When Generative Conditions Are Out of Balance

This is the third in a series of blogs where Royce Holladay and Mary Nations explore the dynamics of Generative Engagement.

In last week’s blog, I explored a set of conditions that Mary and I believe can shape system-wide patterns of purposeful, meaningful dialogue; productivity across differences; and highly adaptive relationships. This week I want to share some thoughts we have had about what can happen if those conditions get out of balance with each other or when any of the conditions exclude individuals or groups in the system. As you read, consider how you see each situation play out in the systems where you live, work, and play.

Shared Identity

In a system where shared identity is the norm, members of the system see themselves as sharing some perspective or experience of participating together in a system, without giving up their own identity. They know and respect differences among group members, but they also recognize a commonly shared bond that brings them together. There are times when this sense of shared identity becomes problematic.

Over-emphasis on shared identity

Sometimes we experience a system where the emphasis on “how we are alike” overbalances the appreciation for difference in the system. When that happens, system boundaries move toward rigidity and lack of permeability. This move can be a slight shift that brings greater focus; or it can be an extreme shift the fosters more sinister outcomes for the greater system.

Strong focus on family ties and traditions can build connections and identity that maintain a valued culture. On the other hand, it can become problematic when one individual constrains the identity to fit personal needs. Dysfunctional expectations to “keep the secrets” or to “stay away from those who are different” shape unhealthy patterns of isolation or bigotry. Members of the family may be expected to defer to others, creating patterns of fear and low self-worth.

Such an over emphasis in organizations or communities can result in a variety of dysfunctional behaviors, such as overdependence on the system for identity and fulfillment, justification for illicit or even illegal practices, or fear about calling out abuses and lack of ethics. Other extreme examples of over-emphasis on shared identity can be found in recent political shifts toward nationalism and fascism around the globe.

Under-emphasis on shared identity

Sometimes when the system ignores identity needs of some members, resulting in over-emphasis on the dominant identity. When that happens, the system leans toward the emergence of privilege and power among those who are dominant. We see the system move away from generative energy and engagement.

In systems that are not generative, those with privilege and power set the rules and expectations about the dominant culture. What they value and what they know become the norms for the greater whole. They set rules about the dominant language, for instance, and may go so far as to punishing people for the use of their native language. The dominant culture’s holidays and celebrations take precedence over all others. There is an unspoken expectation that everyone in the system knows, understands, and complies with norms and expectations of the ruling culture.

Shared Power

In generative relationships of shared power, members of a system recognize that power is about how they influence others, even as they allow others to influence them, regardless of positional authority or accountability. When agreements and understandings about influence are out of balance, privilege and power become synonymous, and patterns of engagement become less generative.

Over-emphasis on shared power

When power is over-emphasized, members of the system spend time and energy focusing on who has power, who doesn’t have power, and how to get more power. As a result, power is measured in ways that favor some over others. Who has the most money? Who gets the most attention? Who knows whom? Who is obligated to whom? When those considerations define power, privilege can be accrued to smaller and smaller groups in the general population. It also means that power can be achieved by corruption and violence. We see these patterns at all scales of our social fabric: in individual families, in organizations and communities, and on the larger political scale in many countries.  

Under-emphasis on shared power

When people ignore the need to share power, the system limits the influence of some, over-emphasizing privilege and dominance for a those who are able to manipulate influence for their own use. Those who are in power have more open access to system resources and benefits. They set the agenda they want, whether it is a national political agenda, the agenda for a meeting, or the agenda for the family vacation.

Shared Voice

In systems where shared voice is the norm, individuals and groups share information and other resources in ways that ensure they are heard and understood, even as they listen to and understand others. They grant and generate voice with the intention to create deep understanding. When voice is out of balance, the system-wide focus on who gets heard and how that happens can generate nonproductive patterns.

Over-emphasis on shared voice

Some systems spend inordinate time and energy engaging across the system, often to the point of limiting the system’s ability to engage in effective decision making and action. In trying to increase engagement, open discussion keeps the system roiling in the question, without viable answers. Additionally, when options are limited, such as in issues of safety or operational practices, gathering broad input may not make sense. For instance, experts determine safe fire escape pathways; Machines come with instructions for operation, so broad input is not helpful. This perspective can be abused, however, when those who are in the dominant group preclude any form of discussion or review as they make decisions behind closed doors.

Under-emphasis on shared voice

In such a situation, many patterns of non-generative engagement will emerge. Individuals and groups are often denied the right to participate in shared decisions. There may be actual laws designed to prevent their voice from being heard, as in the mid-20th century practice of charging a poll tax for voters in US elections. Gerrymandering practices build sizable blocks of similar voter perspective to increase their voice in elections. At the same time, more subtle practices can also deny voice, such as explanations in language that is inaccessible to some; unclear or ambiguous language that misleads those who want to participate; or ensuring that the timing of a decision precludes full participation from all.

So what can you do?

When you find yourself in these kinds of situations, keep in mind that the conditions are interdependent with each other. Consider where you see any lack of shared identity, voice, or power that might be shaping the patterns you see. Consider what actions you can take in your own sphere of influence to shift those patterns, even if it is only for yourself and those most closely connected to you. What steps can you take to build more generative patterns across the systems in your life? Give these ideas a try and let us know how it goes.


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