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Why would people speak up if they're only going to be ignored anyway?

By Ian Plowman - posted Monday, 4 August 2003

Recent research I've undertaken with Department of Primary Industries and the UQ Business School, the University of Queensland to investigate innovation in rural towns shows that innovation depends on members of the community exchanging ideas. Sounds logical? Yet the contexts within which engagement and idea sharing are invited obviously do not have wide appeal.

The consequence for rural towns, probably mirrored in our larger society, is that few ideas are openly shared and those with experience of civic participation and responsibility are few. Less obvious, but just as detrimental, is that those few have very little exposure to alternative ways of operating. So why do the "few" engage with civic organizations while the majority do not?

Evolutionary psychology explains "why we are the way we are" not at the surface level of obvious behaviours but at the deeper unconscious level that explains the purpose behind those behaviours.


Research on primates reveals that when resources are centrally located, the primate troupe will organize itself hierarchically, with an alpha male taking the leadership and the rest of the troupe deferent to that leadership. When resources are more widely distributed, the troupe acts in a more collaborative and co-operative fashion.

There is a psychological concept known as "authority relationships", whereby an individual knows how to act when in a position of authority and when subject to authority. This concept develops during childhood. It teaches us how to behave in current and future authority contexts and is completely unconscious. There are three internal authority positions. First, the dependent position, emphasises superior and subordinate hierarchical roles , whose relationships are governed by the position rather than the occupant. Followers of this model are very comfortable with hierarchy and seeks it out, or create it. The second, the counterdependent model, undermines or dismisses hierarchical roles of superior and subordinate. This model is rebellious and fearful of authority as a vehicle of control. The third, the interdependent model, emphasises interdependencies among people occupying various hierarchical roles, acknowledging both person and role dimensions. This model favours context-specific relationships and is more co-operative.

Within social groups, three clusters of social roles, either formal or informal, are clearly distinguishable. There are those who occupy leadership or executive roles, those who occupy the role of technical professional experts, and there are support people. Those who gravitate to leadership or executive roles probably carry a dependency model of authority relationships, know how to manage upwards and expect those over whom they hold authority to be respectful and deferent. Those in expert roles probably carry an interdependent model of authority, willing to provide advice and expertise provided they are treated as an equal. Those in support roles probably represent one aspect of the dependent model of authority, generally regarding themselves as dependent upon someone else. Those carrying the counterdependent model of authority probably regard themselves as outsiders and act accordingly.

My research involving rural towns examined the same three groups; leaders, experts and support people. The most innovative town has the highest level of community engagement. It also has the highest proportion of people who self-define as "experts" and the lowest proportion who self define as "leaders". The least innovative town had the reverse.

The language of the three groups differs. Among support people, their language is generally subjective involving a high proportion of interpersonal questions to foster inclusion. Among experts the language is generally objective and involves a balance of questions and statements. Among leaders the language is generally subjective, disguised as objective, and is largely comprised of statements. In a tape-recorded exercise involving 25 executives from the one organization, working in groups of five, where the task was specifically to obtain information from each other, not a single question was asked. This is the tragedy for society and why most citizens do not engage. Where one maintains one's authority position through pretending to know all the answers and by not having a spirit of enquiry, those who hold a different view of authority see no point in engaging (and they are not welcome when they try).

In order to improve both the level and quality of engagement by participants in social groups, I've developed a protocol that permits any group of people to engage interdependently. Called "Meetings without Discussion"®, this protocol is counterintuitive, easily learned, and, most importantly, effective, not only in engaging people, but in reaching outcomes that are superior to those obtained by conventional "democratic" and social methods. Community and industry groups that are using it find it both fun and effective.


However, the process does have a downside; it manages ego, without seeming to do so. Therefore it favours those more interested in interdependent authority relationships than those interested in uni-directional authority relationships. And yet most of our "modern" social structures are of this ilk. The legislative system, the political system, the judicial system, the industrial relation system, government bureaucracies, modern corporations, even the church, those so-called institutional "pillars" of our society, are all hierarchical and adversarial. It is these unidirectional authority relationships that are antithetical to citizen engagement. Joining any of these institutions is to subjugate oneself to a hierarchical system that demands surrender of personal equality as a condition of membership. Fewer people are willing to pay this price.

However, all is not gloom. Today's society, with higher levels of mobility, and with easier access to information from multiple sources, of which On Line Opinion is a good example, is less forced than previously to be captive to hierarchical systems. Knowledge is indeed power. However, less and less is that knowledge centrally mediated.

Citizens are reluctant to engage in public debate when the systems within which they are "permitted" to do so are unwelcoming and depowering. Entities that emerge to replace these systems, again of which On Line Opinion and Meetings without Discussion® are good examples, do so out of a desire by citizens to contribute as equals.

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About the Author

Ian Plowman is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland's School of Business.

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