Archive | April 2012

Random Thoughts: On intergroup dynamics, customer service, & bosses

I am essentially done with intergroup dynamics, but have just a couple of “after-thoughts.”  Most of us gravitate toward “middle” position.  People with the most power wouldn’t think they have enough and would still seek more, and people at the bottom of the power rung would and can exert power.  The amount of power is a matter of relativity and so power acquisition and display are on a sliding scale.  However, having said this, as Kenwyn pointed out in his personal conclusion, only the middle would spend the time and energy to study this issue and write about it; the top probably couldn’t care less, and the bottom wouldn’t have the leisure.

water lilly 1, 6x9

My personal journey on power has been seeking the “no-see-em” status.  However, since where I live now is somewhat isolated and my natural social inclination (few but great quality friends), I don’t have nor seek power, and have no other “no-see-em” with whom to have any natural collective power.  As a result, it’s “easy” for me to sit on the fence and observe and write about organizational phenomena.  But this rather amorphous boundary has its own prison-like pressure for me too.

Enough on the intergroup dynamics.

When the economy is bad, all businesses suffer and they need customers more than ever.  You would think that during economic downturns, business should really polish their customer services.  Regardless of the economic conditions, it seems to me that most businesses just don’t get the concept of “customer satisfaction.”  For example, if you were to replace the automated – and annoying – phone recorded choices and actually install one operator to talk to people, in a very helpful manner, I’ll bet that the business that comes your way would more than offset the salary of that operator.  But the “operative” word is helpful.  I accidentally (don’t know why and don’t care now) signed up for “Bill Me Later” with PayPal a couple of months ago when I just wanted a “straightforward” PayPal service.  When I recently tried to pay via the online feature, I encountered confusion…and oh by the way, my friends have verified that I am a fairly intelligent person, quick to understand most social systems.  I called PayPal and got to talk to a customer representative pretty quickly, but in less than a minute, I was totally turned off by her snappy response, “Well, I don’t know why some people don’t get it, and others do.”  As a result, I terminated the account, and paid the bill by snail mail.  When I filled out their survey, one of my responses was, “If you want more customers, you had better know why some people get it and others don’t!”  Should have followed my intuition and never signed up with PayPal in the first place.

water lilly 2, 6x9

While I was working on the intergroup dynamics, I also came across an interesting article about bosses in a Southwest in-flight magazine.  The essential message was that during tough economic times, kind and considerable bosses might not be the right persons to get through the hard times, but tough and mean ones do.  But the tough bosses are only good for a short while before company’s reputation, both internal morale and external PR, suffer.  I can see advantages of toughness, but mean-spirited?  Absolutely not.  I don’t buy the notion that toughness and meanness are in concert with each other, or even correlated.  It’s more likely that during tough economic times, people are more afraid of losing jobs so they have some tolerance for short-tempers, along with tighter budgets, and reduced care and attention.  But bosses who become mean will not last long either (unless they are top executives, whereupon they land other jobs, perhaps with even better pay…difficult to not be cynical at times).  Obverse, being liked shouldn’t be confused with good leadership; a well-respected leader isn’t always the most likable person.  Of course, there can be a strong leader who’s respected and liked.  In short, when we try to box in a person (like prison walls), be he/she in a leadership position or not, we do disservice to all of us.  It’s the system!

nice as a pair

Organizations rely on “relationships, relations among parts and relations among relations” (Kenwyn Smith)

Till May 6th,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Can We Escape From Intergroup Dynamics? – Only if you live a hermit life, but understanding and a little humility may help.

Human beings are social animals — some more so than others – but we all came to be as a result of at least one relationship.  Further, the majority of us look for relationships or groups to provide some measure of satisfaction, along with frustration.  Understanding how various group memberships impact us provides us some insight with which to better manage our group lives.  Not understanding definitely dooms us to remain in the trap/prison for a long period.

When Kenwyn Smith went to conduct research in a school district in a small New England town, he was both excited to see his intergroup dynamics framework manifested in real life, but also dismayed by the seemingly hopeless traps we humans ensnare each other in on a daily basis.  Indeed, his detailed account of his months of observations, with follow-up interviews, makes the traps seem even more hopeless.  I will share a few stories below.  Again, I cannot possibly do justice to the deeply nuanced intrigues related in his book, but I hope I can convey the multiple inescapable realities we collectively construct for ourselves, all the time.

