Tension and Dialogue in Social Systems


“Opposing Forces”. Art by Vilma Machado, (c) 2017, all rights reserved

The late professor of sociology Zygmunt Bauman wrote about it in his book Community – Seeking Safety in an Unsecure World: societies separate poor and rich neighbourhoods, they provide unequal educational opportunities to different groups, unevenly distribute wealth, and this creates social tension in societies. Safety is under pressure and the intuitive reactions by policy makers and authorities seems to be to separate the symptoms rather than seek integrated solutions: fenced communities, electronic surveillance equipment and installing more law enforcement with mandates to quickly use severe forms of violence is thought to be an effective answer to guarantee freedom and safety (whose freedom and safety, anyway?).
Paulo Freire, Brazilian professor of education and liberation pedagogue who had been awarded over 35 doctor honoris causa degrees, expressed in his writings in Pedagogy of Tolerance that tension and conflict are necessary conditions for learning and the willingness to dialogue.

From a systems science vantage point it makes sense to assume that viable systems deal and have to deal with tension. For biological, human or social systems te remain viable means that they constantly need to handle a certain amount of conflict and tension: competitors are eager to move an other business’s cheese, regulators change the competitive landscape, students need to make an effort to acquire new skills and knowledge and pass their tests, and a country’s economy is almost always under pressure to maintain a balance in trade relationships view of geopolitical, demographic and climatic developments. In organisations, departments and teams have to cope with having to realise ambitious business goals while not being equipped with lavish budgets or staffing. Others may deploy actions that had not been anticipated and that are disruptive to social systems (and of course, they may also be disruptive while having been fully anticipated).
A good example of system tension as a result of disruptive and unforeseen (although not fully unforeseeable) disruptive action is the street violence during the G20 summit, held in 2017 in the city of Hamburg. While the local administration and the police authorities had guaranteed safety, law and order to be upheld well before the summit, public and private property were burnt to ashes and police and street anarchists were clashing in the streets while the G20 officials let their minds float on Beethoven’s melodies in the prestigious and brand new Hamburg opera house. There is plenty of public documentation on the G20 summit chaos. However, you may find the report in English by Der Spiegel useful. Journalists of the German public TV channel ARD has done a brilliant job in its documentary “G20 Chaos”, in the German language. In the documentary, the journalists reconstructed a timeline of the facts while showing the confident narratives of politicians, administrators and law enforcement before the event, and their rather helplessly looking rationalising, apologising or scapegoating narratives afterwards. It looks like the professional bureaucracies had planned for the wrong events or had ignored highly improbable tail risks or rare but possible events(cf Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works). The point is: things happen, some of them unanticipated, unwanted and unsollicited. They require adaptation and change, and thus create tension or conflict. The interaction and consequences of actions and events in the future change the landscape for businesses and authorities all the time while their combined effects are often highly uncertain. The consequences may be severe.

From the above-mentioned thoughts we draw a couple of conclusions by looking at social problems from a systems perspective.

First, things happen and not all are foreseeable. This inevitably creates tension in social systems. Find a way to deal with it in the short-term and the longer term. Scapegoating specific actors will usually not solve or dissolve the problems, although some may experience a short lasting illusionary healing effect of being able to put the blame on someone else.

Second, tension in social systems is natural. The tension as such is not good or bad in itself. What tension means is a function of the purpose of the system and the outcomes that we want to achieve. As a consequence, it is a good idea to investigate the sources of tension in social systems. They may point to imminent threats to the system’s viability. So pay attention to it and investigate where it is coming from. It is not necessary to shoot the messenger or to put the blame on someone, nor will that alone solve the problem.

Third, some tension in organisations may be good to keep departments and teams eager to find better and more efficient solutions to problems. Resource scarcity (in terms of budget or staff) is an almost inevitable reality in organisations and businesses that I know. A viable organisation should provide a fair and transparent mechanism to distribute resources to reduce the probability of unproductive and unnessearcy internal competition and tension.

And finally, tension may point to problems in the system that cannot be solved by local (intra-department, or intra-team) solutions, and that may require deep cross-department investigation and collaboration. If local solutions are not possible, people in organisations may seek solutions by competing with colleagues in other departments, or by seeking collaborative and co-operative solutions that require dialogue. The former may result in organisational armwrestling and auto-cannibalism that will further weaken the viability of the organisation as a whole. The latter requires dialogue to figure out an hitherto unknown solution to solve a complex problem. And it requires courage to admit that the leader, the team, the department does not know beforehand how to solve the problem and to have confidence that discussing new ways to look at the problem and its solutions may actually result in very effective and efficient solutions. More often than not, we are in the same boat.

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Also published in my pages at Medium.com,

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