The tragedy of the commons is an environmental science concept that cuts to the core of two areas critical to organizational (and personal) conflict management.


The first idea is that there are so many resources available—time, money, talent, etc.—that there will never be a depletion. Until there is.

This conception of  material and personnel resource abundance is the reason that black swan events at a macroscale, such as the 2008 economic crash, or at a microscale, such as a wife finding out that her husband is cheating (or vice-versa) hit impacted parties so hard and take such a financial, emotional, psychological and spiritual toll.

The second idea is that once resources are depleted, there is no compelling reason for any one individual to take the blame (or accept the accountability and responsibility) for replenishing them, because “Everybody was taking from it.” In a divorce proceeding (following infidelity), neither party wants to admit guilt—or their own level of responsibility in creating the situation that fostered the infidelity in the first place. After 2008, how many bankers went to jail, globally, in relation to the level of damage their decisions caused?

In an environmental science context, the solution to tragedy of the commons is to fine and otherwise economically penalize people (resource depleters, polluters, etc.) in the belief that a bigger negative downside will lead to greater self-imposed, self-interested, selflessness.

In conflict engagement and conflict management, sometimes it’s best to abandon the commons (the shared relationship, the collaborative enterprise, the cooperative partnership) rather than take on the emotional, psychological and spiritual effort to save the commons.

True emotional labor, however, requires quieting the lizard brain, accepting responsibility for the tragedy (even if there’s no commensurate feeling of a need for the taking of responsibility) and moving forward collaboratively and selflessly with people and organizations that we would really rather not.

Otherwise, who will be left in the emotional commons but the spoilers, the discontented and the selfish?

-Peace Be With You All-

Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: hsconsultingandtraining@gmail.com
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