Dr Rudi Webster/File Photo

Commentary by Dr Rudi V. Webster

In today’s complex and rapidly changing world, the need for good leadership and the efficient management of diversity and interdependence have become extremely important.

This hybrid of factors promotes harmony, teamwork and operational intelligence; its absence leads to adversarial thinking, conflict, and substandard performance.

After the abolition of the horrible apartheid system in South Africa, the country was in a potentially explosive situation and people feared that there would be an escalation of conflicts, reprisals and inter-racial violence. But these things never happened because of the wise leadership and inventive thinking of president Nelson Mandela and his clever management of the country’s diversity and interdependence.  Adversarial thinking at that stage would have been disastrous. It would have increased the country’s anger, hatred, and racial divisions.

Hatred is a powerful saboteur in any of its forms – resentment, anger, aversion, spite, or reprisal. If we watch carefully what it does to our feelings and what we do to other people’s feelings when motivated by it, we have no choice but to give it up.

The problems that our thoughts and decisions have created cannot be solved at the same level as they were created. Mandela understood this. He knew that he had to take his thinking to a higher level and operate within a new paradigm in order to save and develop his country.

One only has to look at the polarization and destructive conflict in one of the countries to our north, where diversity and interdependence are poorly managed, to see the sharp distinction between that country’s leadership and the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

Adversarial thinking is one of the most popular forms of thinking. It dominates our debates, politics, governments, courts, sports organisations and everyday living. It is a system in which two opposing sides or ideas fight it out until one side wins and the other side loses; it is the driving force for most of our disputes and conflicts. We erroneously believe that from a clash of opposing ideas better ones will automatically emerge.

In the clash system one side attacks and the other side defends or counterattacks. Participants then become aroused and aggressive, their focus changes, thinking gets rigid and interactions become personal. The parties stop listening to each other and are unable to see the good points in their adversary’s argument. They then blame, demean and discredit each other and do everything in their power to prove their opponents wrong, believing that by so doing they will prove themselves right. Eventually one side wins and is happy and the other side loses and is disappointed and bitter. The side with the greater power, louder voice or stronger argument usually wins the contest. But strength of argument does not always equate with correctness of argument. 

This adversarial or negative system of thinking is very appealing but it usually results in win/loss, not win/win outcomes. It should be part of our thinking but should not be used as the first or only form of thinking.  Yet, this is exactly what happens in many of our sporting bodies, companies and governments.  Adversarial thinking intensifies conflicts; it does not resolve them.

To chart a new path and a new future, leaders in the community and in business, sporting bodies and governments must now make fundamental changes in their thinking and strive to take it to a higher level.

Negotiation is better than the fight approach but it has its limitations. It often takes place after the adversarial approach has failed. It is about bargaining and compromise in which each side gives up something and ends up in a position somewhere between their original positions.  The two sides restrict themselves to what already exists.

Problem solving is a form of thinking that has become very popular. Its purpose is to analyze the problem, find the cause and then remove it. It is better than the two methods that have just been described but it too has its limitations. In a complex environment, we may never be able to identify the right cause; but even if we do, we might not be able to remove it. What do we do then? People who attach a lot of importance to this style of thinking erroneously believe that once the perceived cause is removed, the problem will automatically be solved – remove the dictator and democracy will flourish. Edward DeBono stresses that this does not usually happen because while the cause is in action the effects and adjustments become so widespread that it may no longer be possible to solve the problem by just removing the cause. This type of thinking is prevalent in governments and sports organisations.

Experts claim that design thinking is the best way to prevent and manage conflict. While adversarial thinking, negotiation and problem solving are about the past, design thinking is about the future. It is looking forward to the future to see what can be created. It is primarily about purpose and “fit” and about organising and aligning skills, resources and strategies to achieve or fit a purpose. Sometimes a third party is required to facilitate this kind of thinking.

Sir Garfield Sobers once said that the main difference between great players and the others is not just physical skill but rather the ability to identify the challenges in the situations they are about to face and the capacity to tailor their skills and strategies to fit or meet those challenges.

Humans are again facing complex, threatening and rapidly changing challenges. Like our earliest ancestors who had to survive fast and drastic environmental change and recurring cataclysmic climate change in the Rift Valley of Africa, we must adapt to survive and prosper.  We must tap into the brain’s dormant potential, improve our thinking and use our intelligence wisely to improve teamwork and communication in order to achieve common goals and our preferred future. 


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