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Facing the Other: Leadership, Learning and Diversity

April 15, 2019

  

The struggle for diversity and inclusion permeates history, and as one boundary is overcome then a new one seems to emerge, with new demons and pariahs. Race, gender, class, and religion have all provided a cause of division along with more subtle and unspoken differences, such as ways of thinking or living. 

 

The difficulty of each generation faces in coming to terms with the new and the strange, tells us something of what it is to be human. 

 

Our evolution as a species is founded on our capacity to work with the tension between the known and the unknown; between our sense of self and our sense of other. To grow is to move between a comfortable and fixed sense of identity, and the challenges presented to us by a constantly changing world. Stasis is both safety and suffocation, while change is both a promise of opportunity and a source of terror. 

 

Michael Fordham described this lifelong oscillation as a process of de-integration and re-integration (1988), where the boundaries of our ego weaken, and we fall apart, but in doing so we take in new perspectives and make them our own. 

 

As we encounter the new and strange, something 'other' than ourselves, our fears and fantasies begin to surface, and we begin to defend our established boundaries; the things we know and feel comfortable with. We may appreciate the potential opportunity that difference provides, but be unsettled by the uncertainty it brings; the possibility that part of us will no longer be the safe foundation it once was. Whether within an individual or an organisation the known and the unknown compete for space and attention, in a ‘tension of opposites’; an existential struggle, for the life or death of whole aspects of our personalities. 

 

The experience of diversity is a particularly raw encounter with this 'other', as often deeply held identities and mindsets come together. We meet people with a different physical appearance, widely different starting points and different underlying assumptions, which we may find exciting, bizarre or unsettling. 

 

We may decide to resist the threat of difference, and entrench ourselves in our existing belief systems; closing our minds to the possibility that there may be other ways to see the world. 

 

We may decide to approach these differences with a liberal tolerance and acceptance of difference, repressing any feelings of tension and pretending that ‘if we could all get along’ we will all somehow benefit. In doing so however we may create uneasy boundaries behind which our shadow and fear simply waits, resentful and unheard, for its moment to surface. 

 

However, if we are to learn and grow, we must immerse ourselves in the tension and risk the possible pain of loss, where the identities of all parties are recast allowing unexpected value and opportunity to be realised. We must move from comfort to fear, if we are to return with the prize of potential. 

 

This learning process takes us beyond compromise and may provoke us to see ourselves and our world very different ways. Jung called this, the Transcendent Function (Jung, 1916), a confrontation of opposites, from which emerges some new position or perspective. The Transcendent Function ‘supplies a perspective other than one which is purely personal. It surprises one by asserting, often as if from a more objective position, a possible solution’ (Samuels et al. 1986, p.150): We move beyond what is, to find a new reality. 

 

This is as true for our organisations as it is for us as individuals. To create truly diverse organisations, we must create spaces, where risks and possibility can be openly and safely explored and where competing identities can reform in new and unexpected ways. Within these 'liminal' spaces, where the light changes from a bright current reality to a shaded future possibility, we must support human conversation, with all of its conflict and compassion. 

 

We must help people relate commonly as individuals by re-examining their closely guarded identities and recognising the humanity behind them. Only in doing so will they be able to play the roles they need to play as human beings, taking up their masks with the recognition that they are simply masks; nothing more and nothing less. 

 

To achieve this, the leaders of our organisations themselves need to have the strength and courage to hold these spaces. They must know the value of conflict and understand that inclusion is not a zero sum game of compromise, but a human dialogue, with all its confusion and uncertainty. 

 

References and Further Reading

 

Fordham, M. (1988). The Infant’s reach. In Psychological Perspectives. Journal of San Francisco Institute for Analytical Psychology. 

 

Jung, C.G. (1916). The Transcendent Function. In Read, H., Fordham, M., Adler, G., and McGuire, W. (eds.) The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Vol. 8 of 20 Volumes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 

 

Samuels, A. Shorter, B. and Plaut, F. (1986) A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. New York: Routledge

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