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The Self-Reference Social Organization Published: Sunday, October 6, 2002 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

One major difficulty for any social or political organization that works in a condition that has been defined, is the tendency to use this definition as the exclusive basis for reflecting on what needs to be redefined. The concern is that any organization will be prone to use these patterns of behaviors and the unconscious rules and work traditions as almost the only way for understanding those patterns of behavior or performance. This is the problem of self-reference, which sometimes impedes institutional learning, change and innovation. The difficulty is about making reference to specific points of uses and costumes, which constitute obstacles to thinking and doing things differently.

Generally, we find self-reference appearing within the internal discourse of organizations in two forms: tautology and paradox. Both generate a system of circularity and symmetry that protects the organization from any attempt at framebreaking. Tautology involves a process of confirmation of reality, which, when reduced to “basics”, produces trivialities in the form of: “if P is true, then P is true”. Paradox operates within organizations by creating interpretations, expressions and policies that are contradictory, inconsistent and dissonant between each other. Paradox involves disconfirmation or contradiction and the creation of a vicious cycle.

To understand the importance of this problem in human and organizational behavior, we must appreciate that some management concepts come into being as a consequence of the definition of other concepts. This is a critical element in the self-reference problem.

The term hopeless has meaning only in reference to the concept of hope. By defining hope we define hopeless. If we experience hopelessness and want to change, a typical solution would be to develop more hope. A paradoxical perspective would argue that the larger the category of hope, the larger the possibility of hopelessness. To diminish hopelessness, the paradoxical perspective is to give up hope. By having less or no hope, we diminish or eliminate the concept of hopelessness and create the potential for a fresh start on those issues defined as hopeless.

Let us review an application. We may affirm that our organization is powerful and attribute the condition of powerlessness to the other organization, and then use our view of their powerlessness as a frame to understand our power. In doing so, we, as an organization, have use part of us and what we called the other, as a frame for understanding our own reality. Then we have created for ourselves a self-referential system with all the possibilities of contradiction and circular stuckness.

Consider the example of a group that is deeply committed to the same course of action. This very commitment creates the experience of non-commitment. The part of the group that falls into a negative side of the definition of commitment is experienced as resistant. The resistance is seen not as part of the group, but as the other that must be overcome if the committed side is to succeed. The resistance side of the group is viewed as the non-group and is placed in this position by the way in which the committed group elects to define both parties. The committed group is doing what the non-committed-group is not doing and the dynamics turn into either/or right/wrong, strong/weak systems of thought and action.

The connection rooted in this process of self-definition is lost and paradoxical tension becomes very real zero-sum conflict. One will win, the other will lose. The intensity of conflict will increase.

Since the contradictions are a more salient feature of the organizational knowing process than are the connections, the strategy to cope with the frustration of the paradoxical experience is to server the connections, thereby splitting the contradictory forces.


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