The players involved in this live drama were grouped in this manner:

  • Townspeople
  • Politicians, including one major business tycoon throwing his  weight, “the Factory”
  • Board of directors
  • Superintendent
  • Principles
  • Teachers
  • Students

However you dissect or draw lines between these groups, there are always the top-middle-bottom divisions.  When Smith approached the school, he systematically approached each of these groups to “admit” him in his role as researcher.  Had he relied on any of the top groups for introduction, his access to “honest” information, from all levels, would be severely compromised.  His descriptions of this entry process with the student body also entailed the top-middle-bottom dynamics (of course there is such a hierarchy within the student population – had you forgotten?).  The reactions from this group toward this stranger ranged from indifference to downright hostility, but eventually resulted in grudging acceptance.  One scene involved food tossed at Smith!

The most dramatic scenes in the town’s politics involved the budgeting process, new buildings, and grade alignment, but grade alignment became particularly dramatic.  Four hundred some parents along with all the school officials got into heated debates and arguments.  Suddenly, the high school principal found himself stressed beyond both physical and psychological limits, suffered a massive heart attack and died!  But instead of stepping back and absorbing some lessons, the school board just postponed issues for a period, with one exception — they did manage to quickly appoint an interim principle from one of the two assistant principles.  The more senior assistant principle saved the board a tough choice by stepping aside, and the post naturally went to the junior one, L. Brook, who eventually became the permanent principal.

In the grade alignment fight, the board acted as middle and colluded with the upper, the town’s politicians, to force their choice on the rest.  That backfired and lead to the fatal scene described above.  After the death, you’d think, as Smith did, the board and the superintendent would be shocked into making some sense and acting decisively as the top would.  It’s the top’s responsibility to appoint a permanent principal so that the middle, the principal and his assistant principals in this case, can consolidate quickly and allow the lower, teachers and students, to function smoothly.  Instead, the board continued to assume their middle nature of indecisiveness, working on the grade alignment again.  However, in the shadow of the death, they took on ever more conservative posturing by requesting yet more population trend and financial analysis from the superintendent.  As you probably guessed, neither of these additional analyses was likely to lead to any significantly different outcomes than what was already available to the board to make their own stand on grade alignment.  Let me quote Smith’s words in length to illustrate the convoluted dynamics:

Mostly they [the board] carried out this operation [the financial analyses] by engaging the superintendent’s office in a particular manner.  They would present their group’s inner tension as an academic problem, which needed more information to resolve (a typically middle orientation).  However, they delegated the task of obtaining this information to the superintendent (a typically upper act).  In the process the board members made their request for a further study sufficiently ambiguous that no matter what Superintendent Rhodes or his staff came up with it would be unsatisfactory.  From the board’s point of view it would be inadequate because it didn’t provide a way for members as uppers to solve their inner conflicts, conflicts that in essence were really middle conflicts that the board was struggling with because it was caught between the polarities of the town politicians and the school system in general.

Please note that at no point did the board approach this in a calculating manner, as if they intended to make the superintendent look incompetent.  The board “simply” did as most groups would do, focusing on only the things that concerned them, and not taking the whole system into account.

In the development of appointment for assistant principals, the board, the parents, the politicians, superintendent and his assistant, and the now permanent principal Brook kept the balance of top-middle-bottom gyrating ever so dizzily.  After the death of the previous principal, the board feared that the principal position needed more than the usual two assistants.  Collier, the remaining assistant principal was more than willing to not compete for the principal position, which allowed the board to act seemingly decisively in offering it to Brook.  Now that Brook was the permanent principal, he had to appoint another acting assistant.  But before Principal Brook thought it through carefully – he had already been under enormous pressures to manage different demands and tensions from parents, teachers, and an assortment of other forces – he appointed Walder, a well-regarded and liked counselor, as the acting assistant.  However, once the search for permanent assistant began, all the above forces weighed in on who they’d like to see to fill the vacant spot.  And before you can sort out who wanted what from where and for what reasons, the various pressures resulted in not one assistant principle but two!  In addition to Walder, now Maher, a well-respected and liked teacher, joined the ranks.  And because of the way this now four-some composition (Brook, Collier, Walder & Maher) came about, each with a different political force behind him, these four principals either form a two-to-two, usually Brook & Walder to Maher & Collier, with opposing shared perspectives or sometimes four different but overlapping perspectives.  The same event would elicit four different meanings because each saw with his own particular filter/lens:

