Yang: Antagonism, Conflicts, Opposites…

Antagonism, Conflicts, Opposites … fight against them? Or, learn to live with them?
Los Alamos

First: Happy New Year.

Nothing like welcoming a new year by completing the incomplete, and embracing differences as the source of energy. 

Shortly before my break, I got into the dynamics of “cross-cultural groups (link below),” based on the study and article by Kenwyn Smith and David Berg. Not surprisingly, the cross-cultural groups in their study displayed more differences than similarities during their initial interactions. Smith and Berg remind us that in traditional group dynamics, members rely on similarities to build a coherent group. In cross-cultural groups, though, differences offer more advantages. In their study, the group members from various cultures were both excited about exploring those differences, a source of learning, and anxious about what to do with those differences, a source of potential conflicts. The fear of the differences could potentially lead to paralysis, or heavy-handed control or suppression. Most of us intrinsically want to avoid conflicts and see them as problematic. 

Smith and Berg propose to view conflicts as “a source of vitality” for an alternative perspective. Instead of viewing conflicts in the usual “either-or,” “we-them” dichotomy, they propose to frame the issues of differences in “both and” framework. This is the premise of their book, “Paradoxes of Group Life,” of which I will go into some details next time. Here is one important example:

The below statement is true.

The above statement is false.”

Viewing them separately, each is true. Putting them together, they become self-referential and self-contradictory. “While the content of each statement remains the same, its meaning is changed once it is framed by the other.” 

So, when group members experience their differences in such a contradictory manner, their natural tendency is to either duke it out or bury it.  However, if we honor the premise that different members’ attitudes (toward whatever issues are at hand) are all valid, this premise then gives both group and individual members some breathing space.  When people’s views are validated, they are likely to think of different possibilities for the group as a whole, instead of trying to make the others “wrong” or their ideas “impossible.”  In other words, working with diversity, and we gain more ideas; fighting against diversity chokes off possibilities. 

Based on their study, described in their paper, Smith and Berg summarize seven paradoxes for the multicultural groups.

  • “The Paradox of Involvement:  Reframing the confrontation-conciliation dilemma
  • The Paradox of Identity:  Reframing the individuality-collectivity dilemma
  • The Paradox of Authority:  Reframing the autocratic-participative dilemma
  • The Paradox of Democracy:  Reframing the spontaneous-orchestrated dilemma
  • The Paradox of Boundaries:  Reframing the task-process dilemma
  • The Paradox of Abundance:  Reframing the quality-quantity dilemma
  • The paradox of Face:  Reframing the criticism-diplomacy dilemma”

Of course, all of these paradoxes are inter-related. 

Let me begin with the issue of involvement.  Groups always want only part of the individuals but individuals always want to give the whole of themselves. It’s the tension between “being part of” and “apart from” the group. If we suspend some of our own individualistic tendency and just “go along” with the group for a while, we allow the group to become more coherent over time, which in turn allows members to go off on their own. This tension between individuals and the group, though, should always be present lest members become too complacent and begin to conform into “groupthink.” 

Such dynamics of give-and-take, tension-and-relaxation is also true for the issue of identity.  Most of us carry several “memberships.” For instance, whenever I get involved in group-work, at any given time, I am a Chinese, an American, a mother, a wife, a daughter, an introvert who can act like an extrovert (and vice versa), with perspectives in arts, social sciences, photography, culinary experience, etc. Not all of these backgrounds need to come to the surface in my engagement in the group, but only through a process of interacting with others can we all find out what the group really needs from me and me from others in the group. 

However, groups usually can’t function in an egalitarian manner at all times.  Issues concerning leadership and authority inevitably bubble up. The authorization process, through group members’ participation, is more pertinent in ad hoc type of groups.  In addition, we typically regard these issues as naturally flowing from the top. However, even in an organization where a manager is implicitly or explicitly invested with authority, a new manager still needs to work out how her authority should be manifested.  A new manager who throws his weight around without understanding his new group is not likely to lead a productive and healthy group in the long run.  No matter how a group comes about and how a leader or a manager arises, members’ participation is essential in the authorization. In typical Smith & Berg language, “The paradoxical perspective on authority in groups affirms that authorizing others to act on one’s behalf is an authorization of oneself, and authorizing self to take actions for others is likewise authorizing the group.”

So, in such spirit, we deal with other paradoxical aspects of group life: between spontaneous work or orchestrated work, focusing on task or process, the perennial quantity vs. quality, and to confront/criticize or to circumvent/conciliate. All these choices do not need to end with one side over the other. Embracing all sides involves a lot of work — the almost constant process through which members negotiate with each other. It can be tiring and frustrating, but it brings results. Plenty of organizations and groups favor the either-or and choose one over the other, at the cost of diminished work-product quality and demoralized employees. 

I thought of a perfect example of living with paradoxes in our everyday life. Most of us have family issues. We may not like all our family members, but we still love them. We may quarrel during Thanksgiving holiday but we still cannot NOT get together every so often.  Granted it is difficult, actually downright impossible, to transfer such spirit to our colleagues, we can still apply the learned principles, however we have derived them. Personally, my compass has always been grounded in “Appreciative Inquiry (link below),” so I look for the positives in the hope to build something. 


While I adhere to the spirit of respecting other cultural values, there are a few I find it impossible to accept, not even after a “fight.” One such objectionable cultural value, or should we call it a traditional practice, is Chinese foot binding. While no one would advocate it now, it was practiced for way too long. Among practices still observed, I will not condone inflicting female genital mutilation nor refusing vaccination. In other words, when beliefs or practices are in conflict with respect for human rights or scientific facts, I will err in favor of rights and facts. 

Let’s build an awesome 2014. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Referenced Links:



Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.