Exploring the complexity of conflict and organising in the time of Covid-19 – Online Symposium/Practicum Nov 28th

Just a week to go before the Complexity and Management Centre’s online Symposium/Practicum exploring the role of conflict, particularly in the time of Covid-19. There are still a few places remaining, which you can book here.

The morning comprises reflections in a large group setting to experience the significance of conflict to the everyday processes of getting things done together. In the afternoon there will be seminars run by practitioner-scholars who will invite delegates to think about what’s going on for them in their organisational setting as a way of further exploring the generalisability of their insights.

Our last post to warm us up for the event comes from Professor Emma Crewe, who teaches at SOAS and is a supervisor on the DMan programme.

When people fall apart

These days, as I bounce from one virtual room to the next, shapeshifting from my various research teams to a discussion about university finance to teaching PhD students, with no gaps and virtually no gossip in between, my energy drains away all too easily. We no longer have the ability to discern the subtle emotional signs or the cunning political tactics employed by those around us. We are becoming more ignorant of each other. I can’t say no to these conversations  in two-dimensional space because a pull towards collaboration draws me in; but often they leave me feeling empty – it is so hard to read each other and innovate together when we can’t meet, body-to-body, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. To innovate you need to move from separate, differing positions to a new relationship, understanding or action. My experience of Covid is that stuckness is more common than movement.

This is such a mild problem. The problem that is really on my mind, but I try and avoid thinking about, is Ethiopia, where this stuckness is descending into violence. This country that has captured my heart for 15 years is repeating its historical pattern of inequality being confronted through war not negotiation. I am worried about colleagues across Ethiopia, but especially those in Tigray, where the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is at war with the federal military forces and civilians are caught in the middle.

Finding out what is going on is impossible. Covid prevents me travelling to Addis. The phone and internet in Tigray itself has been shut down. Reports from other part of Ethiopia, and the diaspora including in the UK, fragment into as many versions as people you ask – disagreeing on causes, responsibilities and solutions. This account by Nic Cheeseman and Yohannes Woldemariam lays out the history in a careful and measured way, even if for many Ethiopians recent moral wrong doing is underplayed in their article in relation to one side or another, depending upon their view. What everyone does agree on is that over 1.8 million people have been displaced and huge numbers of civilians across the country, especially minorities within each state, are being killed. But for the rest, telling the truth has such potent political consequences that many people twist or avoid it while the truth-tellers get ignored.

The conflict in Ethiopia is a more lethal version of what seems to be happening around the world. Differences between people are being whipped up by leaders, encouraging violence rather than innovation and negotiation. For example, as a result mostly of Trump’s tweets and rallies, you are either for or against him. I heard a Trump supporter shout a few days ago that he did not need proof, he just knew that the election had been rigged. He knew because the democrats are evil, so how would any other version make any sense?

Covid makes it more challenging to find ways to challenge such moral polarisation and collaborate creatively. Leaders at all levels of society need to know what is going on – develop knowledge. Shotter and Tsoukas suggest phronetic leaders are:

‘People who have developed a refined capacity to come to an intuitive grasp of the most salient features of an ambiguous situation and, in their search for a way out of their difficulties, to craft a particular path of response in moving through them, while driven by the pursuit of the common good (2014: 225).’

But this grasp is the produce of hard work with other people – deliberate thinking, in their words, or deliberate imagination in those of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum. And since the common good has to take account of difference, this means using imagination to take into account the conflicting, contradictory and changing interests of complex collectives. George Mead wrote,

‘occasionally a person arises who is able to take in more than others of an act in process, who can put himself into relation with whole groups in the community whose attitudes have not entered into the lives of the others in the community. He becomes a leader’ (1934, Mind, Self and Society, p.256).

So leaders help whole groups enter into the worlds imaginatively of other groups. But in this time of Covid, when so many are locked down in their houses or, at least their communities, and bouncing from one digital encounter to another – avoiding the inevitably political encounters with difference that are needed for democracies to work at any level of society – what are leaders supposed to do? I don’t have the answer but how we answer this question will make the difference between life and death for many.

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