Walder listened to everything through the filter of how it would affect his good relationships with subordinates and his poor relationships with superiors.  Maher listened through ears calibrated to augment his good relations with Brook and other superiors while simultaneously hoping to diffuse his anxiety over how he related with teachers and students.  Collier listened with the hope of quelling the turnmoil he had to struggle with inside.  Brook listened with the overriding concern of keeping the politicians and public ‘off his back’ so he could work on building his educational program without outside interference and without having to constantly put up with subordinates he considered to be incompetent.”

Each of these four principles would react to different events of pressure and to the same pressure differently.  So when they communicated, their choice of words would carry different meanings to each other.  Communication per se is rarely the problem.

interesting pattern

Similarly, while the superintendent was more powerful than the principals and teachers, he did have to report to the board of directors and answer to the parents/townspeople.  In yet another dramatic scene where the otherwise divided board (on the issue of renewing the super’s contract) behaved in contentious manner in their internal debates yet quickly switched to a mild and consensus manner when the townspeople showed up for the public agenda.  In the presence of the townspeople, the board was the middle.  But as soon as that agenda was done and people left, and only the board and the superintendent were present, the heated debate resumed.

As the board was leaning to not renewing the superintendent’s contract – just waiting till the “appropriate” time to make it public – the superintendent planned to resign, as he saw the writing on the wall.  As a result, the super, not having anything to lose now, felt compelled to talk to the “Factory” who was the biggest business tycoon in town, the power behind many decisions.  Ever since the superintendent came on board, he had studiously avoided talking to the Factory at length for a sense of integrity.  During Smith’s exiting process (ending the research), Rhodes asked him what he should do, to which Smith’s response was, “What do you think you shouldn’t do most in this school system?”  Two weeks later, Rhodes and the Factory met at a truck stop and began a series of conversations during which the two found more in common than each had imagined.  This eventually resulted in Rhodes’ staying at the school system till his retirement.

another interesting pattern

This last scene, especially Smith’s response to Rhodes’ question, is the strongest take-away lesson for me:  When I feel that I have to behave in certain ways (because it’s the principle) or say certain things (because they need to be said), or avoid certain events (for a sense of integrity), I remind myself to pause.  This is the lesson of “even when I know I am right, why not try on the role of not being right;” it just may open up some space that I might not have otherwise noticed.

This concludes my long road on intergroup dynamics.  I think I know what I may write about for next entry, but who knows what else may crop up in between?!  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Putting Them All Together! – Summary of the intergroup dynamics of the three-tiered system

(This is part 6 of the series.)

The first and foremost important lesson I learned from these simulations is that we don’t just occupy only one level or belong to only one group in any system.  The top-middle-bottom resides simultaneously in all of us, but depending on the situation, we evoke only one level at the moment of that situation.  The majority of the time we cross these boundaries without giving any thought to it.  For example, a manager within a large organization may be at the lowest rank of managers, but is at the top as far as her group of direct reports is concerned, and at the middle between her people and her boss.  The CEO of a privately owned company still has to report to the board of directors, and (theoretically) is beholden to the shareholders.

The second interesting lesson is that no matter how much the participants want to change the system, to two-tier or by not participating, the overall dynamics always propel people into three-tier structures.  In one of the simulations, one participant from the outset insisted that she not be counted in, and we honored her wish.  However, before long, someone else, having experienced a little bit of the tension, wanted to join her.  After a while, this “no-see-em” ensemble became a group with its naturally accrued power (given by the system) which other participants wanted to draw into their dynamics.  The reason is this:  As soon as a group, however small, is delineated, there arise a boundary and a mirror/comparison group for the others.  After a while, the 4-tier system reverted back to 3-tier-like dynamics.

An interesting development about the “no-see-em” group:  This was the group that had the true power, precisely because the members didn’t want to have any power.  They had least amount to lose, and became the “target” for other groups to recruit.

I will now try to offer some summary of characterization for each of the group.  But please note:  None of these assigned characters is meant as permanent group features; the characters are only possible in the whole system.

