"The weak lose themselves in God; the strong discover Him in themselves." ~ Allama Iqbal

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Mary Parker Follett on Constructive Conflict

In an essay entitled Constructive Conflict, Mary Parker Follett suggests that we reconsider conflict, not as something that is good or bad, or that must judged one way or another, or that is even considered warfare. Rather, she states, conflict is, essentially, "the appearance of difference, difference of opinions, of interests." 

She shares that it's not useful to condemn conflict, but that we ought to put it to use.  I ask the reader to reflect on the similarities between Follett's psychology of constructive conflict and Allama Iqbal's philosophy of the nature of the social organism, consensus-seeking, and how to achieve a dynamic social stability.

I personally find Follett's commentary on conflict as difference to be quite useful in consideration of a spiritual psychology for not only the individual but for nations as well.  If we think of the political contention in various nations (and between those nations), how refreshingly useful it would be to put to work this re-framing of so-called conflict as difference toward attaining a new social harmony.

On the inevitability of difference, in life, Follett references a passage from her very interesting book, Creative Experience:
"What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity, and it is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same. We may wish to abolish conflict, but we cannot get rid of diversity. We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature...Fear of difference is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned."
Follett speaks to how conflict can indeed be constructive.  She shares an analogy of how the friction that comes about from the driving wheel of a locomotive and the track is necessary to haul the train. She shares: "All polishing is done by friction. The music of the violin we get by friction."  In this manner, she points out that the arising and meeting of differences is what brings change.
Follett outlines three main ways of dealing with conflict: domination, compromise, and integration. She describes domination as the easiest way to deal with conflict, but not the most successful in the long-run.

She states that compromise seems often appropriate as a way to deal with conflict, but that it almost always leads to the conflict arising again and again, in different forms. This is so, she states, because we have to give up part of our original desire and, not being content to rest there, we seek to get the whole of it. Conflict, therefore, continues to re-emerge in various forms.  
With integration, unlike domination and compromise, differences are brought out into the open so that a solution can be found in which both desires (differences) find a place in which neither side has to sacrifice their wishes.  Each party's (underlying) needs are identified and met in what, in today's world, might be called a win-win arrangement.

Integration is, then, an appearing and focusing of differences wherein something new is created out of an original set of seemingly incompatible choices.  Integration involves "invention, and the clever thing is to recognize this, and not to let one's thinking stay within the boundaries of two alternatives which are mutually exclusive." While domination and compromise deal with what already exists, and thus nothing new is created, integration, as "a moment in the interacting of desires," creates something new.  What Follett describes is nothing less than Deep Consensus through a psychological, and one might even say alchemical, coming-together of people and their differences.  
She argues that "progressive differings" can lead to "progressive integrations." This, she writes, is how an individual and a society "becomes spiritually more and more developed as our conflicts rise to higher levels."  If conflict means the appearance of differences, as Follett describes, progressive differings and integrations may then point to a path of evolution wherein an individual or groups of individuals create more and more unity (integration being the channel of birth) in diversity.

So how do we integrate? Follett writes that the first step is to bring the differences out into the open. She warns, however, that one barrier to this is that, if our real aim is not to integrate, but to dominate, then integration will fail. We must strongly desire to bring the differences out into the open, to meet in a field of desires, and to create something new for the benefit of everyone. We must really want conflict (i.e., differences) to become settled, and thus rise to higher conflicts (i.e., a higher form of dealing with ever more subtle differences), and new creations of individual and social harmony. 
Only integration, she argues, will stabilize differences.  She highlights, however, that “stabilize” is not static.  She states very simply, “Nothing ever stays put.”  Particular conflicts are settled after which further ones arise, but on a higher level.  There is a deep spirituality implicit in her discussion of integration. 
When the differences are uncovered and squarely faced, there is often a revaluation of them. She argues that many contentious conflicts can be avoided by bringing "the desires of each side into one field of vision where they could be viewed together and compared." In her very quotable style, Follett writes: "Revaluation is the flower of comparison."
If the first step is to bring differences out into the open, the next step is to  “take the demands of both sides and break them up into their constituent parts,” something Follett refers to as the “breaking up of wholes” in order to create something new, a new whole.  She advises, for this step, that one must seek to “find the significant rather than the dramatic features,” and that a thorough “examination of symbols” occurs.  By this, she means that we must sink beneath the claptrap of dramatic look-at-me behaviors (of the individual or group), seeking instead to find the real, underlying reason behind conflicts.

She mentions how the person “with a genius for leadership” is indeed the wo/man who can articulate the whole-demand, instead of merely part of it. Focusing on only part of the entirety of demands (differences) is a pathway into domination and/or compromise.  It is the wom/an who can speak for all people, including all, and excluding none.

Follett’s psychology of integration is impressive.  She goes on to describe how we need to be very aware of the “circular response.”  She writes: “We must remember that whenever we act we have always ‘started something,’ behavior precipitates behavior in others.”  She adds, “I can never fight you, I am always fighting you plus me.  I have put it this way: that response is always to a relation.”  In a very practical way, Follett argues that we “should work always with the evolving situation, and note what part our own activities have in that evolving situation."  She very much expresses an understanding of human interaction that is nowadays put forth as Emotional Intelligence.

