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Managing Organizational Ambivalences Published: Sunday, April 7, 2002 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

Membership and active participation in an organization evoke a variety of reactions in-group participants. Some of those reactions contribute to the experience of contradiction and conflict in the organization as a whole. There are three internal sources of psychological conflict: (1) the bringing together of individuals with different skills, interests, and values for the purpose of fulfilling a group task and that demand a level of variety not available in any single individual; (2) the perceptual tendency of individuals and groups toward polarization as a means of ordering and defining reality; and (3) the ambivalence of groups and organizational members toward the institutional system as a whole and the associated playing out the intrapsychic conflicts in interpersonal ways.

Organizations need people who are different to fulfill its primary task. This means that differences must be brought into the system and then integrated and managed in a way that provides unity while preserving the beauty of differences. Such a diversity or pluralism is enough to provide the setting for conflict, but the need to unify in the light of the differences makes it inevitable that conflict will occur. This constitutes a formidable management paradox. The very fact that individuals contribute differences (expertise, experiences, styles, backgrounds, mind-sets, gender, age and levels) makes it possible for the organization and its units to be effective, yet these differences create tensions and threaten the groups, units and organization’s capacity to perform.

We have studied deeply that people in groups, teams and units tend to differentiate others along three bipolar dimensions: (1) dominant – submissive, (2) friendly – unfriendly; and (3) technically oriented - emotionally expressive. This is the result of an ubiquitous tendency of individuals to polarize image fields in their minds. The point is that whether in teams, units or boards there is a perceptually based propensity to polarize anything that it is observed, thus the organizational life is full of oppositional forces (interpretations) that exist as a product of members’ perceptual processes. Individuals in group, teams and units as a whole will always be managing differences even as they are seeking a certain level of homogeneity by stressing the shared values of the organizational culture. This past week a very distinguished business woman asked me if she could aspire to an epoch in her company where conflicts and tensions (not to say problems) would be significantly reduced or abolished, and my answer was NO.

As we have stressed a thousand times organizational tensions and conflicts cannot be eliminated, but one can learn how to manage these situations. The most basic dilemma for individuals within organizations is related to the inner ambivalences generated by group membership. The ambivalence stems from the simultaneous wish to be both a part of the team-organization and apart. The simultaneous desire for inclusion and fusion triggers the fear of consumption, absorption, and deindividuation. The desire to be independent triggers the fear of exclusion, aloneness, and isolation.

A final note for management and organizational alertness. The switch from managing self-processes to making judgments about the group or the unit as anxiety increases, is a pervasive and significant human condition, and it is central to the existence of contradiction and opposition within the management environment.


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