Reframing Personal Relationships between Innovators or Leaders

The unmentionable challenge to sustainable paradigm shifting and social transformation

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The vast majority of studies and concerns with regard to social change and conceptual innovation focuses on "abstractions". Such abstractions include philosophies, theories, conceptual frameworks, belief systems, values, models of human and social development, and the like. Many concrete issues with which these are concerned may also be subject to definitional game-playing that converts them into abstractions. "Sustainable development" has become one such abstraction; "sustainable community" another.

Most organizations designed to deal with issues in some way may also be seen as abstractions that mainly derive their "existence" in reality from legal documents. There is a significant gap between the pattern of relations between people in a building and the coherence and substantiality implied by a statement such as "that is the UN Secretariat". In this sense the UN as such cannot be "seen" and must necessarily be understood as an abstract pattern through which some people choose to manage their affairs.

There is however an immediate reality to the interaction between representatives of any two distinct social change initiatives or factions -- whether in establishment bodies at the highest level, or in local communities, or in any community of peers. They may choose to behave formally and to conduct their communications with each other from positions corresponding to their titles and responsibilities. Such communications may be consistent with their concerns and otherwise quite unremarkable in content. They may be extremely cordial, or at least appear to be so. They may indicate possibilities of cooperation between the respective initiatives, which may indeed be explored to some degree.

This paper is however concerned with the extent to which such people may find each other unacceptable or intolerable in some way -- such as to directly undermine action contributing to effective social change. Transactions between such people are then inhibited in some way. This phenomenon is widely recognized in practice and may even be a matter of common knowledge vital to the organization of any event in which both parties must be seen to participate. However, it is seldom formally acknowledged in unclassified documents. It may only become formally known long after the time when any antipathy was critical to ensuring effective collaboration. In an increasingly media-sensitive society, where upbeat reporting is perceived as vital to creating a positive impression, it may be in the interest of all parties to disguise such differences with all the art of public relations and image management.

Symptoms of antipathy between change agents

  • Refusal to attend the same meeting
  • Refusal to speak in the same meeting session
  • Refusal to meet face-to-face
  • Refusal to respond to questions in a meeting
  • Refusal to allow the other to speak during a meeting
  • Refusal to answer correspondence or e-mail communications
  • Denial that communications have been received
  • Refusal to return telephone calls
  • Refusal to support an initiative of the other
  • Refusal to participate in a collective report or periodical issue
  • Refusal to refer to the other, whether in speech or in writing
  • Formalization of encounters to minimize their effectiveness
  • Opposition to an initiative of the other
  • Disparagement of the other (even to the point of engaging in disinformation)
  • Arguments over responsibility for particular areas of work
  • Going over the other person's head in order to undermine their responsibility

Note that in many cases such behaviour may only be consciously recognized by the parties concerned, or by one of them only -- or by neither of them. For others, or even for the parties concerned, the avoidance behaviour may be integrated into a natural pattern of formal behaviour that tends anyway to inhibit collaborative relationships of more than a token nature.