The TOP  This level is largely responsible for the long-term health of an organization.  People at this level typically deal with very complex issues, but often do so with spotty information.  And they seem to be always pressed for time.  Yet they also have to stay current on the daily operations.   Others outside this group view these people as:  aloof, arrogant, arbitrary, mechanistic, isolated, non-responsive, and out-of-touch.

Often we scratch our heads or watch in amazement/amusement the top’s lame responses to some crises or outcries, such as the recent Susan G. Komen’s entanglement with Planned Parenthood.  Or, in 2009, when the auto executives showed up at the Congressional hearing for potential bail out, by traveling in their corporate jets!  Out of touch, indeed.  In one of the simulations, at one point, the participants of the top group wanted to appease the others by sharing with others some of their possessions.  What did they choose to offer?  Their shoes!  They were baffled by the sneering reaction.  They were genuine in their desire and offer, but were totally out of touch with the essence of what others would really like, such as true cooperation, autonomy, or power sharing.  The top were sincere, they just totally didn’t get “it.”  As a result, the gesture was empty; people saw right through it.

The top’s world is of “possibilities and complications.” 

The BOTTOM group is always eager to do meaningful work, but often feel disconnected with the rest of the organization, its goals and missions.  Hence, they often turn to each other for support.  However, while they form a solidarity within the group they also experience the inevitable internal disagreements and the attending tensions.  These tensions are often suppressed for the sake of solidarity.  In the eyes of outsiders, these members are inflexible and resistant to influence.  They are either loyal or selfish, creative or childish, trusting or demanding, naïve or impatient, depending on how they handle their internal conflicts.  Remember:  Even a manager can be of the bottom group.

While the bottom seek meaningful work, need direction, and want to respond to sensitive (or sensible?) guidance, they see little direction, poor communication (it’s never just communication), absence of any big picture, and unfair treatment. Their world is full of vulnerability.

The MIDDLE  People occupying this level want to be connected to both top and bottom; they want to serve the goals of the top while taking concerns of the bottom seriously.  But often in the process, they get confused and muddled and end up not connecting to one another.  As a group, they are often viewed by others as “hard-working, responsible, well-intentioned” but also “weak, wishy-washy, powerless, and uninformed.”  Yet, this is the group, more than others, that is committed to the integration of the whole organization.  Their world is of “commitment and tearing.”

Kenwyn Smith’s summary of the dynamic of the whole in this way, “This creates a ‘world’ of possibility on one hand and of stress on the other hand.”

The stress factors for the three groups of tops, middles, bottoms are “complications,” “tearing,” “vulnerability,” correspondingly.  The opportunities for each group therefore are:

TOPS                                    Focus & Channeling Energy (to ease up complications)

MIDDLES                        Integration (to mend the tearing)

BOTTOMS                        Improving Work Process (to gain more control)

For the tops, they desperately need to be more connected with both middles and bottoms.  Ironically, they often surround themselves with a lot of gatekeepers.  Townhall meetings are one of those empty gestures, unless some ideas from those meetings are actually addressed.  Allowing people share their exclusive dinning area is beyond empty-gesturing; it’s downright insulting.  What happened to simply walking up to someone and talking?  Talking in a genuine manner?   I am sure one can write a whole book about being genuine.

Similarly, the middles should invest more time in their own cohesion.  But they often run around and complain that they don’t have enough time.  The bottoms should be consulted more often on how the work is actually done, instead of the usual top-directed manner.  What this group often neglects to notice is that they can take initiatives to improve their immediate environment, rather than always reacting to the environment.

Finally, the grand lesson is that it’s unlikely that individuals can just change a system, either by revolution or fiat.  Further, while these system dynamics feel debilitating and depressing, we are not saying that it’s hopeless.  However, we do say that only when we can understand the system and be keenly aware of our various roles, can we begin to hope to bring about real change.  At the very least, gaining awareness means that we are less likely to be tripped up or trapped, and if we are, hopefully, not for long.  We’d still be “stuck” in top-middle-bottom, but we have a better chance to get out of the straightjacket more quickly.

