The difficulty of working with difference

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.

self and otherAn 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.


4 thoughts on “The difficulty of working with difference

  1. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    You make a very important point about the value of working with difference in organizations – and on how a reflexive stance opens up the possibility of doing this more effectively. Crucially for me, you also acknowledge the role played by generalizations in this ongoing conversational process.

    At the same time, being reflexive, it strikes me that there might similarly be a degree of idealization here in the “prerequisites” and “obligations” that you rightly set out for achieving greater reflexivity! These include things such as [good] listening; openness to being moved; preparedness to give up on felt certainties; willingness and ability to articulate new possibilities; and the “patience, persistence and fortitude” to do all of the above.

    In a sense (and mirroring your opening paragraph) I guess we are both embarked on a ‘mission’ to achieve alignment and agreement around a complex responsive process (or, in my case, complex social process) view of organizations. And, being provocative for effect, this might be read as an injunction for people to leave their ‘rational, defensive selves’ at the door and to be ‘constructive’ in their interactions, in the sense of behaving in the ways you have identified.

    At present, the dominant story is the one that is told by those who subscribe to the sort of “contemporary management practices” that you describe. Our alternative stories challenge many (if not most) of the beliefs and ‘certainties’ about organizations that people currently sign up to. So, using your words, I would see the somewhat paradoxical implication of the approach as being to “work with the resonance that others may have” with this ‘conventional wisdom’. And, within this, is the challenge of positioning everyday conversational interactions at the core of management practice, in a regime which views ‘talk’ as the very opposite of action-oriented leadership.

    Cheers, Chris

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Chris,
    thanks for your observations which are thought-provoking as ever. Perhaps I have not expressed myself clearly enough, but I am not sure I am encouraging people to leave their defensive selves at the door. However, I think if we find ourselves reacting defensively then sticking with this reaction and enquiring into it as a phenomenon worthy of further reflection is an important aspect of managing differently. I don’t hold out any hope that we can stop reacting defensively, or that we can necessarily become better than we are, certainly not as a ‘pre-requisite’ for working more skillfully. So where I differ from the dominant paradigm is that I am not calling on people to be good before they can do this, but to enquire into who they are and how they are working with others. It reminds me of a famous Buddhist grand master, I think Suzuki, who when asked what a lifetime of Buddhist meditation had taught him replied that he was now a connoisseur of his own neuroses. That is to say, he did not think it had made him a ‘better’ person, only more fully himself. Equally my ‘mission’ if that is what you want to call it, is to encourage managers and consultants to think, after Socrates, not to become good. This, I think, is the one of the differences I am pointing to.
    Thanks Chris

  3. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    I understand – and agree with – the points you make, both in your comment and the original post. I guess that, by provocatively reframing your advocacy of increased reflexivity in the same terms that you had used to challenge conventional management, I was trying to highlight a couple of things that had come to mind as I was reading the post.

    First, I do think that you (we?) are calling for managers to be ‘better’. Not in some ‘paragon of virtue’ sort of way, or one which demands compliance with a set of ‘shared values’ or whatever. But ‘better’ (i.e. potentially more useful) in terms of the ways in which they relate to others and deal with difference. So, taking examples from your comment, this might include them reflecting on their own reactions and feelings; enquiring into “who they are and how they are working with others”; and thinking [in a more reflexive and reflective sort of way].

    Secondly, the desired shift in managers’ (and consultants’) practice requires them to focus on the seemingly mundane happenings of everyday conversations and interactions, and to take these seriously. This is a far cry from the established wisdom, which advocates a formal, structured and rational view of the management and consulting task (replete with its emphasis on ‘big ticket’ items, such as missions, visions, values, plans, programmes, and the like).

    Taking these together, I am suggesting that we first need to help managers to rehabilitate ‘talk’ as a central aspect of their leadership practice. Only then are they likely to pay attention to the ‘quality’ of that talk; and to the related issues of difference and contention, power and politics, paradox and so on. And this might mean acknowledging their current reality (including, perhaps, using some of its ‘trappings’), as a prerequisite for getting them to consider its inherent limitations and alternative ways of looking at their world.

    Thanks for the stimulation, Chris.

  4. Pingback: Enquiry as active compassion « Reflexivepractice

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