Collective Mind Networks in Action
Neutrality in network management
by Kerstin Tebbe, Founder, Collective Mind
Collective Mind hosts regular Networks in Action sessions to unpack critical network concepts with our global learning community. Each session focuses on a specific network concept and through a series of facilitated reflection exercises, builds out the concept by crowdsourcing ideas and experiences.
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In April 2022, Collective Mind hosted our Networks in Action on neutrality in network management. The session, hosted by Collective Mind founder, Kerstin Tebbe, built from inputs shared by event registrants and followed the frame of “what”, “so what”, “now what”. The ideas shared here are a summary of the participants’ inputs and discussion.
What?: Defining “neutrality in network management”
Participants’ definitions of neutrality in network management focused on the need for network managers to not overly influence or be influenced. This includes not allowing your own bias to impact your management but also not forcing or disproportionally influencing the direction or decisions of a network. This also means taking as objective an approach as possible with the network’s members so that the diversity of viewpoints is heard. Network managers should seek to establish a level ground so that various views have equal footing. They must attend to each member as a unique contributor to the whole and be aware of and address power dynamics within the network transparently and fairly.
Additionally, participants mentioned the context of the shared vision within the network and the fact that network managers play a key role in moving forward the collective action of network members. Neutrality in network management is about supporting members to work towards that common good which means letting members take the lead and do the work.
So what?: Is it possible to be neutral in network management?
According to participants’ responses to the registration questions, there was a fairly strong consensus that full neutrality isn’t possible but that it is a skill to be developed. For example, neutrality requires an overall understanding of the bigger picture, which necessitates that the network manager step beyond their own agenda. A network manager then must clearly note their own implicit and explicit biases and assumptions and be transparent about them.
Furthermore, participants noted that network managers must recognize that there are times when we shouldn’t be neutral, for example, when we should challenge racist behaviors, words, or decisions.
Now what?: What are the implications for how network managers do their jobs?
Finally, participants’ responses to the registration questions about the implications focused on ways in which to be more neutral, both personally as a network manager and within the structures and systems of the network. We must consider network structures and processes, create space for reflection and learning and channels for feedback, and ensure transparent decision making. We must ensure clear communications and set expectations upfront. We must also develop facilitation skills for building trust and moving groups forward, including lifting up voices from across the network. Personally, we must stay open, vigilant, and humble in our practice.
Highlights from the conversation
This synthesis above was the basis for reflection and discussion during the session.
Key to ensuring neutrality in network management is letting members take the lead. We ideally want member-driven networks in which members step up and take the initiative, with managers supporting them and inviting other members in. In practice, this can be more complicated wherein members need or want the manager to take the lead. Fostering a member-driven network often requires a shift in mindset not just for the network manager but also for the members, who might default to hierarchical thinking and make assumptions about the leadership role of the manager(s). It also requires focusing on facilitation, creating safe spaces, and building trust.
There are risks associated with being neutral — among them the risk that we recreate or entrench power structures that we don’t want to perpetuate. The world isn’t neutral and neutrality can lead to unintended outcomes. The impulse to make everyone feel safe to express themselves is important but we must recognize that that space looks different for everyone. For example, giving equal space can mean that some voices are silenced. Focusing on equity, not just neutrality, is critical and must go beyond equality. Members will not have the same capacities and power within a network. As such, we need to treat them in an equitable manner for their voices to be equal. For example, we shouldn’t just spend one hour with each member but instead spend the amount of time each member needs to express themself.
There is also an inherent tension between embracing diversity within a network and the need for efficiency in moving together towards a common goal. The former can be time-intensive, but we have to accept and manage that as we don’t want to lose members along the way. We need to name that tension so as to set clear expectations within the group. We must challenge those members who have less patience with these types of processes to engage constructively and respectively.
Finally, creating safe spaces is fundamental. This requires understanding what different people need to feel safe and integrating it into our network and our network management practice. We must recognize and name power dynamics. We must be able to ask open-ended questions, listen reflectively, and give affirmations. As facilitators, we have to be able to handle conflict: if we don’t feel safe, others won’t feel safe. While we must be able to do this in the moment, such as during meetings, we must also be able to think about how we can use other times and spaces outside of and around convenings to hear voices and build trust.
Miss the session? View the recording here.
Have your own experiences with neutrality in network management? Tell us about it in the comments below.