We often hear the argument, “Nah, I am not that reactionary; people in ‘real’ life are much more nuanced.  We aren’t easily trapped.”  So, this series continues.  I’ll bring some nuanced illustrations from Smith’s observation of a real school system next time.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Prison Walls For The Middle Group

(Part 5 of the series on intergroup dynamics.)

yet another april snow

My sympathies initially were with the Middle group; they really were squeezed between two polarizing forces.  The tension from such polarization was the basic reason for the Middle’s existence, yet managing this tension was what ultimately trapped them.  The middle group always tried to mediate between the top and the lower.  However, the paradox of “success” for the Middle group meant that a relatively peaceful co-existence between the top and the lower would render the Middle group irrelevant.  So, to assure a place in the system, the Middle needed to be only a little successful, while not totally failing. “Failure” would lead to rejection by the system, which was not the same as irrelevance.  To reach that delicate balance, the Middle chose to manipulate (not necessarily as an intended goal) the information flow such that neither the top nor the bottom would have a good grasp of understanding each other.  In other words, what the Middle tried to achieve was for the other two groups to become reliant on the Middle for information, both the amount and the veracity.  This was where they lost my sympathy!

The Case of Social Comparison            Understandably, the Middle needed to look at both the top and the bottom groups simultaneously for information, validation, reflection, etc.  Yet, those two mirrors/audiences were of such divergent nature that for the Middle to be in concert with one meant the opposite with the other.  It was often then that the Middle felt compelled to offer one side what they could do in words but to the other in actions.  So the Middle in Montville often appeared as if they were saying one thing but were doing the exact opposite.

For instance, the Middle proclaimed to the lower group that they were going to help the lower create a two-tier society.  This belied the obvious solution: take themselves out of the system!  Yet, the Middle still tried to convince the lower group of their sincerity, to which the retort was:  “The message we want you to carry to the Elites is that we don’t want you carrying our messages to the Elites.  Now it certainly wouldn’t make sense to ask you to convey that message to them, would it?”

Let me state the obvious anyway:  The social comparison for the Middle was particularly complicated.  In order to carry out their mediating task, they needed “factual” information from each group – at least, as factual as the top’s and the lower’s respective internal perspectives would offer.  But remember that both groups engaged in secrecy to maintain their group boundary; what would be their incentives to reveal to the Middle their internal issues?  For a while, the Middle was able to present a somewhat persuasive argument to the other groups that they could help ease the tension, and in order to do so, they needed information.

Note that we haven’t even begun to address the Middle’s own internal dynamics.  Not surprisingly, they too, found it extremely difficult to develop, understand, and manage their group dynamics.

The Case of Groupness             Logically speaking, to manage other groups and the tensions arising from the polarization, the Middle needed to be very strong, coherent, and secure in their own groupness.  Yet the nature of being in the middle meant that the members were constantly being pulled in different directions.  One strategy for the Middle to release some of these tensions was to “selectively over-communicate some facts while under-communicating others.”

Managing the information flow then became the power base for the Middle.  If they could argue to both groups that “information-sharing” was the key to depolarize the system, they might be able to access some of the secret information of the other groups.  However, once they did manage to access secret information, they had to use such information carefully.  If they revealed any secrets, their credibility disappeared, along with their power, which in turn meant that the other groups could talk to each other directly!  That’d be a horrible development for the Middle!!  This convolution became the essence of the Middle’s dynamic conservatism.

For the top and lower groups, their own internal reality was their sole focus.  Not so for the Middle; their identity rested in the intersection between the other two groups.  This was where they were caught/trapped.  Roughly the logic goes like this:  The top and lower groups could and usually did blame others for their own internal conflicts.  The Middle usually ended up absorbing/internalizing most of these conflicts.  What’s more, the Middle’s insistence on being at the center of communication processes for the system exacerbated these internalized conflicts.  When the Middle attempted to bring all forces together, conflicts, disagreements, fragmentations occurred; yet, their role was to mediate, so these conflicts must be the fault of the Middle.  And therefore, the solutions had to lie with them as well.  But if the Middle tried to pull themselves together by increasing their own group cohesion, it could only be done at the expense of furthering the polarization of the other two groups…and so forth.

The Case of Communication                        One of the most used, and abused, phrases in our workplaces is “we have a communication problem.”  It’s as if we somehow believe that once we start talking, transmitting information, things will get better.  But “communication problem” is only the gloss on much complicated issues.  For instance, at Montville, the Lower’s communication desire was “ Give us data that will confirm our worst suspicions.”  This group, being information deprived, would interpret even silence as “All hell was about to break loose.”  For the top group, information meant “Tell us about the vulnerable spots so we can manipulate them more effectively,” and “Tell us how great you all think we are.”  Communication to the Middle group was all about tools with which to depolarize the system while giving themselves polarizing power to sustain existence.

