What are the fault lines that are appearing as a reaction to the crisis?
Roger Lehman, Professor at INSEAD Singapore, Fontainebleau & Abu Dhabi
and MIT Senior Lecturer
Fault lines are hypothetical dividing lines that split a group into relatively homogenous subgroups based on members’ demographic alignment along multiple attributes (Lau & Murnighan, 1998). Fault lines are often invisible and woven into our daily lives; they come to the fore under moments of extreme pressure and stress.
Covid-19 has exposed the fault lines, both within ourselves, and in the systems around us. This session looks at what these fault lines look like as well as the rackets, or defensive reactions in response to them. In raising awareness of these fault lines and rackets and putting them onto the table for discussion, we can enable people within the different systems to work collaboratively to address emerging issues together. To get to this constructive space, we will need to maintain reflective spaces which are psychologically safe in order to discuss issues, contain risks and anxieties and meet others where they are, with empathy.
The whole concept of fault lines and rackets originated in astronomy, is part of a larger perspective called constellation dynamics, which involve large complex systems interacting with one another.
Within our world, we have our own complex systems: governments, organisations, teams, family dynamics, each with their own complexity.
I. Fault lines and dysfunctionalities within our systems
- Fault lines are part of human existence and we cannot get rid of them. They become more powerful if we ignore or deny their role in our life.
- In times of internal and external stress, fault lines tend to become more visible.
- Some fault lines are easy to recognise; others are less evident unless we consciously make an effort to think about them.
- All systems - individual, teams, organisational and family systems - are typically inadequate to identify and deal with fault lines. Like deeply ingrained biases and stereotypes, we assume this is the way things are.
- Fault lines, when they emerge, are often associated with increased conflict and process losses, which lead to decreased performance.
Group discussion revolved around common fault lines at different levels, as well as triggers and constructive responses to those fault lines. A different approach was also observed, on how crisis can also neutralise pre-existing fault lines, turning dysfunction into learning and transformative moments.
- Exposing dichotomies at different levels:
- Internal dynamics: Balancing moments of fragility and ability to self-actualise
- Family dynamics: Those without children have less time and need to multi-task and those without can devote more time to work or exploring other activities; distribution of responsibilities in couple dynamics; interweaving of home and professional life
- Work dynamics: Working at home provides flexibility vs not feeling essential; enjoying quality of life vs need to have an income; leaders/owners who have agency to make decisions vs employees who have to deal with what’s decided for them
- Systems dynamics: Reacting to change vs using it as opportunity to consciously reshape and redefine the new norm; firefighting mode vs helicopter/big picture view; bringing to the table the discussion on where does responsibility lie?
- Alternatively, crisis can also neutralise previous fault lines: While stress can trigger or amplify pre-existing fault lines, previous divisions can give way to better communication, focus, efficiency and cooperation during moments of crisis. With Covid-19 and distance working, traditional work hierarchies and ways of working are also being challenged.
- What can we do about it? Develop a common sense of purpose, build trust, communication, clarity (make things explicit) and direct engagement (putting people in the front lines of the issues)
- What types of leadership are needed?: Negative capability and ability to work with uncertainty, flux and complexity
One comment triggers food for thought: "Fault lines are neither good or bad. It is an experience".
While fault lines can be disruptive and cause great anxiety and turmoil, there is a power in making the invisible visible. It provides us with an opportunity to work on dysfunctionalities and rethink and reshape our systems.
II. Rackets, or our defensive responses
Rackets are responses to fault lines and encompasses differences we identify to differentiate ourselves from others. A racket is a story or “scam” which covers up what is really going on. The concept originated in the US in the 1930s during the prohibition age when people were not allowed to buy or consume alcohol. As a result, there was an emergence of speakeasys, with a secret door opening up to places where alcohol is served.
- Rackets are fixed patterns of responses to help justify our fault lines.
- They tend to be sweeping generations or persistent complaints about others
- They are expressions of individual or team defensiveness and at the team/organisational level can be understood as social defenses.
