Complexity and Emergence : Value systems and Complexity

Robert J. Koenigs, Ph.D.
President, SYMLOG Consulting Group
San Diego, California.

Symlog is a measurement system for individual, team and organizational values, validated worldwide over years of study by Prof. R.F.Bales. You can learn more at Contact Bob at

Robert J. Koenigs, Ph.D., President, SYMLOG Consulting Group, San Diego, California.


The article is a personal communication, taken from a "Teamnet" discussion


Leadership training, teambuilding, and organizational development beg for integrated approaches which tie development efforts to actual improvement in overall performance. Yet, these integrated approaches remain elusive. Chaos theory, complexity theory, and in particular, systems theory, can provide specific help.

One way to foster integration is to view the social systems we are trying to improve as "social interaction systems" and bring to bear what is already known about non-linear "systems" in general. The main ideas encapsulated in "tracking the attractor" were brilliantly described by Margaret Wheatley in her book: "Leadership and the New Science". So, I agree that treating an organization as a "social interaction system" has considerable merit and that "Attractors" are important and have a real payoff in practice.

Social interaction systems are subject to the same dynamics as other dynamical systems, i.e., they involve potentials for unification, polarization, deterministic chaos, turbulence, catastrophic collapse ( e.g., genocide, divorce, corrupt bank failures, a coup d'etat ), et cetera. The concept of an "Attractor" ( "a recurring solution to an ongoing problem" ) has considerable practical benefit in the field of performance evaluation. The key to unlocking this rather nebulous code is recognizing that VALUES are central in an understanding any interaction system ( hence the term "evaluation" ).

Please note here that I am focusing on values associated with how people work together ( e.g., protecting less able members, providing help when needed; active reinforcement of authority, rules and regulations; active teamwork toward common goals, organizational unity ) not on a higher order set of values debated in political circles today ( e.g., values on privacy vs. the public's right to know; "choice" vs. right to life; justice vs. mercy ). Again, the values I have in mind directly effect the interactions people have when they work together.

If the purpose of ( performance or program ) evaluation is to "evaluate / determine progress" towards some optimal state ( not steady state, but towards an optimal range of expressed values ) in a dynamical system ( of any type ) this is indeed a search for "effective" solutions to recurring problems. In social systems these problems are critically associated with dominance vs. submissiveness, accepting vs. opposing established authority, and friendly vs. unfriendly behavior. In this three dimensional framework, certain values may be seen to "contribute" to effective teamwork; be "necessary at times but dangerous" to effective teamwork ( if overemphasized ); and/or clearly "interfere" with effective teamwork. Please note that all of these values ( contributing, necessary at times but dangerous, and interfering with teamwork ) are always ( and I want to underscore always ) at play in any team, at any time, and may/will wax and wane depending on the competing pressures perceived to be in place by the persons involved in "the situation".

Values as colors ?

At this point, this story may seem to be getting to be too complicated ( for me ) and my fellow teamnetters. Fortunately, "complexity theory" helps us to differentiate between that which is complicated ( i.e., that which has no discernible underlying patterns ) and that "surface complexity" which arises from "deep simplicity" ( a la DNA codes ). ( Thank you Murray Gell Mann for this insight into interaction systems. ) My hope is to explore with you the "deep simplicity" inherent in the complex interaction of values in human interaction.

Individual and Organizational Values may be arrayed in a spectrum ( much like the color spectrum ) and are inherently bi-polar ( e.g., every "good" value has an opposite "bad" value which may actually change its "valence" and be endorsed or rejected depending on the situation ). This spectrum of values is actually a "system of values" that involves the entire system of values interacting with each other and giving rise to, and being influenced by, a dynamic field of forces ( a la Lewin's field theory ). This "field" of interacting values is inherently unstable and unpredictable. They ( the values ) all "hang together" as an infinitely malleable gestalt. A social interaction system ( put simply, people interacting with each other ) is subject to all the non-linear dynamics described in complexity theory, chaos theory, and other methods of describing dynamical systems.

Cardinal Leadership sins

Lest this be seen as too abstract, let me be more concrete. Value conflicts inevitably lead to perceptions of the cardinal sins of leadership, i.e., a violation of trust, an abuse of power, and the undermining of legitimate authority. ( One only need to follow the impeachment process in the United States to recognize these principles in action regardless of your political perspectives ). The same dynamics certainly apply in every family and workplace. Of course, most leadership training programs, most teambuilding efforts, and each organizational development intervention is intended to countermand ( and actually overcome ) these unproductive tendencies in everyday life.

