In Together: The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, sociologist Richard Sennett talks about complex forms of cooperation as craft. He describes these demanding forms of cooperation as experiences “where you are working with people you don’t understand, people who are simply different from you, or people you don’t like.” He has declared that the biggest challenge of the 21st century is learning to live with people who are different. He likens it to a competence.
One of the habits Sennett has identified as getting in the way of complex cooperation is what philosopher Bernard Williams calls the “fetish of assertion,” or declarative aggressive speech—stating our beliefs strongly, confronting others with our convictions. (He advises using subjunctive speech—“It seems to me…”—to make room for the other.)
To this I would add another, related fetish: the fetish of agreement. This is the assumption that agreement is always the preferred condition. This unquestioned motivation is everywhere, especially in the nonprofit sector.
For example, a few weeks ago a colleague emailed to ask me what I thought about a recent film because she was to host a Q&A at the viewing of it in her city. I took the time to write a short summary of my take on the film; I was left wanting, as the filmmaker framed the documentary in universal language even though it was just about the Western—read, white—aspects of the subject. Days later, I received a follow-up email from my colleague telling me that she had experienced the film differently. There followed a lengthy explanation with counterpoints to the points I had raised. After expressing interest in her perspective, I had to share that, of course, I take it as a given that we don’t have to agree.
In fact, I have to come to a point, after years in the sector and movement work, that I strongly believe that there is very little on which we have to agree. It’s almost become a mantra for me, seeing how it squashes variance and creativity.
In my early training as a facilitator, the most complex conversations were said to be those in which we seek agreement. Nothing was ever said about when lack of agreement is okay or even preferred, and how to proceed. Once, while interviewing for a job with a foundation, I was asked what I would do to build a shared strategy amongst the grantees. “Why do we want a shared strategy,” I asked. “Why not have a portfolio of strategies?” To which the response was…nothing, they hadn’t considered it, though some excitedly took notes.
In my consulting work, particularly with networks or platforms, most of the presented challenges disappear after I offer that they move beyond needing to agree on everything. Without fail, every time I suggest this, there is a sigh of relief and expansion of possibility. A reframe is made possible where differences are allowed to be and even designed for.
A funny and relevant version of this appears in a recent story in MIT Technology Review headlined, “The hipster effect: Why anti-conformists always end up looking the same.” The article comments on Jonathan D. Touboul’s paper, “The Hipster Effect: When Anti-Conformists All Look the Same,” which finds that people who set out to oppose mainstream culture end up looking and acting the same. He sees this as a type of synchronization.
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The funny part is that when the MIT article was published, editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield received an email from a reader claiming he was the bearded man pictured in the image in the article and accusing the magazine of using it without permission. It later turned out it wasn’t him, but it was too late; he had already reinforced the story.
MIT writes, “It’s easy to imagine a different outcome if there are more choices. If hipsters could grow a mustache, a square beard, or a goatee, for example, then perhaps this diversity of choice would prevent synchronization. But Touboul has found that when his model offers more than two choices, it still produces the synchronization effect.”
While nonconformists “initially act randomly,” over time, as they are influenced by each other, they “transition into a synchronized state.” Critical to this phenomenon is the propagation delay, the time it takes for information to spread, for people to “conform in their nonconformity.”
Interestingly, speaking about the meaning of his new film Us, the “story of a family who find themselves staring down homicidal doppelgängers,” Jordan Peele says, we live “in a time where we fear the other…whether we think they’re taking our jobs or that they voted differently than we did…Maybe the monster has our face. Maybe the evil is us.”
Adult development researcher Jennifer Berger Garvey’s latest book Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps lists agreement as one of the five leadership traps. She writes, “Humans are drawn to agreement as a sense of connection. It’s deep in our systems as an early force of our survival. We have evolved as fangless and clawless creatures who cannot outrun as fast as either our predators or our prey, and yet we have found ourselves at the top of the food chain. Our capacity to collaborate in groups makes up for our physical deficiencies.” (60)
However, this doesn’t work so well in complex, fast-changing situations, where “we will not ever be able to agree on the one best thing, because that simply doesn’t exist.” (73) In these situations, seemingly bewildering or wrong perspectives are likely speaking to something in the system worth paying attention to. Garvey suggests we use “conflict and disagreement as a way to deepen our relationships and expand our possibilities.” (73) When we disagree with others, we can ask ourselves: “Could this conflict serve to deepen the relationship?” When disagreeing about which direction to go in, move forward with a few small experiments and come back in a few months to see which have moved the work forward and how.
In my work with networks and platforms, I help clients design them spaciously enough to hold their constituency, even if they don’t agree. Once the reframe happens, this is not only not hard, it’s exciting.