Books Reviews

Book Review: How Does Societal Transformation Happen?

How Does Societal Transformation Happen? Values Development, Collective Wisdom, and Decision Making for the Common Good is a small 87 page book, or booklet, by Leonard Joy.  Joy has more than half a century of experience of development research and fieldwork, and a long involvement with collaborative decision-making processes.1

Valuing human dignity
Leonard Joy sees individual values development as a prototype for societal transformation,2 and has much to say about collaborative discernment and collective decision-making for the common good.3 He starts with the proposition that we need to accept responsibility for the future of the planet and need to seek a society that values human dignity.4

Living systems
Living system die if they fail to interact adaptively to their environments.5 Living requires continuous structural accommodation in response to interaction with the context.6 Individuals adapt to society, and society to changing individuals.7

Key assumptions
The booklet is based on the view that:8

  • Values are reflected in our choices and behaviors.
  • Values develop (higher values build on lower ones).
  • Societal transformation involves a progressive shift in values.
  • Individuals mature as values develop.
  • Values development is a potential common to all individuals.
  • Individuals, societies, and the human species co-evolve.
  • A minimum level of values development is required to sustain the environment, society, and progress of the human species.
  • Shifts in values supported by organizations depend upon shifts in individual values.
  • Understanding how values shift occurs is helpful in understanding how to promote societal transformation.

All self-organizing living systems change continuously. Leonard Joy’s concern is how to promote transformational change.9 Individual life-changing transformations have relevance for societal change.10 Personal transformation shifts the relationship of the individual to the other. And societal transformation shifts relationships between people, and between individuals and society.11

Reflection is key to change
Individuals change through their lives. Values evolve through experiences and reflection.12 Key metaphors provide the basis for our worldviews and our responses to a wide range of situations.13 Value shifts are themselves a consequence of changes in worldviews.14 Reflection is key to change. Asking why makes values conscious.15

Society as a living system
A society’s development can be assessed by the quality of relationships it supports.16 A good society is one where people relate well to themselves, to others, and to the environment.17 Reliable interdependence of the parts and the whole – and the absence of exploitative dominance by any part – is necessary in healthy living system.18 Society is itself a complex, adaptive, living system.19

The alternative to responding with greater awareness of the interdependence of the parts and the whole, may be regression into xenophobia, paranoia, isolationism, and controlling/aggressive behavior.20 History is replete with societal examples of such regression.21

Values can or should not be imposed. They need to be found by experience and reflection.22 Linking individual and societal change through conversation is particularly important.23 Societal transformation is not possible without personal transformation to self-reflection, inner-directedness, and a concern for integrity.24

Institutional behaviors need to be questioned directly.25 Collective pressures are necessary to change our institutions.26 While personal transformation is essential to societal transformation, it needs to occur in community and be guided by a worldview that understands interdependence and society as a living system.27

Creating space for conversation and reflection
Pathology is found with imbalance of power and a failure of feedback and responsiveness. Its manifestations can be seen in tyranny, oppression, exploitation, and coercion. There are subtler and less obvious forms that still are pathological.28 Public dialogue is necessary to identify and press for needed change.29

Values development is promoted by creating space for conversation and reflection about the way we live.30 A shared concern for human dignity will carry us far in agreeing on what needs to change and how to promote change.31 We need to address those with power in society who continue to make choices based on narrow perceptions of national or corporate interests.32

Developing collective leadership
We need a deliberate, collective, purposeful intent.33 Conversation is essential for creating and internalizing a shared vision, for discovering what we share, and our aspirations.34 There is a ground of being that we share as humans that we can all tap into, and that we need to learn to tap into.35 We will find resonance in our sense of the common good when we are grounded in our humanity.36

We need to learn how to evoke collective intelligence and apply it to responding to reality.37 We need to develop ways in which the unity that is found in small groups becomes a unity of groups of groups, and groups of groups of groups.38

Leadership needs to become a collective process for organizational capacities to advance.39 The development of such leadership and the development of a culture of dialogue need to be given priority.40

Conversations need to impact governance decision-making
Values, worldviews, and operative metaphors are tightly interconnected.41 Embodied metaphors strongly influence behavior and the level of values development.42 The validity of these metaphors need to be examined.43

One challenging aspect is the increasingly disproportionate voice of those with economic power.44 Businesses need to be organized to become more fully human and become responsible for their citizenship in relation to society and the environment.45

We need to see where energies are best focused to be effective for change.46 Public conversations are needed that are informed dialogues rather than adversarial confrontations.47 Above all, such conversations need to impact governance decision-making everywhere.48

Participatory governance is beyond elections
While higher values can be promoted and nurtured, legislation will not of itself change values.49 When various understandings are brought together they create new understanding.50 It is explicit awareness of, reflection on, and engagement with each other around what we believe and value that is key to change.51 Values offer guidance for action.

