Alternative realities

by Terence MacNamee

Renaissance philosophers, basing themselves on an ancient tradition, identified a basic parallelism between the macrocosm, the world or universe, and the microcosm, man. In our own time, this idea continues to be fruitful, at least when it is applied to social macrocosms.

There is a definite parallelism to be observed between contemporary accounts of national cultures, corporate cultures, work styles, and personalities. Whether they are talking about different societies or different types of individuals (and anything in between), observers seem to identify the same patterns and even use the same vocabulary. Exponents of the Enneagram, for example, have not been able to resist applying the personality types occupying the nine positions in the model to whole countries, which is sometimes enlightening, sometimes not. Among writers on management, Charles Handy’s “four gods” model has shown itself to be a neat and witty approach to types of organizations (or sub-parts of organizations) and the types of individuals who fit into them (or fail to do so). He, too, has not resisted the temptation to applying the “four gods” to whole countries, perhaps less convincingly.

A more radical approach was taken by the late Will McWhinney, who had his own four-quadrant model of work styles, which he applied to organizations and individuals. He saw the basic problem of getting anything done as involving people’s “alternative realities”: exponents of different work styles live in different worlds. This bears a striking resemblance to Whorf’s perspective on language and culture. Anyway, the upshot is that these different kinds of people can’t talk to each other. Success in business organizations, according to McWhinney, requires putting together the different realities, harmonizing them; then going upstream and putting them together on a “grand path of change” to solve the organization’s problems and challenges.

If I may be permitted to apply this organizational-level approach to the level of national cultures, it suggests a way of resolving conflicts in intercultural communication. Often today in large organizations, there are different national cultures involved. It is proverbial that these constituencies “can’t talk to each other”, although using English as a lingua franca may for a time create the illusion of communication. The problem is not language, but culture. On the other hand, cultural difference may provide a useful mosaic of “alternative realities”, if only you can give them their due, and try to translate them into one another without giving any one of them the preference. To meet your organization’s challenges, you could map out a “grand path of change”, McWhinney-style, but you would have to know the cultures involved very well. If you do it right, problems and conflicts in the organization could be resolved by bringing the viewpoints of different cultures to bear on them. At a world level – and now we’re really getting to the point – international problems and conflicts could be resolved by bringing the viewpoints of different cultures to bear on them. Instead of trying to find common ground in “universal principles” which are usually just a rationalisation of one culture’s development, you would create a dialogue between the “alternative realities”, each one being as entitled to contribute as any other.