A Tale of Two Frames

This tale of two frames revolves around opposing views of how an organization is supposed to function. Marshall Rosenberg would call these "strategies". Fisher and Ury, authors of "Getting to Yes" might call them "positions". Some communication models call them "filters" (in our head, not in circuits!). George Lakoff might call them metaphors or the now well-worn term "frames".

triangle One of these frames matches Lakoff's "conservative" (quibble about his terms elsewhere) generalization or frame, which is generally authoritarian, following from what he calls the "strict-father family". This produces the time-tested, traditional (please excuse the insult to traditional indigenous peoples) hierarchy of authority, often pyramidal (depicted as a triangle) which is also the shape of most organizations, including most radio stations.

triangle The other organizational view is consistent with Lakoff's "liberal" frame, mirroring what he calls the "nururant-parent famliy". It involves egalitarianism, fairness, dignity for all, and is found in many groups who practice consensus, from Quakers to anarcha-feminists, co-ops, collectives, and informally in many peer groups (siblings, team members) and indigenous groups. It is arguably the view consistent with actual functioning pluralistic democracy as we imagine we might have in the US. A circle depicts the equality, as seen literally in the seating pattern of egalitarian groups, and carefully-chosen round international negotiation tables.

Before continuing, it is important to note that these frames are extremes, and in actual life, both individuals and organizations often fall somewhere in between, and even choose different models for different tasks or groups within a single organization. It is also important to realize that values are stronger than organizational structure, for example some pyramidal organizations operate democratically (often called inverted pyramids) despite their structure, and some "flat" organizations operate in an authoritarian fahion despite their structure.

Problems occur when different members of a single organization are exhibiting and expecting behavior from different frames. The normal assumptions and behaviors of each frame are toxic to the other, sometimes engendering feelings of danger! The table below shows a few hasty examples of good intentions received badly through the lenses of the other frame.

This workshop will attempt to show how well-meaning people (this is not to discount the very real presence of sociopathology in some individuals) can fall to either side of the divide by just doing what they think is genuinely best for the organization. The humility thereby learned is the first step for re-humanizing the "other" side and realizing their motives are not as horribly irrational as they often seem to be. That irrationality clouds everyone's judgment, making it nearly impossible to resolve disputes or even figure out what's really behind them.

Only two basic groups in active conflict are depicted, but in reality there are usually many other people involved to varying levels, and their responses are going to vary quite a bit. Depending on which glasses they wear -- which organizational frame they are expecting -- they will naturally understand and affirm one "side" (even against their own interests) and usually not the other side -- producing the polarized factions often observed. To choose an example, people at the lowest levels of the organization who are in the authoritarian mindset will affirm their authoritarian management even while that management may be infringing their rights. Brian Martin's writing about whistle blowers further illuminates some of the complexities of the "bystanders", which among other things usually involve people of good principles turning a blind eye to injustice. If these last two points seem familiar, they touch on aspects of citizen behavior common in the latest Bush era. We will study the conflict we enter during this workshop, and informed by a model of conflict, begin to unravel it with a few different methods.

In the end, an irreconcilable difference may still exist. If the decision is to fight, nonviolent strategy has a lot of advantages for convincing or coercing the other side to be more participatory, while its means and organization are egalitarian so the campaign itself is training and practice for that future.

Traditional AuthorityEgalitarian/Consultative
Situation: management sharing a decision
Members ask logistical clarifying questions to effectively implement the decision Members ask questions to understand rationale, measure against mission, express concerns, and possibly co-create something better.
Asking management questions about decisions in private
Purpose: manager gets member "on board" with decision. Convincing through fallacy, seduction, or threat is allowed. Member's questions not to be answered unless the answer gets them "on board". Member seeks to understand manager's proposal, how it flows from and is related to common purpose (mission), and may raise concerns which are expected to be addressed, possibly resulting in a proposal modification.
Asking management questions about decisions in public
Threat to authority. Not being a team player. Management must re-establish authority or lose face and power. Seek to understand proposal and assess how it matches the common purpose (mission), raising concerns about mismatches, propose possible modifications to address mismatches. Proposal will NOT go forward while significant unaddressed concerns persist.
Discussing and critiquing management decisions and edicts among members
Polarizing the organization. Threat to authority. Mutiny. Disrespectful to avoid using proper channels. Benefitting from diversity's wisdom. Safeguarding against decisions counter to mission. Combatting marginalization.
Failing to produce the membership list when requested by a member
Protection. Protecting members from harassment. Securing lines of authority and communication. Squashing divisiveness and pain. Possibly saving face. Censorship. Free speech rights violation. Legal violation. Trying to avoid responsibility to answer relevent questions.