Widespread awareness of and sensitivity to values and their development constitute a significant shift in worldview.52 Truly participatory governance is beyond elections.53 A living systems understanding of healthy self-organization, co-adaption, and development set ourselves on a resilient and sustainable path of human development.54

Collective intelligence
Skills that can draw upon our collective intelligence are critical.55 The neglect of concerns may be acute when not all voices are equally heard.56 There are many examples of sustained decision making in which collective wisdom prevailed using the Quaker practice of decision making.57 The Quaker practice has evolved over the past 350 years and stands up well in secular contexts.58 The following are the essentials:59

  • Grounding of all participants. Serve the task rather than the ego. Open up to the awareness of the larger whole, hold the meeting community in care.
  • Ensuring that all voices are heard. There need to be no competition to be allowed to speak.
  • Respect for all persons. Respect for both the participants in the meeting and those outside. Move beyond agreement to mutual caring. Name and call hidden agendas into question. Calm underlying fear. All legitimate interests must be heard, respected, and protected.
  • Maintaining community-loving relationship. A decision is never a victory for one view or another. Ensure the articulation of dissent. Make sure that it is fully received and felt to be truly heard. Assess the readiness of the meeting and dissenters to move on.
  • Speaking out of the silence. Silence helps people to ground themselves in what they are feeling and the roots of their feeling. Silence allows a contribution to be fully absorbed, and allows subsequent contributions to flow from a grounded state.
  • Sensitivity to interdependence–open systems thinking. This implies understanding the wider context of a concern, and how it affects the good of the whole.
  • Addressing the clerk not one another. Reinforce the sense that each contribution adds a new piece to the total picture.
  • Speaking simply. Avoid tricks of speech designed to bully or obfuscate. Ask for brevity and avoid repetition. Summarize the essence. Speak one’s truth. Focus on what should be, rather on what is wrong.
  • Commitment to air dissent. Unity is not possible if some withhold dissent. Openness is essential. Truth emerges from consideration of all perspectives. Make it safe to express dissent.
  • Equality of voice. Avoid bias that might come from the influence of status.
  • Being authentic with the expression of feeling. Authentic, grounded expression is key. Simulation of emotion is entirely inadmissible.
  • Threshing meetings. Air major differences of feeling or understanding without the need to make any decisions.
  • Factual and analytical material. Decisions need to be informed by data and analysis.
  • Role of the clerk. The clerk periodically summarizes the collective perception as the meeting evolves. Sensing the willingness of the meeting to proceed is critical.
  • Decisions made by unity. A united meeting is not necessarily of one mind but it is all of one heart. Compromise is only acceptable where legitimate concerns are irreconcilable.
  • Larger organizational structures. It is one thing to secure the wisdom of a group, it is another to find the collective wisdom of many people. The Quaker structure of monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings has proven effective even where large numbers of people are involved.

Individuals and society both advance and constrain each other. Conversations are particularly important in linking individual and societal change. A culture of dialogue is fundamental for discernment of collective wisdom. Dialogue provokes reflection, and reflection supports individual development. The lived values of individuals promote societal change.

The effectiveness of collective decision making is dependent on the participants’ willingness to walk the talk. The behavior expected of those participating is reflective of a high order of values development. This is particularly true for the necessary leadership. The clerk or facilitator needs to secure observance of appropriate behavior and appreciation of its value to all. This requires not only facilitating skills, but also a level of values development.

I think that the individual and societal transformation which Leonard Joy writes about is as applicable to organizational transformation. Organizational development is dependent upon individual value development. Skills won’t help if the individual doesn’t embrace the necessary values, and if the organization doesn’t support them.

It’s a great but small book. I would love if it was turned into a full sized book. Leonard Joy is very experienced, and the topic is important and highly relevant!

1 Leonard Joy, How does Societal Transformation Happen? Values Development, Collective Wisdom, and Decision Making for the Common Good (Quaker Institute for the Future, 2011), p. 7.
2 Ibid., p. 8.
3 Ibid., p. 9.
4 Ibid., p. 10.
5 Ibid., p. 13.
6 Ibid..
7 Ibid..
8 Ibid., pp. 13–14.
9 Ibid., p. 14.
10 Ibid..
11 Ibid., p. 15.
12 Ibid., p. 16.
13 Ibid., p. 22.
14 Ibid., p. 25.
15 Ibid., p. 26.
16 Ibid., p. 27.
17 Ibid..
18 Ibid..
19 Ibid., p. 28.
20 Ibid., p. 29.
21 Ibid., p. 30.
22 Ibid., p. 31.
23 Ibid..
24 Ibid., p. 33.
25 Ibid..
26 Ibid., p. 34.
27 Ibid..
28 Ibid., p. 35.
29 Ibid..
30 Ibid., p. 36.
31 Ibid., p. 37.
32 Ibid..
33 Ibid..
34 Ibid., p. 38.
35 Ibid., p. 39.
36 Ibid..
37 Ibid., p. 40.
38 Ibid..
39 Ibid., p. 41.
40 Ibid., p. 42.
41 Ibid., p. 47.
42 Ibid., p. 45.
43 Ibid..
44 Ibid., p. 46.
45 Ibid..
46 Ibid., p. 49.
47 Ibid., p. 52.
48 Ibid..
49 Ibid..
50 Ibid..
51 Ibid., p. 53.
52 Ibid., p. 56.
53 Ibid..
54 Ibid., p. 57.
55 Ibid., p. 59.
56 Ibid..
57 Ibid., p. 60.
58 Ibid., p. x.
59 Ibid., pp. 60–66.

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *