Balancing the Psychological and the Social

This post was originally published in the TMS Learning Exchange – December 2012.

We seem to live in quite a ‘psychological’ world. A world where everyone understands the words ‘ego’, ‘personality’, ‘psyche’, ‘identity’, ‘self’ and so many other words and phrases that, in some way or other, have a sense of individual creation and then ownership attached to them.

The starting point for a world understood psychologically is internal and individual. The first sentence of the prolog of Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, captures this well:

“My life is a story of self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole.”

One of my sincere hopes for 2013 and ongoing is that we find ways to take the best of this psychological perspective and balance it with a social perspective. A perspective where the words ‘construction’, ’emergence’, ‘transformation’ and ‘interaction’ are better understood as part of what makes us who we are at any one point in time. And that who we are is seen not so much as an identity we own, but one that is more fluid, contextual, and shared in its construction by the countless day-to-day interactions we have with others.

I think the pendulum has swung too far to the psychological side and has created a place, for the individual that psychology has created, that too often is lonely and full of guilt, shame and blame. Perhaps with a little more balance toward the social we can find more ‘human’ places to ‘be’.

As the psychological perspective has taken precedence the idea of the individual has become paramount. We, as individuals, are seen as both born with and having created the identity we now own. We are alone in its goodness or badness, its rightness or wrongness, its worth or lack thereof. And it is the I, the individual, who is seen as having sole and unfettered domain over this identity.

As the concept of the psychological individual has become dominant, what that individual should ‘be’ has been idealized in almost every walk of life. We are inundated explicitly and implicitly with what we should be like as a leader, a manager, a mother, father, daughter, son, consumer, citizen and on it goes. These idealized identities are virtually impossible to attain, yet we are somehow supposed to measure up, and as sole proprietors of our identities it is up to us alone to attain these mythical standards of personhood. And when we cannot reach these heights on our own, we find ourselves in this place of guilt, shame and blame.

The gifts of the psychological perspective; deep reflection, a search for greater awareness, comfort with the transpersonal experiences we all share as well as the vast differences we do not, get lost as the pendulum swings too far. No perspective, exclusive of others, is healthy, and I hope we can let the pendulum swing back a little, and our health as perfectly normal humans can be reclaimed.

What does a social perspective bring, and how might it help us to find balance?

A social perspective brings context into focus. A perspective that reminds us that who we are is significantly affected by the place, time, and people we find ourselves in and with. A focus on context allows us to be a little more the product of the space we find ourselves in and a little less of the person that should be able to transcend that space.

A social perspective brings relationship into focus. Relationship and interaction as immediate causal factors in the emergence of our very selves. As we have discovered through complexity science, the relationship between things may be more important than the things themselves and this can be another way of seeing ourselves. A focus on relationship allows us to believe that the potential for true personal and social change resides in every interaction and allows us to see ourselves less as the expression of innate, unchanging characteristics.

A social perspective brings a focus to the present. A realization that the future resides in the here-and-now and that history can be reimagined by how we think about it today. An acceptance that nothing is more important or real than what, or who stands before us at this moment. An understanding that, while we are dramatically influenced by the weight of our histories and the lightness of our futures, we are not shackled to them since we have the capacity to choose in the present. We have the capacity to choose to act into an uncertain future.

A social perspective brings acceptance to irresolvable paradox. Where context is important, rightness and wrongness become more relative, truth is no longer absolute. The heroes and heroines of yesterday can be the pariahs of today. What is accepted in one place and time is not in another and this can be understood. We can find space for difference while not losing our sense of belief. Paradox need not be resolved.

The social perspective allows for the natural existence of uncertainty. George Herbert Mead talked of a ‘conversation of gestures’, where meaning is not found in the initial gesture alone. Meaning emerges from the interplay of gesture AND response. The incredible complexity of our past and as well as our hopes for the future come to bear on each interaction we have and the outcomes of those interactions are founded on this complexity. Uncertainty exists in every interaction we have. It is normal and natural. Acceptance of uncertainty allows us to fail or succeed and move on, rather than being racked by the impression we should have been able to somehow manage the uncertainty away.