- Reponses: Typical reactions include  dominate (“I’ll get even”),  submissive/conform (“I’ll pretend it doesn’t matter”) and  disconnect (“I give up or check out”)
- Payoff: Protect us from taking accountability or acknowledging our role in the situation, do not have to challenge or stretch oneself
- Cost: Quality of relationship goes down, work is less effective and more frustrating
Common themes from group discussions include:
- “In” and “out” group attributions: Automatically criticising the “other” and reinforcing ones position rather than seeking mutual understanding; some people perceived as not stepping up to their responsibilities, teachers, governments, businesses – perceptions which could also reflect a lack of empathy for where others were coming from.
- Workers with and without children: Assume women are better at home life, so responsibilities tend to be conferred to them. Workers with younger children have more responsibilities and need to manage their time, while those who do not can essentially invest all their time into work.
- Those who have choice vs no choice: Disparities of between professional digitally connected workers and frontline workers often low paid exposed to health risk and disruption of employment. Underlying this is the with power and privileges.
- Inaction and resignaton vs growth and ability to thrive: Believing that there is nothing one can do in the larger scheme, leading to resignation and inaction, while in reality, there are some smaller things one can do to regain a sense of control and agency. Difference between those who have internal resources and mental robustness and agility to navigate the crisis compared to those who are more fragile.
- Integrating new learning to old paradigm vs clinging to the past : Large scale distance working has shown that people can work a lot and work well, without the traditional controls imposed by organisatons. Will people remain submissive to control systems when they transition back to the “normal” workplace? What is the return to work process after this crisis?
- Reversing rackets: Instead of focusing on defenses, we can change our perspectives and reframe by reconnecting to onself through self compassion, being vulnerable, and empathy, and from that create bridges to the "other", by perceiving them as not belonging to a different group, but as being simply human.
Rackets can further entrench fault lines because people and groups stick to their own positions and narrative, rather than look at and question what’s really going on. One way to counteract this is to lift up empathy levels as well as demonstrating vulnerability (being forgiving and able to apologise) to create constructive dialogue between the different groups.
III. What do we do with fault lines and rackets?
Because fault lines and rackets can be dysfunctional and create high levels of stress and frustration, we need to step back and ask ourselves “What is going on here?”, instead of proceeding on automatic pilot.
A perfect example is the Covid-19 virus which has exposed a number of fault lines and dysfunctionalities in our systems: governments, health care, organisations, and more locally in teams and families.
Instead of defaulting to our rackets and defenses, this is an opportunity for us to be aware of them and to address them in order to allow us to be more effective in the systems in which we are engaged. We can do so by asking:
- What is the primary task (work to be done)?
- What are the anxieties associate with the primary risk?
- What are the crucial fault lines?
- What rackets have developed?
- What is the level of psychological safety within the team? Organisation?
- How can we best contain and address the risk and anxiety?
- What questions or issues are being avoided?
- Whose voice is not being heard? Who are the scapegoats?
In order to bring these issues to the table, we will need to create and maintain reflective spaces, to get off the dance floor and up to the balcony, and to help others to go to the balcony with us.
Within this space, the use of self as instrument, fair process, psychological safety, dealing with social and personal defenses, asking questions, maintaining negative capability as well as other practices such as a common sense of purpose, trust, communication and empathy are important to ensure that different parties work collaboratively towards mutual understanding and decision.
IV. Moving from reflection to choice to impact
To summarise, crisis situations can be tranformed into learning and growth opportunities. It starts with a posture of curiostity, which in turn triggers questions (instead of the search for fixed answers,). This in turns expands ones awareness to generate new insights. With new insgiths, we broaden our options in ways we think and can behavie, which in turn opens up choices which were unavailable before. The presence of options and the ability to chose help us to shift our behaviour and change, in turn, creating impact.
Fault lines are therefore liminal spaces. They do not exist but are holding spaces where a lot of energy resides. What we do with this space and its energy is up to us.
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