So, how did they convey “unity?”  A delightful word to which no one can object!  To the top and lower groups, unity talks were all about their own internal-group unity, which might strike us as a point of similarity “unifying” these two groups.  But digging deeper, we found “unity” assumed different meanings for these two groups:  protection and defense for the lower; more power for the top.  “Unity” took on yet another meaning for the Middle: It was all about the unity of the whole system, because only in a “unified,” or more accurately a juxtaposed, whole system that the Middle could exist.

Fundamentally, communication is the process by which different parties come to compare and contrast different realities so that some convergence of a “collective/common reality” can be established.  If individuals and/or groups have exactly the same reality, by definition, there is no need to “communicate!”

The Case of Common Reality            This is the clue to solving the Middle’s existential crisis.  The logic is similar to the notion:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  The Middle could conjure up a persuasive common reality for all to comprehend, but given the respective dynamic conservatism for each group, the probability for this proposal to succeed wouldn’t be very impressive.  A much more effective path would be for the Middle to bring the others into a dialogue about what reality could be structured/restructured to improve the system, and thereby better serving each group.  Unless and until all groups feel vested in the health of the overall system, taking the responsibilities of shaping and maintaining it, the paralysis continues. (Please note that paralysis doesn’t mean inaction; on the contrary, it’s often manifested in busy actions.) However, this was not how the Montville simulation concluded.

At the end of the Montville story, the lower group’s “guerilla-entrepreneur” strategy worked to totally upend the mini society.  The Middle, being at the crossroad of either joining the lower group to restructure the system or taking themselves out of the system altogether, decided on the former, and the newly evolved dynamics eventually made the top group members feel very left out!!  It didn’t help that the top group members literally walked in during the final stretch of the development, after their fancy dinner escapade.  Now, the top could have chosen to join and help remake the system, but they were being petulant, suspicious, and dispirited, so they didn’t participate in the birthing of the new society.

real birds with steel birds

A little grace and a little humility would really go a long way.  Next week, I’ll provide an overall summary.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Prison Walls For The Lower Group

(Part 4 of the series on intergroup dynamics.)

The dominant force that helped set the tone for the Lower group of nine at Montville was their perceived need to be unified against outside threats/forces.  “United we stand, divided we fall” was their mantra, or borderline obsession.  No sooner had these nine people showed up at Montville, they were immediately thrown into a quick series of situations where they felt “rejected, excluded, left out, and helpless.”  It was little wonder that the first item on the agenda for their group was to form a core principle of unity, at the expense of any expression of individualism.  This tension between putting the group ahead of everything else and one’s inevitable need to attend to one’s own wishes was the central struggle for the Lower for the longest time.

As the group cohesion increased, the individual strength decreased, which made the individual members rely/depend on the group even more, and in turn further diminished the individual resources.  When a group’s essence is about unity, and is brought about by sheer reactionary responses to outside threats, then external forces become a must-have condition for this group’s life.  The paradox here is that “such a group feeds off the very conditions it fears the most.”  Even in the absence of an external threat, that absence becomes a threat as well because it would choke off the group’s oxygen for unity.  Hopeless, isn’t?

The Case of Social Comparison            Outsiders were always viewed with suspicion, sometimes justified as when the top group did have a “divide and conquer” strategy aiming at the Lower.  But other times, such as when both top and middle truly ignored the Lower, the suspicion couldn’t be lessened, since the Lower lacked the means with which to make such a distinction.  This behavior, manifested in individuals, would be considered paranoia.  In the case of the Lower, their paranoid behavior was first brought on by the system forces, and should have been viewed as an “expression of the system.”  In other words, putting all the blames on an individual group wouldn’t help the overall system to deal with its ills.  On the other hand, the Lower’s putting all this energy into fending off “outside” forces allowed the group to deny ownership of their own internal disunity, and projected such responsibilities onto others.  In fact, it was their insistence on group unity that choked off their individual expressions and made and enhanced the internal group tensions.  But how do we strike a balance between holding both the system and the individual (groups) accountable for the same dynamics?

