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The President as Integrator in Chief

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom Barth
April 11, 2021

As my recent class on public organizations and management discussed conflict management, we had the pleasure of discussing the concept of integration as originally developed by the wondrous Mary Parker Follett, who conceptualized the basis for “win win” negotiation techniques long before they became popularized much later in the 20th century. As summarized nicely in an article by Mary Armstrong, Follett believed that:

When differing interests meet, they need not oppose but only confront each other. The confrontation of interests may result in either one of four things: (1) voluntary submission of one side; (2) struggle and the victory of one side over the other [domination]; (3) compromise; or (4) integration (p. 105).

Follett took particular aim at domination and compromise as forms of conflict resolution. Domination is simply exercising greater power you might have at a given point in time and forcing your will upon the other party because you are in a position to do so (e.g., you have the votes). She called compromise “sham reconciliation” because you are only horse trading to achieve a truce and not really addressing the underlying source of the conflict. Follett saw the concept of integration as the highest form of conflict resolution, where the focus is not on different positions but on the wants, interests and values of the different sides.

By focusing on the needs of each party, the “interpenetration” of ideas occurs and creative solutions are unleashed that go beyond any given original position that addresses what both sides really want. Our class modeled this concept in a role play with two sides arguing about the presence of a confederate monument in the downtown of a city. One side took various roles supporting, “Take it down,” and the other side, “Let it stay.” The student appointed as facilitator asked each side to state their positions, and the predictable arguments were made (e.g., the statue is a symbol of racism vs. the statue represents our history). I intervened and asked each side to forget about the statue, and just state what you really want out of this situation. The conversation suddenly switched to, “I want racial healing,” and, “I want my confederate ancestors remembered.”

Both sides then started brainstorming about different ways to address these wants, and it opened up a discussion of alternatives involving museums, battlefields and cemeteries. The key was moving away from positions focused on the statue to what people want; a different focus and energy was released.

Some of my students wisely noted that this concept of integration should be applied to our polarized national political culture today. I think Follett would say that domination is the most commonly seen form of conflict resolution being modeled for the country today. The interest and capacity for coming together and thinking beyond partisan positions to conceive of creative solutions that address the interests of all sides seems to be lost.

An indicator of the prevalence of domination as the way of resolving conflict is the use of Executive Orders. More than a few citizens, Democrat and Republican alike, cringed when on his very first day in office, the same President who earlier in the day asked for unity and pledged that he would be a president for all the people, signed a flurry of Executive Orders, several of which directly reversed Orders signed by President Trump. The point is not whether you agree with the substance of the Orders, but that there is a clear symbolic message: I won, so it’s my turn to immediately exert my will unilaterally.

As Paul Begala once said about Executive Orders: “Stroke of the pen, law of the land. Kind of cool.” It seems to me that Follett would have also cringed, for it had the appearance of resolving political difference by immediately dominating the 74 million citizens who voted for Trump with the stroke of a pen. This is not an indictment of Biden, as this tool is commonly used by every President; rather it is to raise the question as to whether there is a better way based on Follet’s concept of integration.

I am not naïve enough to think that suddenly members of Congress are going to start practicing integration tomorrow, given the deeply divided positions that exist, but perhaps Follett would suggest that Presidents recall the “fireside chats” concept of FDR, where a President would on a regular basis take the opportunity to calmly explain complex issues in understandable terms and how his/her actions are an attempt to address the common wants of all Americans. For example, why use Executive Orders vs. working to achieve an integrative solution through Congress? If the answer is because bipartisan solutions are not possible in this climate, then citizens need to understand this and hold their elected representatives accountable. The reality is that with any conflict resolved through domination, the so-called “solution” will only last until the other side gains power. The pendulum merely swings back and forth, with ultimately no lasting effect or real progress. Everyone loses.

Author: Tom Barth is a Professor and MPA Director at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of organizational behavior, strategic planning, human resource management and ethics. He is a member of the ASPA National Council. [email protected].

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