Basis for antipathy between change agents

  • Competitiveness: People may experience each other as in competition for recognition, standing or resources of some kind. One person may find the degree of ambition manifested by the other, and the means employed, to be distasteful or reprehensible. A spirit of competition may however be considered natural to a healthy collaborative relationship.
  • Qualifications: One person may consider the other to be unqualified or underqualifed and therefore not a worthy partner in any collaborative endeavour. The issue of qualifications may be complicated by where any qualifications were obtained, as is often the case between academics from universities of different standing.
  • Background: One person may consider the background of the other to be incompatible with a collaborative relationship. This is typical of cases where there is a heritage of class relationships. It is further complicated where class has been institutionalized, as in Indian society.
  • Behaviour: Differences in styles of behaviour, etiquette, treatment of assistants and superiors, and similar factors, may all undermine fruitful relationships.
  • Accent and language: Consciously or unconsciouly, accent, mode of articulation, and use of jargon, may all be unwelcome or offensive to one or other party -- or simply incomprehensible. Cultivated accents may however also be considered offensive.
  • Physique: One person may find the other physically unattractive or in some way distasteful. This may be due to differences in age, gender, conventions of beauty, physical handicaps, quantity (or style) of hair, and the like. It may be associated with bodily habits, and standards of hygiene, perhaps acceptable in one culture but considered distasteful in another. A striking physique may on the other hand be counter-productive where this signals values inappropriate to the project for which collaboration is sought.
  • Clothing: Incompatibility of dress codes may be a significant factor in undermining possible relationships, especially when these signal differences in resources, background, culture or the like. The reverse may also apply when potential partners are perceived as over-dressed or dressed in a manner inconsistent with the values to be promoted by any collaboration.
  • Use of substances: One person may consider substances used by the other to be abusive or offensive. This may apply to alcohol, tobacco, soft or hard drugs, perfumes, and the like. The reverse may also apply where use of particular substances is important to socialization and affirmation of bonds essential to a relationship.
  • Connections: The interest of one person in another may be heavily determined by the other's connections to people of importance. People without such connections may be considered nonentities. However inappropriate involvement of "connections" may also undermine a possible relationship. For example, one person may avoid the other precisely because they have connections with a group or person deemed inappropriate or having led to disagreement.
  • Importance: One person may need to be able to assess the other as "important" in some way if an encounter is to have any possibility of being fruitful. Alternatively, the ability of the second person to appreciate the importance of the first may be a prime consideration for the latter. Flattery of some form may be a requisite.
  • Ideology: The ideologies, religions, or belief systems of both parties may need to be appreciated as being compatible as a basis for effective encounter. Opposing ideologies would be seen as necessarily undermining any possibility of genuine collaboration.
  • Conceptual sophistication: Inadequate conceptual sophistication may be considered as sufficient justification by one party to avoid dialogue with the other. This is typical of academics. The process may operate in reverse, if one party perceives the other to be too abstract and sophisticated.
  • Concreteness: Action in the field, or on concrete projects, may be the critierion for any collaborative relationship. The reverse may also apply when one person sees the other as too closely tied to such forms of action and unable to "step back" and analyze the strategic value of the action.
  • Experience: Lack of experience by one person may be considered as totally detrimental to any collaborative relationship by the other. However excessive experience, may be judged by the other as having given rise to results so inadequate that the wealth of experience may be considered counter-productive to any collaborative relationship in which new thinking is required.
  • Morality: Immorality or amorality may be a prime indicator in excluding the possibility of an effective relationship. There may be competition between potential collaborators for the moral high ground. The reverse may also be true if excessive attachment to principles is felt to preclude a relationship calling for flexibility.
  • Ethics: As with morality, absence of ethical principles of any kind may be considered as incompatible with a relationship. The reverse is again true, where ethical flexibility is seen to be necessary.
  • Political correctness: Insensitivity to the range of issues associated with political correctness, including gender, physical and other challenges, and the like, may determine the impossibility of a collaborative relationship. The reverse is also true where some flexibility is required, notably in cross-cultural settings. There may be a dysfunctional form of political correctness competition between the parties.
  • Ethnic history: Ethnic groups and tribes may have a long history of antipathy that potential collaborators in any new initiative may find it very difficult to overcome. Even if they are personally able to do so, it may be against their other interests for one party to be seen to be symathetic to the other party.
  • Family relationships: As with ethnic history, families can have a history of problematic relationships that may be basic to any initiatives in a particular community. Family feuds offer an extreme example.
  • Spirtual development: The spiritual orientation, or lack of it, of one person can be fundamental to fruitful collaboration. Such development may be seen as an essential criterion of a working relationship.
  • Bribery: Whether or not a collaborative initiative is "graced" by a special contribution from one partner to another may often be the determining factor, notably in projects with a political or commercial dimension.
  • Interaction style: Collaboration may be undermined because of differences in interaction style. This may be relate to differences such as extroversion vs. introversion, thinking vs. action, emotional vs. thinking, intuition vs. action, and the like -- as noted in various systems of personality types.
  • Lifestyle: Significant differences in lifestyle, notably resulting from differences in financial resources, can make collaboration problematic. It can also lead to situations in which the relationship is cultivated by one party solely because of those differences and the advantages they bring.
  • Private life challenges: If the private life, or sense of emotional well-being, of one person strongly influences their behaviour, this can undermine possibilities for fruitful collaboration. Apparently neutral actions can appear to be aggressive, or may be experienced as such.
  • Breakdown of trust: Personal or organizational acts of betrayal may create a history that makes it difficult to resume cordial relations. This is notably the case following the breakdown of a sexual relationship between the individuals concerned.

Perhaps more fundamental than any of the above is the issue of whether people like each other or find each other "sympathique". This can override challenges posed by many, if not all, of the above. But equally, if such is not the case, even though none of the above is a factor, collaboration may still not be fruitful.

