Much contemporary management practice revolves around ideas of consensus, alignment and agreement. So, we are expected in organisations to ‘share values’, to agree to the vision and mission, and in some developmental organisations to ‘be the change we want to see’, after Gandhi. We are to become saints like Martin Luther King or perhaps Mandela. The overwhelming mood is positive and successful.
One way of understanding this is as an injunction to leave our ‘bad self’ at the door and only to be ‘constructive’ at work, where constructive is taken to mean not causing any ripples. When conflict does arise it should be managed. Of course, there isn’t much that can’t be managed these days: time management, diversity management, anger management and more recently talent management.
An alternative way of understanding how change comes about in organisations, rather than through the planned, rational interventions of calculating managers working with staff who are good and agree not to disagree is through the exploration of difference. However it is important not to take this up as another positive and naive inducement – “let’s encourage diversity and difference!”, as though this is an easy thing to do which can only bring about good. I have been working with a group recently where the exploration of difference has proved painful, disruptive and dangerous. Because co-participants have refused to have their differences ‘managed’ it has caused consternation and bewilderment amongst all those concerned and has begun to affect others in the programme too.
What would it mean seriously to work with difference in ways that avoid the usual dualist solutions (good difference and bad difference, constructive and destructive), or the appeal to holism, where somehow we are obliged to synthesise a new ‘whole’?
One prerequisite is the openness to be moved by what one is hearing, to listen. The act of listening brings with it the potential for the recognition of otherness, which implies a changed recognition of our own self. We are obliged to shift from our ground and be reflexive. In recognising the other we have the possibility of understanding ourselves and what we are doing differently. If we find ourselves agreeing with Hegel that ultimately all knowledge is self-knowledge then in the interaction with different others we can come to recognise ourselves anew.
A second characteristic of being open to exploring difference is the possibility of finding ways of expressing what it is we are experiencing together, of becoming more articulate. This implies an ability to stay in conversation with others, no matter how uncomfortable the experience, or rather to try and stay in conversation because it is uncomfortable, because of what one might find out about oneself and others. We are learning, as Bruno Latour wrote, to be affected. This is very difficult to do because of our natural tendency to be defensive when encountering difference, to retreat to what we know, which is our current understanding of ourselves.
I am making no suggestion here that staying in conversation with a different other is somehow looking for a resolution of that difference – we are not trying to resolve conflict, since some conflicts are unresolvable. But we are trying to find new possibilities, new articulations from the exploration of difference which we are undergoing. These new articulations may sometimes take the form of generalisations from our experience, and if others find these generalisations helpful then it allows for further articulation of difference. We are trying in Norbert Elias’ terms, to become more detached about our involvement with others as a way of inviting further engagement. This involves no splitting of the subject from the object with language somehow as the medium between the one and the other, but a greater ability to objectify the subjective by generalizing and working with the resonance that others may have with these generalisations.
The encouragement to work with difference is neither an injunction to cover over conflict, nor to encourage it, but to understand the potential for its transformative power. There are many ways of avoiding it by claiming that it is too difficult to do, or demands too much of people: or simply by claiming that differences arise out of the clash of different personalities. But to stick with the possibilities that the exploration of difference might bring is to acknowledge that we are never mere subjects. True, it does take patience, persistence and fortitude, but we can all learn better to articulate the differences we are encountering.