Finding a little more balance toward a social perspective is a challenge. A broad challenge. The psychological perspective has influence from our first realizations that we are a separate being: from the first time we are scolded and told to ‘think about what you have done!’; from the first time we walk into a school and experience a teacher; from the first time we are told who the heroes and heroines of our society are; from the first time we are measured as an individual. We are taught from childhood that we are individuals, and that we are separate and distinct, and these teachings spread into the makings of our institutions, organizations and societies. It no longer seems to be a choice of which perspective we shall take. It is more like the water in our fishbowl, simply an unrecognized need of our existence.

My hope for more balance is not unfounded. As we struggle with the individual consequences of a pendulum swung too far, there are hints that perhaps a choice of perspective does indeed exist. The challenges of unprecedented levels of depression, stress, bullying, and a resurgence of fundamentalism are not being adequately addressed by a psychological approach. There are hints of change needed, some even from within:

James Hillman and Michael Ventura in their book We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy And The World’s Getting Worse say “…Because psychotherapy is only working on that ‘inside’ soul. By removing the soul from the world and not recognizing that the soul is also in the world, psychotherapy can’t do its job anymore.” Robert Aziz in his book The Syndetic Paradigm: The Untrodden Path Beyond Freud and Jung states, “In great contrast then, to the highest symbol of the Jungian Paradigm, the archetype of the self – which is linear as opposed to nonlinear, concretized and fixed as opposed to dynamic – the highest symbol of the Syndetic Paradigm is that of the Empty Mandala.”

But perhaps more importantly for me are the hints of change I see with the people I work with. Having shifted focus away from many of the dominant perspectives that inform organizational development work, most being psychologically based in the service of certainty, I now focus with people on the day-to-day interactions they have. And how those interactions create patterns that may be sustaining and how we might consider changing those interactions. We talk openly about the uncertainty of our organizational lives, and that even in the midst of this uncertainty we will move on together, because that’s what we do.

The stories and experiences people have in organizations resonate with this perspective. We see ourselves much more fully. In many cases we can position the trappings of organizational process and procedure as simply more formal platforms for the continuing conversations that make up what we call organizations.

It is a more balanced perspective I think, and one that seems to fit, just a little better, with what we experience, what we live in our lives and our organizations.

I hope for a balance since a swing too far to a social perspective may create a focus where context is paramount and individual choice is meaningless, where irresolvable paradox swallows belief, and where uncertainty paralyzes decision. No perspective exclusive of others is healthy.

In 1914, on the brink of the first Great War Natsume Soseki in his book Kokoro wrote “Loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern world, so full of freedom, independence and our own egotistical selves.” We have been paying this price for quite some time and my hope is that we now can begin to choose not to pay it quite so much.

I hope that we choose to balance a psychological perspective with a social one and perhaps find ourselves with a different way of understanding where such wars, both internal and external are no longer a price to pay.

Author – Tom


  1. Reply

    An excellent post, Tom. The relational nature of the world, and the challenge that this poses to the dominant individualistic perspective, comes across very clearly.

    I do have some slight unease, though, about your use of the word “balance” in relation to differing perspectives on the dynamics involved in human ‘being’, given what you describe (rightly in my view) as its inherently paradoxical nature – paradox that is, by definition, irresolvable.

    I will think about this further. I feel another comment – or maybe a post – coming on!

    Have a good Christmas, Chris

  2. Reply

    Your comments are always appreciated Chris…. thanks. I would share some unease with the word balance, but I chose to use it anyway. For me it may convey the idea that a focus on the social can create an idealized world of ‘balance’; a ‘vision’ of the future and another iteration of the creative tension model, which I find many challenges with.

    Two reasons for my use of the word. One is simply I couldn’t think of another word that fit effectively 🙂 And the other is that I find the word balance used often in the ‘psychological’ world and perhaps it would strike a chord and make the post more accessible.

    I look forward to your further thoughts and I hope you have a good Christmas as well!

  3. Reply

    Thanks Tom. Apologies for the delay in following-up on my earlier response. Christmas – plus a LinkedIn discussion on a related theme – distracted me somewhat.

    Anyway, as I said in my initial comment, I find your use of the word “balance” in this context an interesting one – given the inherently paradoxical nature of human interaction and our shared belief in the socially complex nature of organization. But I understand your difficulty in finding an alternative word. As you say, it’s in common use and is widely understood in everyday language. Seeking balance is also often seen as the way of resolving tensions arising from competing perspectives, rather than allowing one view to dominate or conflicts to persist.