Like the top group, the Lower group also used information deprivation, or secrecy, as a major strategy.  However, their focus was on hiding their internal disunity from others.  So, whenever and whatever the middle group, at the top’s bidding, proposed for the Lower to do, the Lower would automatically reject it, without any explanation.  What’s more, the Lower couldn’t offer any explanations since discussion might lead to disagreement, which was erroneously viewed as disunity.  Essentially, their rejections were all in the form of reactionary manifestations, not proactive for future development.  However, the middle group didn’t know that and always assumed that the Lower actually was hatching up some counter measures.  This is but one example of how a group can draw boundary around itself, or imprison itself.

The Case of De-individuation            By now, you have a strong sense that all individual concerns for the Lower were subsumed under the group unity.  If any individual issues surfaced, the reaction was, “OK so long as the individual first discussed it with the total group and they all agreed to it.”  The problem of such a strong unity is that resistance becomes inevitable.  But instead of seeing such resistance as the “expression of group tension,” the usual interpretation is “this person is recalcitrant or a trouble-maker.”  Remember, the individuals are embedded in the group which is embedded in the whole system; this embeddedness is a notion that may be more troublesome to embrace in this country where individualism is borderline idolized than in most other countries.  Unfortunately, the more powerful entities always have more say.  And so, in such a convoluted scenario, the side that demonstrates resistance will be labeled as “trouble-makers” by the more powerful side that proclaims unity.  This begins the cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy because those “trouble-makers” definitely will resist, which then justifies the initial labeling.

But there is a solution!  By either ignoring or affirming the label (rather than trying to negate the label), the resisters free themselves from the double bind.  When the Lower group kept resisting the top’s demands, they were always going to be the “belligerent, violent, incompetent” ones, thus trapping themselves in perpetual loops.  On the other hand, when the Lower had had enough, and simply ignored what the Top thought of them, they were able to walk away and start thinking for themselves, and came up with the real strategy of “guerilla-entrepreneur” activities that demonstrated that they were competent to act on their own.  Then, the labels became irrelevant.  This reminds me of my favorite Karate move, parrying.  It is a deflecting technique that channels away the opponent’s strike, without inflicting damage to either party, while gaining a moment for repositioning.

The Case of Internal Dissention & Internalized Oppression            The Lower group put a premium on their unity.  But as group members get closer to each other (approaching a truer manifestation of unity?), the probability for them to discover differences, disagreements, and outright conflicts was very high.  What to do?  They avoided these dissentions, glossed over them, or simply suppressed them with strong rules.  We can all surmise what would happen when suppression is prolonged and growing stronger.  There would be explosive situations, and the suppressed hostility would take the form of scapegoating the deviant.  Sometimes, the result can be therapeutic, and other times, the group will re-assert its group dominance in yet stronger fashion.  Until the next explosive situation occurs.

The Lower’s initial view of others’ forces to suppress them became internalized, and as this internalized suppression persisted, it became tantamount to “eating your own young.”  When that happened, the Lowers were essentially keeping themselves down and frustrating their own power.  By that point, the Top didn’t need do anything to acquire more power; they were granted more by virtue of the Lower’s self-frustrated power.  It’s like the teenagers’ rebellious behavior: They want their independence; however, before they are fully capable of being independent, they still require parents’ assistance, against which they need to rebel.  In such a catch-22 posturing, they essentially affirm their parents’ authority.  Similarly, the Lower group felt incompetent and powerless and they were sure that this status was brought about by the top group.  They demanded changes to be made, by the top group, but it was also their “duty” to reject anything offered by the top, genuine or not.  Basically, you can’t rely on others to liberate you!  “This paradox meant the lowers would never be liberated from the paralysis of their dependency while they looked to other groups to change what they didn’t like.” 

The Lower did start with “real” threats from other groups, certainly to the extent that others wanted to control them.  However, instead of giving themselves a chance to pull together their potential individual strengths, they traded that for forced group unity.  That became their thickest wall; all the follow-up actions, reactions, inaction, and whatnot stemmed from that initial strategy of “united we stand, divided we fall.”  In their perpetual resistance, they inadvertently gave and affirmed more power to the top group.  Resistance is “negating a negation.”  And as long as they were making others be responsible for their misery, and wanted the changes from the same others from whom they had to resist, they were eternally trapped.  Until they found a way to make the oppressive forces irrelevant.  That then lead to their discovery for themselves that they could be unified without denying their own internal fragmentation and differences.

Next week’s focus will be on the Middle.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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