Sunday, August 15, 2010

How Ambiguity Favors the Status Quo

The other day I got an email from a friend who's part of a forming community and encountering resistance from others, including the two people who hold title to the property (until the group can get fully established and buy it from them) over her desire to establish operating agreements for the group. She wrote:

So far our leaders and many members tend to default into the "we-don’t-need-no-stinking-agreements” point of view when I push for them, though we are creating some. Some folks are wanting more clarity, but are not sure how to get it, and others go into hopelessness that they have no power or means to address the situation as they see it. I feel like I am “holding the space” of possibility, optimism, as well as a sketchy vision of how to get from where we are to where we need to be, all by myself, as I am really the only one with an experience of good facilitation/good process. But frankly, it is pretty exhausting. 

I responded: There's a subtle dynamic at play here about power that may or may not be something your group is aware of—I'm wondering especially about the two land owners. Ambiguity slants things toward the status quo and reinforces power gradients. If the owners take the position that no agreements are needed ("good will will see us through") until and unless there's a problem, there will be resistance to engaging in the work of clarifying that must be overcome every time. To be clear, I'm not talking about anyone having a bad heart or being intentionally manipulative; it's just the way it plays out and people with power tend to be oblivious to it. 

It seems that people think good process, clarity around expectations, etc. equates to a loss of personal freedom, the creation of arbitrary or onerous rules or bureaucracy, a recreation of the corporate world which we are trying to escape, etc. They get triggered into their feelings about the latter without even knowing that it’s possible to have processes that are actually freeing, and that can emerge from the group, rather than be imposed from above.

This is a classic example of the dynamic tensions between structure/no-structure. Anarchy has a decent chance of working so long as everyone sits on one end of that spectrum. In a typical group though (which yours has every indication of being) the lens that the no-structure folks look through needs to be counterbalanced by the lens of those who find structure clarifying and liberating (because they know where they stand and there's anxiety living in the fog).

The key, in my experience, is trying to sell the product as our structure, rather than as one imposed by others (the nameless bureaucracy). While there's no doubt that you understand this distinction, I get it that you're encountering push back.

So when I push for more “social infrastructure,” I think I look like some kind of control freak to them. And the frustrating part is that as I start to freak out about the lack of clear agreements; I tend to get triggered into my own stuff, which does include a wish to control the situation. So it’s a vicious cycle.

It's a definite plus that you have self-awareness about where you place yourself on the structure/no-structure spectrum, and the ways that you can get triggered. It's also a plus that you have sensitivity about how this looks from different points on that spectrum. Perhaps it will help if you explain that you're not trying to solve every problem before it occurs; you're simply trying to create a reasonable pathway for tackling problems as they occur, and put into place the resources and responsibilities needed for this to function, without having to slog through this baseline stuff fresh every crisis.
The essence of this is that you want to put into place at the outset both what things you can expect to have group conversations about and how.

Given that you reported having a modicum of success in establishing some agreements, perhaps you can get the group to periodically revisit how well that's been working. To the extent that you can show them flexibility, perhaps they can relax their fears about being placed in a straight jacket.

Often a sunset clause will be helpful in these situations, where agreements will last only for a set period of time (a year?) and then expire if not explicitly continued. Where there is no history to guide the group and everyone is simply projecting the likely outcome of policy choices, it can be scary for all parties, and knowing that there's an escape hatch in the foreseeable future can help everyone feel more amenable to experimenting. In general, it turns out to be obvious which way to go with a policy once the time is up—typically it falls into one of three categories: a) you know to dump it (as unnecessary); b) you know to overhaul it (as poorly conceived or missing the heart of the issue); or c) you know to retain it (it's working so well that you wonder why it was ever controversial).

1 comment:

Elke said...

Just a note about your category a) "you know to dump it (as unnecessary)". Sometimes the issue just hasn't come up yet. If it seems unnecessary but isn't getting in the way, the group might leave it in for a while, it's usefulness might still emerge.