Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Negative Capability: A Phenomenological Study of Lived Experience at the Edge of Certitude and Incertitude

Anil Behal, Fielding's School of Human and Organizational Development

The study examined what it was like for leaders to be in a state of negative capability during
periods of uncertainty and conflict in the workplace. “Negative Capability” is an expression that
was coined by the English romantic poet John Keats and suggests a peculiar disposition to stay in
mysteries, doubts, and uncertainty without the irritable reaching after fact and reason. Interviews
were conducted using the interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) methodology. The
analysis indicated that the context in which a leader is embedded does not have a significant
bearing on how that individual experiences and makes sense of negative capability. The majority
of leaders interviewed appeared to have a diminished capacity to contain uncertainty when faced
with paradoxical dilemmas. In these situations, they resorted to behaviors such as problem solving,
consulting others, shutting down, and dispersing as a means of defending against the uncertainty.
Exercising servant leadership and the intermingling of the leaders personal and professional
lives were strongly emerging themes.

Keywords: John Keats, negative capability, OCD, paradox, levels of abstraction, certitude,
dialectics, Buddhism, dispersal, social defenses, reframing

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