Is this the real life?
I know a place where everyone always gets along. Nobody is ever wrong, and apologies don’t exist. The sun is always shining, and at least two rainbows are visible at all times (don’t think too hard about this one). Problems never arise, and solutions (even though they aren’t necessary) always flow freely. Everyone is always truthful, and there is no such thing as antagonism.
This is a place that exists solely in my mind, but it’s fun to think about when I’m feeling idealistic.
Is this just fantasy?
Back over here in reality, we frequently disagree. People are often wrong (or just less correct than someone else). The sun is always shining (for now), but it turns out that we’re on some kind of sphere that rotates (plot twist). Rainbows are rare enough to have a colorful role in mythology. Problems are prolific. Real solutions are often difficult to come by. We must also contend with the possibility of deceit and aggression.
Worse yet, reality is a place that exists (whether we like it or not).
No escape from reality
The chaotic, unpredictable nature that is inherent to our existence is something we cannot escape. We must embrace this aspect of our reality if we are to find success that is truly sustainable. This is of utmost importance when it comes to matters involving people. As individuals we are complicated enough; each of us on our own contain multitudes. When we begin to consider our roles within groups, the resulting complexity is exponential. Conflict is inevitable. Success is determined by how it is handled.
This much is largely understood by the average person.
¿Por qué no los dos?
What is missing from the standard equation, however, is the fundamental difference in metrics between individual success, and the success of a group. When we consider the individual we tend to define success as falling into one of two categories: technical (hard), and social (soft). Technical success is the degree to which an individual’s contributions are perceived as valuable. Social success relates to the individual’s ability to communicate effectively and operate within culturally acceptable parameters.
Obviously, these two categories are interrelated, but humans naturally excel at the misapplication of binary thinking.
The nature of group success stands in stark contrast to that of the individual. Much of what is true for individual success becomes inverted. The ability of a group to allow its members to experiment and fail (in a safe environment) is a universal key factor for success. The group as a whole benefits from its members taking risks they could not afford as an individual. As the size of the group increases, so does its ability to facilitate, absorb, and learn from failure. The key word here is ability. Most groups do not scale their cultural acceptance for failure with their ability to sustain it. This is especially true of interpersonal failure.
Organizationally, we are uniquely intolerant to failures of an interpersonal nature.
Our strategies for addressing conflicts are deeply rooted in thought patterns which rely heavily on false dilemmas as a vehicle for decision making. This—coupled with the tendency of groups to develop more punitive forms of governance as they grow in population—contributes to a system that can create disincentives for genuine participation. In turn, this lends itself to an environment where the personal liability of contribution to contentious topics is perceived by well-intentioned members as being too great to bear. The result is a polarization of discourse with an increased involvement from those willing (or seeking) to cause disruption, at the cost of participation by those less attracted to (or comfortable with) confrontation.
This inhibits the group’s collective capacity to identify and address systemic issues.
Methods of rationality
There is no panacea for this problem. What’s required is proactive dedication to the shared goals and values of the group, particularly by those in positions of leadership. Cultivate an environment where communication failures—and the resulting process of conflict resolution—are seen as natural and expected elements of social engagement. Develop social structures which reinforce principals of nonviolent communication. Provide members with the opportunity to take part in the creation and improvement of processes as they are needed.
As we do this, we must also strive to make all of these efforts as transparent as possible.
But wait, there’s more!
Our social conventions must be reasonable, and accessible to all members of the group. Expectations must be communicated clearly and consistently. Application of policy must be equanimous and egalitarian. Those in positions of leadership must demonstrate their ability to adapt with the needs of the group as it grows and evolves. Most importantly, the group must feel empowered to hold its members accountable at all levels.
Provided we do all of these things and more—well—we’ll still just be flawed humanoids. We’ll still be fighting our way through all of our biases, triggers, and assorted complications.
But we’ll be doing it together.