Ken and Mary Gergen on Social Construction and Leading Change

Ken and Mary Gergen are recognized thought leaders in the field of social construction. Ken teaches at Swarthmore College and Mary at Penn State University. They are also active in the organization they helped found, the Taos Institute. Ken calls the institute “a group of scholars and practitioners exploring the idea that through our relationships we construct our realities and futures together.”

This husband-and-wife team works in tandem, developing ideas, writing, convening thinkers and practitioners, and promoting social construction. The interview below is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out.

Ken: Our society places great emphasis on the individual, including when it comes to leading change. We place a single person, a champion if you will, at the center of all activity, as if a lone person could be responsible for introducing new ideas and driving them to fruition.
In the constructionist view, the emphasis on the individual is replaced by relationships. Our views of the world are formulated within relationships, jointly created. The implication is that no one person is the originator of an idea. At base, all ideas are created through interactions.

Mary: That’s not to say that there isn’t room for people to shine through, for their presence and influence to be felt. Each person draws on many experiences, a history of relationships, to inform the meaning they make of the world.
And when they interact with others, they bring all these points of view with them. This takes the whole idea of persons as coherent in their views and attitudes and stands it on its head.
If you look at communicating to advance a new way of doing things, social construction is going to tell you to open up the conversation, to bring more people to the table.

Seth: So when you are leading change, dialogue with many different groups is important?

Ken: Often we have a conversation in one relationship, and we expect it to apply across the board. But every interaction circulates assumptions that are locally shared. These ideas don’t always translate to other relationships. They can even unintentionally suppress or dampen other ways of looking at things.

Seth: How do you compensate for this?

Mary: You have to open a space in which people who have radically different ways of looking at the world can contribute. Encourage people who might otherwise be marginalized to give their perspective.

Ken: Every interaction generates meaning unique to its context. Effective leaders have to develop their abilities to include diverse people and spanning these different contexts. In this way creativity is also stimulated.

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One Response to “Ken and Mary Gergen on Social Construction and Leading Change”

  1. […] be said that knowledge is one outcome of relationships. This idea has been developed extensively by Ken and Mary Gergen. In their very readable book on social constructionism, they write: “… as we communicate with […]

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