From Control Dynamics to Differentiation and Co-Arising Intelligence

by Amina Knowlan | March 2007

"This, ultimately, is the essence of integrity: to live, and to lead, in ways that can cope creatively with views of reality other than our own. If our capacity to lead stops at the frontier of difference, our world will become painfully small. If we can cross that frontier and work effectively with those different from us, we can step out of the prison of sameness. We can actually find the freedom to live, and to lead across borders."
— Mark Gerzon (1)

"Inside me, inside each on of us, there is an infinite range of potential selves waiting to be evoked through relationship to others. The other is my opportunity, my necessity for growth. The otherness of the other, his difference, is a possibility sleeping within myself…. On a quantum understanding of the phrase, agreeing to disagree… is the agreement upon which we can build our pluralistic consensus."
— Danah Zohar (2)

The Classic Model of Control Dynamics

Control, in the language of classic group dynamics, is the response (of the individuals, relationships and the organism) that attempts to manage or regulate differentiation. It is an attempt to make the threat of differentiation and ensuing chaos manageable, tolerable, and safe. Control can be thought of as a conscious or unconscious, overt or covert attempt to influence or regulate what happens in a group. These dynamics rest in the fact that we are all steeped in the paradigm of mechanistic reality that shapes us as separate entities. They occur in the paradigm of top-down, win-loose hierarchical structures and processes.

Once a group is reasonably well formed, it moves naturally into the stage of differentiation (classically called a control phase). In this stage the group, like a human being in its adolescence, must differentiate from its “parents.” In order to define themselves as separate, unique individuals, adolescents must define themselves as different than the values of their parents’ generation. They must push against, or “rub up against”, the authority that their parents represent. Similarly, for a group, this often means challenging the perceived or actual authority. In group development theory, these dynamics are described as ones of control, competition and conflict.

In a Matrix group, when the group comes to depend on the connections between people—vs. the authority or the structure, etc.—we must differentiate from the top-down model of control itself. Rather than seeking to “manage” conflict, we seek to create enough healthy connection, communication and feedback between people (and subgroups or departments, companies, states or nations) to enhance and facilitate the process of differentiating. It is, in fact, healthy differentiation that leads to sustainable growth and the capacity for evolutionary co-arising intelligence in any context.

Toward a Model of Differentiation
To understand this fundamental shift, we first need to grasp a few concepts from systems theory. Rabia Elizabeth Roberts (4), a Sufi teacher who is a long time student of spirituality and science, articulated this simple map (of something infinitely complex). She summarized three principles of the nature of the Universe.

  1. Differentiation. The emergent Reality is at its most essential a differentiating process. The universe works because it is coded to become more and more different in its components parts. To be is to be constantly differentiating.


  2. Interiority. In this diversity a second principle becomes apparent. Interiority—everything has an inner experience. Things are different because everything that is –is “Itself”—has it’s own truth, its own immediacy....


  3. Communion. Everything in the universe is connected to everything else. No differentiated being could survive or evolve without being in interaction with others.


She goes on to say that, “to be yourself, you have to be radically dependent on others.” This fact of existence is at the heart of all Matrix principles and practices. It is the realization that human beings are all interdependent, not only with other humans, but with all of life. One of our senior Matrix Trainers, Deb Sherer , likened the process of differentiation to a snake shedding its skin. The snake cannot shed its skin by itself. It must rub up against a tree or a rock in order to shed the old skin.

Each of us is born with and develops a fundamental self to manage the complex tasks of creating a life. It goes without saying that no two individuals are alike. Each is a unique, different “other” human being. When two human beings are willing to interact about their differences and stay engaged in a dialogue that values both individuals, differentiation occurs. When we encounter something different in an other, and are willing to stay in this “rubbing up against” the difference, the habits or behaviors that do not serve the evolution of the relationship (the whole), fall away. In simple evolutionary terms, that which is “weaker” gets released.

Sounds simple enough, two people dialoguing about their differences. Now take this picture of a pair and magnify it by the number of pairs in any circle or group. When we shift to the understanding that we are all inter-connected, any difference being expressed between a given pair of individuals represents a subset of differences that exists between many other pairs in a given territory. For example, differences between men and women arise in the territory of gender differences. Competition about whose ideas determine the focus of the group arises in the territory of differences in styles of expression. Often individuals with a more verbal, cognitive style who tend to initiate, are forming a pattern of unconscious dominance. There is not enough consciousness to provide space for a differentiation in styles. Here, we begin to hint at the complexity of the territory we are attempting to navigate.

In Matrix groups we open the lens on our collective assumptions of having individual personal power. When we are connected, we are all instruments of the whole or the Divine. When I am in connection with others in such a way that I am continuously bringing my voice, my wisdom, and my gifts into the quantum dance with the wisdom of each, “equal, different, other,” together we mutually empower each other and harvest the fruits of our collective voice and our collective dance on this earth.

(1) Gerzon, Mark. Leaders Beyond Borders, republished as Leading Through Conflict, Harvard Business Press, 2006.
(2) Zohar, Danah with Marshall, Ian. The Quantum Society: Mind, Physics, and a New Social Vision.
(3) Knowlan, Amina. Matrix Leadership: The Art & Science of Creating Sustainable Groups, Communities and Organizations. March, 2007, forthcoming. All rights reserved.
(4) Roberts, Rabia Elizabeth, from a lecture given in a class entitled, “Women and Mysticism,” 2005.
(5) Cogburn, Elizabeth, from various teachings & personal conversations at Sun Dance, 1982 – 1992.

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The saying - "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" - the Matrix group allowed me to follow the path of someone else and her ancestors - for hundreds of miles, across oceans, over decades, even centuries, without ever giving up my own shoes, my own ancestors, my own truth.
— E. Smith
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