Consequences of antipathy between change agents

  • Denial: The immediate consequence of antipathy is a pattern of denial through which any form of collaboration is simply avoided. Sophisticated rationalizations may be offered to justify this. Worse still, is the degree to which the existence of such antipathy cannot be acknowledged -- which would ensure that it is designed around in any collective enterprise.
  • Unrealistic analysis: Opportunities for action may be the subject of unrealistic analysis. The operational challenge is consequently poorly framed, reducing the possibility of success.
  • Unrealistic projects: Where projects come into being, involving key individuals in an antipathic relationship, such projects are constantly subject to unforeseen dynamics that erode their possibility of success. The reasons for their failure will also be a subject of denial and unrealistic analysis.
  • Tit-for-Tat project development: A project is undertaken on the initiative of one person merely in order to spite the other person's initiative or possibly to deprive it of potential resources.
  • Arguments over resources: Allegations over misuse of resources and how they should be apportioned in any joint endeavour.
  • Resistance to change: One person may maintain outworn patterns of behaviour simply because these are contrary to the views of the other.
  • Withholding information: One person may prevent access to valuable information by the other in order to maintain an advantage or damage the initiative's of the other.
  • Political manoeuvering: One person may engage in political games with the other in order to avoid addressing the issues on which they are purportedly collaborating. This may include misuse of democratic processes in support of one side or the other, using others as pawns.
  • Misuse of resources: Resources dedicated to issues may be misued in order to support one party or the other.
  • Disillusionment and strife: The dysfunctional interactions between the parties is seen by others to be as partisan and not consonant with the stated aims of the collaborative initiative.
  • Deliberate ineffectivness: Involvement by one person of a less skilled or knowledgeable individual when the other person is the most appropriate to the task.

Pleas for tolerance in dealing with those of different style and perspective may be heard, but tend to fail to address the nature of the antipathy. Ironically the dyanmic is as evident amongst those who endeavour to promote tolerance, reconciliation and peace -- as is evidenced by the fragmentation amongst groups of this persuasion.

Illustrative examples

Examples may be found in arenas such as the following:

  • Conceptual innovation: In the academic world, there are numerous examples of specialisats in closely related, if not identical, areas who find each other intolerable, avoid each other whenever possible, and disparage each other on every possible occasion. Typically each will demonize the other for stealing insights, plagiarism, and the like.
  • Politics: It is to be expected that in the political arena there would be numerous examples of politicians who find good reason to detest each other and to undermine each other's initaitives.
  • Bureaucracy: It is a much-remarked fact of bureaucratic life that certain people are in a constant state of war with colleagues in the same administration.
  • Arts: The enmity between some stars in the artistic and cultural arenas is well-documented.
  • Religion: It is to be expected that leaders of spiritual movements of slightly different persuasion find good reason to consider each other's behaviour and views to be dangerously unacceptable. This dynamic may be fundamental to the challenge of inter-faith dialogue.
  • Military: The antipathy that may emerge between different military units of the same force is well-documented. It has been used, by cultivating competitiveness, to develop military qualities. It becomes highly counter-productive when it undermines collaborative relationships in pursuit of a common aim.
  • Business: The risk of back-stabbing in a competitive business environment is a well-recognized phenomenon. Although corporations, like the military, are often remarkably successful in getting people who dislike each other to work together effectively, inherent dislike can undermine collaborative relationships in critical circumstances. It is for this reason that many corporations have invested heavily in human development training processes.
  • Social activism: Whether in industrialized countries or in humanitarian situations in developing countries, people acting for social change frequently find themselves in antagonistic relationships with others who are supposedly acting towards the same ends. Issues of style and motivation may be highlighted to justify non-collaborative behaviour.
  • Communities: Antipathy is perhaps most striking, where it is least expected, namely amongst the leadership of intentional communities that are consciously organized to overcome such dynamics. It is a principle factor leading to schism formation within such communities, or to their breakdown, or to inhibition of collaboration between factions within them. Despite a culture of transparency around group dynamics, the conviction that some form of love naturally underlies and dominates community relationships may itself promote denial of existence of any antipathy.

Recognition of "reluctance" in a social change context

Antipathy may be usefully understood as the "heavy" form of what otherwise manifests as a form of "reluctance" to collaborate -- "antipathy-lite". Note that the focus here is not on tolerance, but on collaborative action of a non-tokenistic form.

