocal impact on the wider organisation; albeit, perhaps, on a more limited scale. So, for instance, if John and Kim are able to work together in such a way that models important values and maximises team effectiveness, this will have a corresponding effect on overall organisational values and effectiveness. John and Kim are, in a very real sense, engaged in dialectical relationship not only with one-another but also with the wider organisation of which they are a part.
A further example from my own experience might help to elucidate this point. A Manager with whom I work in a consultancy capacity mentioned recently that he was experiencing real difficulty in managing a member of his team. They had previously worked very well together and he was at a loss to understand her sudden change in attitude. We spent some time exploring various factors in their working relationship but there were no obvious matters that seemed adequate to account for the change.
When we moved to explore the outer ‘organisational’ circle, however, the Manager mentioned that the same organisation for which they both work had announced, recently, that the team member’s husband (who also works for the organisation) was going to be made redundant. It transpired, through further discussion, that the team member’s anger over the redundancy of her husband was being projected at the Manager who, in hierarchical terms, represented the organisation that she deemed to be responsible.
When this matter was aired and discussed carefully and supportively, the tensions in their working relationship soon began to dissipate. The Manager, in turn, has been able to advocate with senior management a more supportive personnel strategy for staff being made redundant and for those staff who will remain with the organisation afterwards. Awareness of dialectic principles and experience base has proved catalytic for change and development at both inter-personal and organisational levels.
Dialectics and Development
We could superimpose more domains to illustrate how an organisation exists in dialectical relationship with, for instance, stakeholders, customers, other organisations and the wider community. This would demonstrate, by implication, that what takes place between John and Kim actually has wider social-developmental significance. There is, however, insufficient space in this article to pursue this point further.
Nevertheless, allow me to conclude with a number of summary comments and follow-up questions that have particular implications for organisation management and development practice.
“(An) organisation...faces the paradox of needing consistency and stability in order to conduct its existing business in an efficient day-to-day manner, and also needing to shatter that consistency and stability in order to generate creative new moves... successful management is a creative, innovative process that requires exposure to and management of contradiction.” (Stacey, R. (1993) Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, Pitman Publishing, London, p101)
Dialectic principles is one way of understanding how ideas, experiences and people interact in ‘contradiction’ to produce positive change and development. The quotation above implies that deliberately seeking and creating opportunities for contradiction in the workplace may be a necessary prerequisite for healthy personal and organisation innovation and development. Insofar as this is true, how ought this insight to influence, for example, your choice of:
People management models
Networks and contacts
This article has argued that our own experience base has a significant impact on how we experience current and new situations. This influence inevitably affects our perspectives, interpretations, judgements, choices and behaviour. In order to ensure that we are not blind to the different aspects and implications of our own experience base (especially those that could lead to communication breakdown and conflict) what can we do to increase our self-awareness? Examples might include: Work through each of the categories in the box chart presented earlier (Figure 2) and jot down your own experience/viewpoint and any associated feelings against each of the words listed.
Make note of situations in which you experience strong positive or negative emotional reactions, especially
when these feel unexpected or ‘out of the blue’, and ask yourself, “What might be the underlying cause of this
Write down a list of values or ideas that you consider to be self-evident, that is, those things that you believe
are 'obviously true’. Ask friends and colleagues whether they agree with you and explore your differences
when they arise.
Ask friends and colleagues for feedback on what they perceive to be your vision, values, biases and ‘blind
spots’ and reflect on what these things might reveal about your own experience base.
Inter-personal dialectics, especially between people holding contrasting perspectives, can lead to creative stimulation and development. The same dynamics can, however, lead to destructive conflict if differences in experience base are not identified, understood and/or respected. What kind of practical steps might you take, therefore, in planning and conducting each of the following task areas in order to ensure that openness and creativity are maximised whilst minimising potential for damaging conflict?
Staff and team management
Supervision and appraisal
Training and coaching