Banana is my least favorite fruit – I prefer juicy ones – but I eat it for the potassium kick, especially important during ski season.
Of course, I don’t “see” potassium, but that’s what the yellow stick signifies to me. In truth, I much prefer Michael Pullen’s notion of eating “food,” – from his In Defense Of Food: An eater’s manifesto – not “protein,” “omega-3,” or “potassium” for that matter.
But I use this comparison to make a point about how our respective “realities” do not always nor necessarily coincide perfectly. Sometimes, these discrepancies become profound problems, far beyond the superficial “communication problem.” However, applied differently, one can also use these discrepancies to make changes for the better.
Gareth Morgan provides a much better example of our social-political differences with the image of “pig” in his Imagin-i-zation: New mindsets for seeing, organizing, and managing. So, “what is the pig?” is the caption for a drawing of a pig in the center, surrounded by a number of people with different perspectives of the animal, such as an unclean animal to a Muslim, livestock to a farmer and a butcher, a food source to a wolf, a story to a child (as in “The Three Little Pigs”), a sick animal to a vet, or just a plain pet, etc.
A simple question, maybe, but the answer depends on who you are and what is your worldview; in other words, reality is socially constructed. (Note: I do subscribe to the notion that physical reality has more permanence. Gravity is here to stay; we do need to breathe in oxygen … till CO2 messes it up, etc. But even in this domain, relativity and quantum mechanics have shaken some of the foundations as well well.)
While differences could create problems, different images can offer different insights. Morgan offers these interpretations as examples: If we see organizations as “cultures,” we will go look for all the shared meanings, values, ideologies, rituals, etc. If, on the other hand, organizations are viewed in terms of political dynamics, we’d see the power plays on a daily basis. Or, if we see organizations as a “prison-like” environment, we can probably detect how various individuals and groups seem to be trapped in their belief systems that bring about destructive outcomes.
Of course, organizations are likely to be all of the above and then some. The point is that once we latch onto a certain lens or filter with which to view our organizational environment, we tend to follow the assumptions associated with that particular lens and off we go.
We all love using organizational charts, for various purposes or realities. On the one hand, it may give us a sense of who’s who and the rung s/he occupies in the hierarchy. Immediately, we are bounded by a rather militaristic structure with all its attending features. Yet, often, the secretaries who typically occupy the bottom rungs of these ladders are the ones with most knowledge of how the organizational operations are actually run. So, flip the charts upside down, you may actually get the “real” picture.
Nowadays, the rapidly evolving computer technologies and demands from globalization have made organizations much flatter, yet more complex and more dynamic so that at any given time, organizations are much more fluid. This presents very different challenges for managers than in those earlier days when operations were more mechanical and driven by routine. There isn’t, and has never been, a prescribed set of management styles from which to choose; a manager would be wiser and better off by creating her own styles, tools, and skills.
Morgan proposes using different images – imagin-i-zation – to help managers gain insights into their work styles for improvement. The principle is similar to the 360 review process where a manager gets feedback from direct report, peers, and supervisors. The major differences are in the images people, including managers themselves, provide. It’s like looking into an infinite array of mirrors, except there would be different images looking back at you. Here is an interesting conundrum for you: Walking down the street, would you recognize a doppelganger coming your way? That you are facing yourself?
Anyway, in the example Morgan gave, a manager sees himself as “giraffe, tornado, spice, and Sherlock,” corresponding to, respectively, “overview of things;” “moving quickly in tackling emerging problems;” “add spices,” and “ getting into the bottom of things.” His colleagues, on the other hand, view him as, “ant, lion, whirlpool, kitchen blender, Robin Hood, and the brick-laying pig from the ‘Three Little Pigs’.” Some images here do overlap, though with different interpretations. He is industrious like an ant, but tends to want things his own way. He is strong and impressive, like lion, but also can be intimidating. Powerful like whirlpool but overwhelming at times. Robin Hood is a good image? Yes, but “it’s always for his own cause!” The pig image is about cleverness and resourcefulness, but the flip side of being “insensitive to the needs of others” also applies.
Now this exercise does require a degree of willingness and courage from all parties involved. Please don’t try it on your own without some experienced people, a good consultant for example, to provide guidance and a safety net. But the exercise can be very powerful; it offers more candid responses and room for vivid and meaningful discussions. And more fun and intriguing. I often wonder about the degree of honesty in typical 360 feedback, even when given anonymously.
“Socially constructed reality” is yet another complex concept. I will pause here and pick it up next week with the image of “strategic termite.” Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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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.