Motivation: Doing it to Each Other or Doing it to Ourselves

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Kenneth Boulding, (1985), described five modes of interaction which I have personally found very helpful in understanding what's going on in situations. There are nine modes described below because Michael McMaster (1995) added a sixth one during a conversation on the Learning Org List and Dan Freeman (1999) offered two additional interaction modes and Krishnaswamy [2004] offered the ninth one.

  • Parasitic - the parasite feeds on its host for its survival, to the detriment of the host, and eventually to the detriment of itself, for once it kills the host it must find another host to survive. [Boulding '85]
  • Prey/Predator - the predator feeds on the prey to the detriment of the individual prey and to the detriment of its own species, yet this is beneficial to the prey species overall as it limits the prey population. [Boulding '85]
  • Commensal - two or more organisms may have a prolonged association between themselves, but they may or may not benefit each member. More specifically, a relationship may be commensal when an organism derives some benefit while the other is unaffected. [Freeman '99]
  • Threat - if you do (or don't do) something I want (or don't want) you to do then I won't do something you don't want me to do. [Boulding '85]
  • Mutualistic - two (or more) members benefit from the association (I get what I want and you get what you want - they may or may not be the same). [Freeman '99]
  • Exchange - if you do something I want you to do then I will do something you want me to do. [Boulding '85]
  • Integrative - where you and I come together to accomplish something we both want. [Boulding '85]
  • Generative - where you and I come together and accomplish something neither of us had any idea of before we came together. [McMaster '95]
  • Play - There is a sixth interaction model which is of the nature of "PLAY". Mutualistic, Integrative and Generative all signify an accomplishment, a goal. The sixth interaction "PLAY" in its essences is the affirmation of the existence of all the other Interaction Models. [Krishnaswamy, '04]

This list is written in an order which is considered to represent more and more evolved levels of interaction as one works their way down the list.

What amazed me about the different categories is how certain situations seem to be initiated in one mode and then transform into another mode. Consider what happens in a couple of situations:

  • When you buy a car you exchange, with the car dealer, a promise to pay for the car. The car dealer then exchanges, with a financial institution, the promise to pay for real money. The financial institution then converts this into a threat interaction by essentially saying that as long as you make your payments you can keep the car.
  • When an employer hires an employee it begins as an exchange interaction where the employer agrees to pay the individual for accomplishing work that needs to be done. This then transforms into a threat interaction wherein the employer says that as long as you do what I tell you do do I will let you keep your job and not fire you.

What seems to be most beneficial to all parties involved, and in terms of the results produced, is operating at the Integrative or Generative modes. I think groups that really become teams operate in an Integrative or Generative fashion.


  • Boulding, Kenneth E. (1985) The World as a Total System. Sage Publications
Additional Resources
Systems Thinking World Discussions * Gene Bellinger
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