    However, as you state, paradox is irresolvable. And I wonder if a call for balance might provide a ‘get-out clause’ for those who wish to cling to the more conventional view of organizational dynamics that still dominates orthodox management thinking and governs much of its practice. Your suggestion that achieving such a balance might lead to a better state of affairs than that experienced currently (allowing people to “find more ‘human’ places to ‘be'”) seems to me to reinforce the idea that individuals can control their ongoing interactions in ways that ensure more beneficial outcomes.

    In many respects I see this difficulty as an inevitable consequence of our attempts to describe organizations in terms of processes of interaction, which are both complex and in constant flux – or “wiggly” as I’ve described them elsewhere. To overcome this, I find it useful to distinguish between the underlying, psycho-social dynamics of human interaction (a ‘process’ focus) and people’s intentions and habitual patterns of response, which both form and are formed by the ‘playing out’ of these dynamics in specific contexts (a focus on ‘content’).

    As regards ‘process’, I think that it is important for people to recognize that even when they are inhabiting what they believe to be their own private world and are talking to no-one but themselves (i.e. thinking!) this is still a social act. That is, it draws on their actual and imagined interactions with other people – whether directly or indirectly, mindfully or habitually. In other words, there is only one process ‘in play’ – a process that is, at one and the same time, both a uniquely personal and a communally social act. From this perspective, the notion of balance has no meaning. We are not faced with an ‘either-or’ choice, which privileges one state over the other. Nor, though, do we have a ‘both-and’ decision to make, in which the individual and social are traded-off in some way to arrive at the desired balance point. Instead, the individual and social are different expressions of the same dynamic process of INTER-dependent people INTER-acting together on a continuing basis.

    At the same time, people continually make choices about how, in a ‘qualitative’ sense, they wish themselves and others to participate in this ongoing interactional process, and about the sort of outcomes they desire. These choices relate to what I’m calling the “content” of their interactions. Such choices are both enabled and constrained by the choices of others, of course, as in my description of “process”, above. But people make choices nevertheless. It is in the realm of “content” that the precise nature of differing interpretations, ideologies, interests, and identities take shape. And it’s here that people might, individually and collectively, seek to achieve the kind of balance that you are advocating between personal interest (“the individual”) and the ‘greater good’ (“the social”). Or they might not! What emerges in practice then depends on how the process dynamics play out at that time, in those circumstances and within those relationships.

    I would suggest that it is also in relation to “content” that your observation, “No perspective exclusive of others is healthy”, has a bearing. I don’t think that the same holds true if this statement is applied to the question of “process”: A complex social (or complex responsive) process view of organizational dynamics sits uneasily with what would be considered to be more mainstream perspectives. So I don’t see “balance” as the desired outcome in relation to those competing viewpoints.

    Nor, though, do I see the inherent complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty of human interaction as a recipe for despair. Or as one that requires us – as some argue – to deny these dynamics of organizational life on the basis that people need a sense of certainty and control if they are to function. On the contrary, it underscores the role of local interactions in determining what happens in practice. And it deconstructs “context” as an all-powerful, externally imposed state of affairs; recognizing instead that this is similarly co-created through the local interactions in which people themselves are participating. The proper focus of reflection and reflexivity is then on the dynamics and content of these interactions, including people’s own contribution to the emerging outcomes of the process. From this perspective, the notion of balance has no meaning. The process is, as you describe, inherently and unavoidably paradoxical in all of its dimensions.

    To conclude, you seem to reflect this viewpoint in the brief description that you provide of your own practice, where you say: “I now focus with people on the day-to-day interactions they have. And how those interactions create patterns that may be sustaining and how we might consider changing those interactions. We talk openly about the uncertainty of our organizational lives, and that even in the midst of this uncertainty we will move on together, because that’s what we do.” That is indeed what we do. And, in doing so we might arrive at a more balanced (“more human”) place than we might otherwise have done. Although we might not, of course. And the reason that we don’t know what outcome is likely to occur at any given time, is because we are all engaged in the complex social process of human being. Neverteless, as Ralph Stacey argues, “Managing and leading are exercises in the courage to go on participating creatively despite not knowing.”

    Best wishes for 2013, Chris

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