The Fundamental Paradox

In organizational communication class, the discussion about organizations begins with the “fundamental paradox.” The paradox has to do with the tension between the needs of individual members of a group and the broader needs of the group as a whole. Individuals want autonomy. They want to act independently, express their creativity, and pursue their own interests. The group, however, needs people to conform. A group has its own agenda which is more than the sum of the desired pursuits of its members. The group has to be able to integrate the plans of individuals into common pursuits enabling people to work together. Thus individuals have to sacrifice some autonomy in order to get along with everyone else, while the group must make sure it does not stifle the creativity and weaken the passion of its members.

A professional trainer has to work with groups of individuals that she or he often does not know well. Quite often, in a training setting, group members are reluctant participants. They may not want to adopt the latest technologies or they may believe they already have the skills they need to do their jobs well. They may have more pressing matters to attend to or hate touchy-feely exercises. Nevertheless, the trainer’s job is to bring the group together, help them to see the value in the workshop session and help them realize how the training will serve the greater good of the organization. Hopefully, the trainer also figures out how to help everyone enjoy what they are learning. It’s a challenging job.

For the last 50 years or so, PT (not PT Barnum, but Pre-Trump), the Republican party has mainly stood for the rights of individuals. It feared the power of the group, especially the influence of the government on people’s lives. Do not restrict individual’s ability to purchase a gun, was a largely Republican theme. Do not force people to buy heath care plans. Let individual business owners establish the minimum wage. Etc. Republicans have been suspicious of any group claims, arguing against affirmative action, social security, welfare, food stamps, public education, and other public (group) goods programs. The individual, the Republicans have asserted, should be left alone to compete against others in a free market. The Democrats, on the other hand, hold that our greatest accomplishments occur when people work together. Individuals, the Democrats believe, when left to their own devices, will hurt others. Individuals need protection. Regulation provides security for all. The common good of the group supersedes selfish individual interests. To bring about change, the Democrats assert, the government has to take action. People sacrificing and working together makes things better for everyone.

Of course, there are exceptions to the Republican and Democratic preferences for the individual or group. These exceptions result from the intersection of politics with historical, cultural, and religious forces. Republicans, for example, tend to have more fervent Christian supporters. So, the Republicans have pushed that group’s agenda. Think about prayer in school and bibles in courthouses. In these cases, the perceived needs of the group are advocated over the rights of the individuals. Democrats, as well, for example, abandon their preferences for groups, when they support the individual’s right to choose. But, overall, PT, the Republicans have favored individual freedoms, while the Democrats have supported the group.

Trump shook up the Republican Party because he does not stick to the party’s tradition of favoring the individual over the group. Trump does not seem to cater to the religious right who want the party and nation to express Christian values. Trump has struggled with Libertarians who are perceived to take the notion of individualism too far, because this comes at the expense of big business where Republicans traditionally want to collectively give owners more power. The Tea Party has supported Donald Trump, but its toxic mix of philosophies has made the Republican Party shift farther to the right with a less firm grasp on core principles beyond opposing the left. When Trump entered the race, the dividing line between Republicans and Democrats was erased, and the Republican Party could no longer have individual rights be the glue that held the group together.

Trump promotes unraveling the Republican/Democratic divide by establishing something akin to a dictatorship. The leader in a dictatorship says individual rights are paramount as long that is, as they the individual being discussed, the dictator, is the leader. Since the leader in this case, knows what is best for the group, there is no need to listen or work to get individuals supporters. Trump promotes individual rights in some cases and group interests in others. He does not have an underlying philosophy of how to manage a group beyond simply telling people what they should do. If we like Trump as the Big Boss, if we expect rewards from taking his side, if we would rather not think at all, Trump will be a great president, until he actually is in charge. The fundamental paradox can’t be dissolved. People tire quickly of being told what to do. They won’t be able accept working for him since his positions aren’t spelled out or justified. Being part of a group that excludes people from other groups may make people feel superior for a while, but ultimately, a political system in a democracy has to make strides to work well for everyone while it preserves individual liberties. The tension between individuals and groups has to be managed or things break down.

It is easy to armchair quarterback. It’s easy to get things done when money does your talking. It is easy to get people behind you when you promise the world and offer painless solutions to long-standing problems. It’s easy to get people to support policies when those “policies” are all about things people dislike. It is difficult to get people to give up some of their autonomy, tamp down their own personal interest, and work hard for the common good. Trump has not had any significant leadership experience building a team. He has simply been the “rich dictator” in his business dealings–buying, bullying, and bartering to serve his interests while caring nothing about the welfare of the group. He is probably honest about his desire to put America first. Just as he has ruthlessly pursued his interests, he expects the president to pursue America’s interests. America, however, is not an individual. It is a group. It’s one country among many in the world, composed of individuals with varying interests. You can’t dictate to this group of diverse individuals for long. You have to listen. You have to learn about America’s interests. You have to think long-term. You have to make people feel good about being an American. You have to make other nations feel good about America or you will turn into a corrupt state like Russia.

A trainer undertakes the difficult task of learning about the needs of the group and the varied interests of individuals in the group. The trainer has to work to unify the group. Being positive and uplifting are two required characteristics. Thinking about the needs of the group while considering the knowledge, skills, and interests of the individual members is the challenge a trainer faces. The trainer has to figure out how to win over critics. That’s leadership. A trainer who dictates will eventually fail or cause the group to decline. Focusing solely on the group or concentrating only on what the individuals want will fail as well. Managing the tension between the individual and the group is the key, both for success in training and in politics.

%d bloggers like this: