Positive change for the good

Three times recently colleagues have talked to me about bringing about ‘positive change’. Whilst I know what it is they are talking about, it has also left me perplexed.

One colleague asked me to read something he had written in which he claimed that managers in not-for-profits are likely to bring about better results for their client group because they are motivated by the good. They manage, he said, in the ’empowerment mode’ by which I think he meant that managers in not-for-profit are motivated to empower others. In another workshop a very senior academic colleague announced that he was not interested in working in ways that had moderate outcomes: the world is in such a state that he was only interested in bringing about large scale positive change. Yet another colleague was trying to focus the people she was working with towards bringing about positive change.

Of course I know what they are talking about: aspirations to improve the human condition are an important motivating factor for people who work in not-for-profits and beyond. If we didn’t think we were doing good, why would we turn up for work in the morning and strive for social change? The trouble is although we have good intentions, this is not the same as achieving good by and with others. Sometimes this idealisation of the good can take on a very metaphysical hue which may catch us up and cover over the effects that our work is having, both positive and negative, for those we work with. How can we possibly know in advance that what we are doing is going to bring about the good?

Take the seductively transcendental overtones of Appreciative Enquiry (AI), which is a method grounded in the belief that to enquire into the good is to achieve the good:

“The metaphysical dimension of appreciative inquiry is important not so much as a way of finding answers but is important insofar as it heightens the living experience of awe and wonder which leads us to the wellspring of new questions–much like a wide-eyed explorer without final destination. …The normative question of what kind of social-organizational order is best, most dignified, and just, will never go away, nor will the pragmatic question of how to move closer to the ideal.” Cooperrider

Cooperrider’s claim that the the quest for a just social order is undending and that finding answers is less important, is interesting given his most recent book: AI – A Positive Revolution in Change which tends towards the suggestion that using AI will bring about a more effective, adaptable and positive organisation. The quest may be unending, but AI does provide answers after all. The theory  is steeped in humanistic psychology and teleology. It dwells in idealism: if we can be good we will bring about good. So we are immediately into metaphysics, the search for wholeness and completeness, if you like, being at one with the Godhead. You can see how appealing this might be to people who are motivated to do good, particularly if they are also religious.

If we are motivated to bring about ‘positive change’ then we may also consider it a duty that we leave ourselves open to the paradoxical possibility that no matter how well intentioned we are our actions may bring about negative outcomes. Inherently action is  neither good nor bad, but contextual and contingent, and also subject to the interweaving actions of other, perhaps well-intentioned actors. How can we predict what this interweaving of intentions might bring about? In the territory of paradox the potentiality for positive and negative, good and bad, arise at the same time. Seriously to work with paradox, then, one would not necessarily start with the good expecting to find the good: one would act with the best intention and still pay close attention to whether things turn out as we would have liked.

And is being good and using techniques which tend to the good the surest way of achieving all of this? When belief threatens to overwhelm awareness I think we have every reason to be very sceptical.

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