The Neutrality Trap: A book review by Bob Morris

The Neutrality Trap: Disrupting and Connecting for Social Change
Bernard Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán
Wiley (January 2022)

“What got you here won’t get you there.”  Marshall Goldsmith

My own opinion is that what got you here won’t even allow you to remain here, wherever and however “here” and “there” are defined.

Bernard Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán “look at what it takes for a system to change [or be changed] in meaningful ways — what is required to dig deeply enough and act decisively enough to make a genuine difference on the most embedded, serious problems we face.” Institutional racism, for example. “we argue in this book that by promoting connections across our differences, conflict intervention efforts can play an important role in social change…Dialogue for the sake of dialogue and collaboration for the sake of collaboration, disconnected from commitment to social change, is likely to reinforce the status quo. This is the neutrality trap. Unless our engagement efforts are matched by an equally strong commitment to disrupting oppressive systems, they will fail to make a profound contribution to social change….Disruption too is just part of the process of change.”

They go on to point out, “Another dynamic tension that social movements must be sensitive to is the difference between what we refer to as chaotic disruption and strategic disruption. Chaotic disruptions [e.g. protests after George Floyd was murdered]are essential to social change efforts because they mobilize support, attract a great deal of attention, and force reactions from those in power. But chaotic disruption is hard to measure and difficult to keep clearly focused on the systemic nature of the problems they confront. Strategic disruption — for example, the ongoing actions of the civil rights, anti-nuclear, and environment movements — keep the pressure on for systems change over time.”

As Mayer and Font-Guzmán are no doubt well aware, Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. Neutrals’ lack of courage and conviction can also be explained, at least in part, by what James O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

As I worked my way through Mayer and Font-Guzmán’s lively and eloquent narrative, I was again reminded of the fact that CEOs at GE select their successors. When Reggie Jones selected Jack Welch, he told him to “blow up GE.” Welch then initiated dozens of strategic disruptions of varying nature, extent, and impact. Joseph Schumpeter would characterize this as “creative destruction.” For many (if not most) organizations, the single greatest barrier to overcome is their status quo.  Long ago, Charles Kettering observed, “If you have always done it that way, it’s wrong.”

These are among the other passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Mayer and Font-Guzmán’s coverage:

o Constructive Conflict (Page 7-9)
o Reflective Dialogue: WhatKeeps Us Going  (20-25)
o Self-directed conflict resolution (35-37)
o The Transparency Challenge (37-40)
o Reflective Dialogue: Neutrality (47-50)

o Intersectionality (51-63)
o Conflicts (61-62, 105-112, and 119-125)
o Bases of Racism  (67-70 and 72-75)
o Constructive Conflict Engagement (77-100)
o What Makes Engagement Constructive? (83-86)

o Assessing the Potential of Dialogue (95-97)
o Escalation (113-119 and 172-180)
o Strategies for Enduring Conflict: Durable Communication and Sustainable Power (126-134)
o Reflective Dialogue: Sußtaining the Effort (134-136)
o Three Crutches (139-142)

o Reflective Dialogue: OurvUse of Attributions (164-165)
o Disruption (169-191)
o The Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant Story (175-177)
o Chaotic Disruption (178-181)
o Guns in Mississippi (182-183)

o Reflective Dialogue: Inspirational Stories That Went Viral (188-191)
o Trust and PsychologicalDafety (196-200)
o Reflective Dialogue: Allies for Change (210-212)
o The Power and Vulnerability of the Status Quo  (221-224)
o Reflective Dialogue: The life giving energy of social struggle (228-230)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the quality of the information insights, and counsel that Bernard Mayer and Jacqueline N. Font-Guzmán provide but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of them and their work. I now conclude by presuming to offer two suggestions. First, while reading this book, keep a lined notebook near at hand in which to record your comments, questions, page references, and responses to questions posed by the co-authors throughout the narrative. These two tactics will help to facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of the key material later.

Also, if you share my high regard for this book, I urge you to check out Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams from Isolated to All In, co-authored by Ryan Jenkins and Steven Van Cohen and published by McGraw Hill (March 2022).


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