In the case of interpersonal relationships, such distinctions are perhaps most clearly understood, in the contrast between the seven stages of: friendship, flirtation, courtship, foreplay, love-making, consummation and parenthood. Transposed to collaborative social relationships, it is obvious that "reluctance" can operate successfully through the five first stages without any intention of longer-term, sustainable consequence as a result of collective "conception". Some form of "contraceptive" may even be used to ensure that the dynamics of the relationship are "safe" -- as with ship-board relationships. Even the sixth stage, "conception", can be undertaken -- as in an enthusiastic joint brainstorming or collective envisioning -- without any firm joint commitment to "parenthood" of a sustainable form.

At each stage, one or other partner can demonstrate "reluctance" to "go further". This may be regretted by the other party who may feel that the relationship could be more fruitful. In the physical case, the processes of "withdrawing" from further involvement and the handling of "rejection" are constantly the subject of soap operas and songs. In the social case, the processes are less clear, although many are naturally familiar to lobbyists and activists.

The situation that probably calls for the most attention is when one or more individuals are considering closer collaborative relationships -- typically when there is the possibility of together constituting a new working group of some kind. This is most dramatic in the case of processes leading to the creation of a sustainable intentional community. For an individual, it may be most dramatic when this involves commitment to a new working context -- where an existing collectivity reciprocates through a process of openness and engagement.

In the case of collective group formation, it is clear that the potential participants can "flirt" with each other and with the idea. The possibilities of collaborative action can be explored in detail -- the group can dream together. They can even indulge in "foreplay", experimenting together with group initiatives in meetings and in ad hoc projects requiring minimal commitment. As in the physical case, "foreplay" performs the useful role of determining compatibility. Of course it can be engaged in, or assessed, as a pleasant indulgence -- of which many weekend group experiences are examples. Some of these may amount to "love-making" in which a higher level of engagement is effectively simulated without necessarily being transformed into reality. All these phases are essential free of longer term consequences. Parties are free to withdraw from further commitment -- although significant bonding may have taken place and can continue to influence their subsequent interactions. People can commit themselves to communities and yet feel free to withdraw when the going gets tough.

It can be argued that much valuable social interaction takes places without any further degree of commitment. In fact, in the physical case, communities can survive successfully over long periods without need for "consummation". It can even be argued that monastic communities, having survived many centuries, demonstrate that such "consummation" is not necessary -- although in that particular case theologians would argue that it takes place in another form. Many other kinds of community, including corporations, may be understood as not being dependent on a "consummation" phase. Renewal is achieved through "importation" rather than "consummation". Nevertheless it is through that phase that continuity is ensured in other kinds of community involving a broader diversity of participants. Community without "consummation" might then be understood as distinctly limited in scope and therefore unsatisfactory -- a curtailment of quality-of-life.

Does the preceding paragraph suggest a new way of looking at reluctance to higher degrees of project commitment? There is clearly a difference between the kind of arms-length commitment associated with support for many worthy projects and the kind of commitment associated with life-or-death situations where people place themselves at risk. It is this commitment that distinguishes participation in terrorist groups or in humanitarian action in high risk areas. Under fire, risk in the military is widely acknowledged as occasionally evoking such levels of mutual commitment. Natural disasters, such as the ice storms in Canada in 1997-98, evoke such commitment to some degree. Whether it is, or needs to be, "sustainable" is another matter.

What then distinguishes the "parenthood" phase of mutual commitment in social initiatives? Of course, here again the physical case offers examples of dysfunctional parenthood -- although the criteria of dysfunctionality may well be highly controversial. Does it matter if the "parents" of a project do not all remain committed to each other or to the initiative? The messiness of many social change initiatives makes it clear that they may well succeed independently of any idealized pattern of continuing partnership.

At the present time, are we collectively to be characterized as reluctant parents of the future?

The above text has benefitted considerably from comments by Ruth Anderson (Rural Forum, Scotland). 


Epistemological Challenge of Cognitive Body Odour: exploring the underside of dialogue, 2006 [text]

The 'Dark Riders' of Social Change: a challenge for any Fellowship of the Ring, 2002 [text]

Coherent Patterns of Schism Formation, Bifurcation and Disagreement -- and the associated bonding, encounters and agreements they evoke, 2001 [text]

Living Differences as a basis for Sustainable Community: ecosystemics of designing, configuring and driving a difference engine to avoid quenching enthusiasm, magic and the life of the spirit, 1998 [text]

Using Disagreements for Superordinate Frame Configuration, 1992 [text]

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