I doubt that few will disagree that OD efforts, coaching activities, teamwork strategies, and personal therapy are intended to produce greater trust, better communication, increased productivity, reduced waste, less stress, more satisfaction, and higher integrity in whatever social interaction system we might address. Every team-based project I have been asked to develop has had as a goal increased cooperation, better communication, higher productivity, reduced stress, and greater satisfaction and financial profit ( among other important "bottom-lines" such as a need to protect our ecosystems and global environment ). In essence, every project seeks integrity but not every intervention is integrated.


Let me ask at this point: What is it that needs integration ? Here is where "Attractors" become very important. One cannot understand ( or measure ) Attractors without thinking in terms of vectors, valences, and ( especially ) values. The key to the evaluation of any interaction involving humans ( working with each other ) resides in the underlying and interacting system of values at play in the situation. Of course, technical competence and the integration of technical solutions is crucial, but is not measured in the same manner, with the same tools, or with the same instruments. Let those who do measure these technical performance characteristics continue to do what they do best. These technical criteria are generally easier to set, observe, and measure. For the moment, we are focusing on the "soft side" ( and much more difficult side to measure ) of the enterprise.    

Start here..

Individual and Organizational Values ( e.g., dedication, faithfulness, loyalty to the organization ) are inferred from behavioral acts ( both verbal and especially non-verbal ). These acts may be observed in the policies and procedures outlined in an organizations charter, legally specific manuals, and everyday "ways of doing things". These ( formal and informal ) "ways of doing things" can be thought of as making up the "organizational culture". At a more microscopic level, a "team" develops its own "ways of doing things" which are reflected in the "norms" ( i.e., unwritten rules ) which guide leader and member interaction. These "norms", of course, are value-laden and, although invisible, are quite powerful in influencing leader/member behavior. At an even more microscopic level, individuals behave -- are observed by others -- inferences are drawn -- and evaluations are made concerning the "values" this person shows in his or her behavior.    

Quality of relationships

The Quality of the Relationship is influenced by the values shown in the interactions

The point here is that values which are perceived to be aligned with the values held to be "good" by the observer will tend to unify with the values the observer perceives to be effective, while those values which are seen as opposite ( i.e., Bad" ) tend to polarize or fracture the relationship. The results are ( interaction ) system stresses which tend to drain ( or maximize the use of ) energy, distort ( or tend to focus ) attention, reduce ( or tend to add to ) a shared and coherent vision, dissolve ( or tend to solidify ) character and commitments, strain ( or tend to enhance ) trust, produce ( or tend to reduce ) an experience of pain/satisfaction, and are ultimately unproductive ( or productive ) for the individual, team, and/or organization. In the end, the society, nation, organization, group ( i.e., division, department, ) and individual leader/member is either more or less effective in dealing with these always ( potentially ) conflicting system effects. The discovery of "Attractors" give us hope for actually being helpful as professional OD consultants, coaches, teambuilders, negotiators, mediators, therapists, adult educators, facilitators, cross-cultural researchers, global partners, et cetera.

This dynamical process of a system of values competing, conflicting, overlapping, and drifting/shifting across time and across situations will in fact display patterns that are not random and yet are not fixed. Re-occurring patterns are identifiable, and the general directions of movement become somewhat ( and thankfully, sufficiently ) predictable, if one has a measurement instrument sensitive enough to track the dynamic tendencies as shifts in the unification, polarization, building up of tension, and the collapsing of tension within the social interaction system take place.

The bottom line on all this is that efforts to improve organizational culture, teambuilding, and individual leadership effectiveness can be "evaluated" if one has a method for determining the current level of performance relative to an optimum level. To be even more concrete, let me say that people tend to get along and work well with people who are perceived to share common values and tend to conflict with, avoid, and reject those who are perceived to hold opposing values. Teams work well together when the "espoused values" are reflected in the "actual values" shown in the behavior of members. Organizations thrive and adapt to a changing environment when, for example, values associated with maintaining stability are balanced with values promoting creativity and change, values promoting group solidarity are balanced with values promoting individualism and risk, and values promoting prominence and power are balanced with values which support listening, caring, trust, and dedication. Fortunately, these dynamics can be measured, displayed, and feedback can be provided to help guide efforts in these strategically important areas.

I am not able to outline the whole theory ( developed by Bales at Harvard ) and methods here but did want to support a good idea ( "Tracking the Attractor" ) without identifying with the way it was presented to teamnetters. If you would like to see a striking picture of an "Attractor" and learn more about the particular way we "track Attractors" in social interaction systems, I invite you to visit one particular page on Symlog's   web site to see the results of tracking what 104,000 people feel are an optimum mix of Individual and Organizational Values worldwide.

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