Concluding her essay, she highlights some obstacles to integration.  These include:

1.  The tendency for people to want to fight instead of coming together. This would even include the addiction some people might feel toward the thrill of fighting.
2. Over-emphasis on intellectual agreement alone. Follett warns against this, stating that genuine integration is more likely to spontaneously arise when intellectual theorizing ceases, and a definite course of action is initiated.  
3. She mentions that the language used to work toward integration is of vital importance.  We need to choose our words carefully, when seeking to come together with others (e.g., political parties) just as we would choose our words carefully to soothe the feelings of a spouse.
4. She also cites the “undue influence of leaders – the manipulation of the unscrupulous on the one hand and the suggestibility of the crowd on the other," as another obstacle.  She cautions that the “whole emotional field of human intercourse has to be taken fully into account in dealing with methods of reconciliation.”  This is, again, an example of Follett’s identification of priorities that would later become known as Emotional Intelligence.  Having said this, however, I also acknowledge that Follett's philosophy is, in my opinion, of a unique depth distinct from Emotional Intelligence.
5. Follett states that, by far, the greatest obstacle to integration is our lack of training in it.  She points to how we are taught to debate with others, seeking always to be right.  This, she argues does not support our skills or our desire for integration.  She states, and I agree, that “there should be classes in discussion which should aim to teach the ‘art’ of cooperative thinking."  Follett points out not to confuse cooperative thinking with simple openmindedness (i.e., to others’ opinions).  Cooperative thinking “needs just as great a respect for your own view as for that of others, and a firm upholding of it until you are convinced.  Mushy people are no more good at this than stubborn people.”  
In conclusion, Mary Parker Follett shares this as the most important process, not only for business and government, but for all human relations.  
We are "not to adapt ourselves to a situation – we are all more necessary to the world than that; neither to mould a situation to our liking – we are all, or rather each, of too little importance to the world for that; but to take account of that reciprocal adjustment, that interactive behavior between the situation and ourselves which means a change in both the situation and ourselves."
Follett was a change-agent, disseminating her astoundingly progressive ideas for the benefit of everyone.  Perhaps we can pick up these ideas, create something new, and discover a new unity in our diversity.


  1. She has defined conflict beautifully. I agree with her.

    1. Dear Ranu,

      Thank you for your visit.

      I do find Follett's descriptions of conflict and cooperation very useful.

      All good wishes,


  2. Greetings Dear Robert,

    Thank you so much for sharing this insightful article with us! I absolutely loved it. I haven’t read much of Mary Parker Follett’s work, but I will definitely explore it now! I read that she wrote a lot on management as well, which seems very intriguing, considering her ‘humanities-driven’ approach.

    ‘Conflict, is essentially, “the appearance of difference, difference of opinions of interests’’.
    ‘…it is not useful to condemn conflict, but that we ought to put it to use.’’

    She really makes a valid point when she notes that one shouldn’t condemn conflict, but utilize it in a constructive manner. In our society, conflict is seen as only something negative and is often occurs when two individuals or more, strive to convey ‘their’ own thoughts, without leaving any room for other thoughts. While focusing, I am right and he/she is wrong. We can envision this as individuals cutting themselves off from others by creating ridged barriers around them, while forcing their ‘view’ on those around them. I believe her thoughts are very much like Iqbal’s philosophy as both strive to create a harmonious society based on unity and equality.

    “What people often mean by getting rid of conflict is getting rid of diversity and that is of the utmost importance that these should not be considered the same…We must face life as it is and understand that diversity is its most essential feature… Fear of differences is dread of life itself. It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.’’

    This argues that, the same scenario can be approached in a constructive manner by creating bridges (so we may learn to value and cherish diversity). When we actively listen to others (and understand it, not simply use their time to speak as an opportunity to rehearse what we are going to say in order to prove we are right regardless), we are able to create a bridge between ourselves. A bridge founded upon understanding the other (being able to look through the eyes of the other), moreover a bridge that allows the ridge walls of ignorance to fall and make room to explore the land of the ‘unknown’. This approach can definitely help us in various ways, not only does it lead to unity and oneness of our society, but also can help us grow in terms of self-development – as one can see ‘a conflict’ as an opportunity of for growth. This can be enhanced through the process of self-reflection and through the concept of emotional intelligence.

    Thank you once again!

    Best wishes,

    1. Dear Shaidi,

      Thank you for your visit and comments.

      As you highlight, a lot of what MPF wrote very much shaped emerging management models. I read her now because of my love for Iqbal, as well as my own involvement in management, and evolution as a leader.

      MPF states that conflict = difference. It is that human drive-to-be-right that brings us to frame difference/diversity as "bad." Adjust our aim, and we will reach new ground.

      I think it's significant how she points out that, if it is the case that conflict = difference, then it's setting oneself for inevitable unintegrated conflict that can become pathological (she speaks on this the essay), as manifest life itself *is* diverse. As she says, "Fear of differences is dread of life itself." It's like adopting, a priori, a perspective that is entirely unfitting to manifest life itself.

      I note your reference to bridges. I personally sense bridge-building, in the manifest world, as spiritually analogous to a deep, inner force. Bridges connect, allow traveling, and enable new worlds to be born, not unlike angels.

      All good wishes,