There is an inherent conflict at play in any society. People want freedom. They want to be able to do what they want, say what they want, consume what they want… but they also want to live in a sustainable system. I want a pizza and cheeseburger diet, but I also want to be healthy. I want to binge on Netflix, but I don’t want to get divorced.
Nobody wants to take out the trash, but we want the trash to be taken out.
Living in a society means agreeing to certain rules. It means sacrificing a little at the personal level to gain a lot at the societal level. This is a delicate balance. And yet we manage. By in large people don’t crap inside the metro, or fart inside the elevator, even if the need arises. It’s what we call “society”.
Organizations are societies. You have formal and informal rules setup to ensure a good (hopefully) balance between personal well-being (sustainability) and ability to achieve purpose and results.
This being so, it would make sense that organizations share an objective with public government - the need to create an environment where the society can continue to improve itself, beyond the limited capabilities of rules & regulations. The difficulty here is not in agreeing that should be one of their key objectives, but rather in seeing how to do it. Enter Teal and Laloux, stage left.
In his book “Reinventing Organizations”, Frederic Laloux discusses the levels of human consciousness and how our organizational paradigm du jour matches the level of consciousness of society. And the next paradigm in organizational design is what he calls “Teal”. In the book he goes through inspiring examples of companies that are achieving great results while also showing what the next organizational paradigm could be. And their innovations in organizational design center around three basic innovations:
- Self-management - the idea that management becomes an activity handled by the group. There’s more management, but there are no managers.
- Evolutionary Purpose - in Teal, the group is able to accept their fears, and a deep exploration within the group means purpose becomes emergent, not a pre-printed mission statement created by a consulting company.
- Wholeness - People should not have to wear masks when they come to work, they should be in a place where they feel whole. They should be able to come as “all of themselves”.
This book quickly became a hit within the Agile community and for good reason. Now, while reading the three innovations of Teal (above) you would be forgiven for thinking “wow… are there also flying green ponies farting rainbows in this utopia you’re dreaming about?” But the book doesn’t let you go there. By going through examples of companies in the cutting edge of these innovations, you can’t help but be inspired. So I highly recommend the book.
And still, I should confess something. After reading the book, I had lingering questions about the “wholeness” leg of Teal. Not that I didn’t agree with the premise that people should be able to be themselves at work. This makes sense from a societal perspective - a society should have as their primary goal the happiness of their citizens, or employees in this case. And even beyond the moral argument, the pragmatic one is also strong. It’s not hard to make the leap that happier people, committed to a purpose, will achieve more than unhappy people, doing something they don’t believe in. So it’s a win-win.
And this makes perfect sense. My questions, though, were related to the explanations and examples. When delving into the topic, Laloux emphasizes examples that I think miss the larger point. Some of his emphasis is on the idea that people in Teal organizations no longer have to wear “social masks”. As Laloux points out, when a person can bring their “whole” self to the organization, including their emotional, spiritual and intuitive parts, the need for such masks goes away.
Some examples given in this area are interesting:
- Dogs: By creating a workplace where people are whole, different parts of their personality are brought into the building. In companies like “Sounds True”, dogs are common place in the work place. An integral part of that society.
- Mindfulness/Meditation: Though Laloux stops short of mandating mindfulness and/or meditation as a daily organizational practice, examples such as specific moments of the day reserved for silence and where most do some mindfulness practices are highlighted.
I believe mindfulness practices are very effective. I’m trying them myself. With spotty discipline, but still trying and finding value in it. Indeed, evidence suggests that such practices have a positive impact on well being and effectiveness. But the gap between good and mandatory is a treacherous one. So I thought it was good Laloux balked at suggesting everybody should be doing mindfulness practices. Everybody should be doing a lot of things, but history has shown that any solution based on forcing them to do something is doomed from the start.
My issue was more related to the hint of the tyranny of the individual when reading about wholeness. At the risk of being told that any critique here just means I’m not in the Teal mindset yet, I thought too much emphasis was placed on the individual’s wholeness and not enough on the individual’s growth. The organizational wholeness should take precedence, but it cannot be achieved without the personal growth of its people.
It’s the basic conflict I hinted at the beginning, people want freedom, but they also want to live in a sustainable system. You might love your dog and feel whole if he’s at work with you, but maybe one of your colleagues is allergic. Does your need to be whole at the individual level trump your need to be whole at the organizational (societal) level? I don’t want to pay taxes, but I do it because I believe it benefits the society.
So it’s not about masks. Masks are not evil, per se. They are a useful tool for reenforcing informal rules, which are a must for any well functioning society since informal rules are more flexible. The “mask” of the well-behaved plane traveller is a useful one. Maybe it’s not who we really are. Maybe some would prefer to fly without their shirts to be more comfortable, others would prefer to laugh loudly at every joke in the Big Bang Theory episode they’re watching. But they don’t. They wear a mask and act more “orderly” than they would naturally be. And that’s ok. They are making a small, temporary sacrifice of a want that is not urgent, in exchange for others doing the same. The result being an agreeable flight for all. Small sacrifices for a big collective gain.
But if the mask is so big that you no longer feel part of society, well, you become what is known as a “social outcast”. And that is bad. So like most useful tools, masks have to be used with caution.
The suggestion that coming “as all of yourself” means you don’t have to wear masks seems simplistic to me. I understand the beauty of this scenario, but like many other utopias, it serves only as an inspiration, not as a goal. It’s not about masks.
“Wholeness” at the individual level should be about finding a valuable niche for your way of being and thinking. If you still have to wear some masks, whatever, as long as they are not big ones. The objective, for me, is beautifully worded in a Harvard Business Review article, “Does Your Company Make you a Better Person” (based on a book titled “An Everyone Culture”). There the authors essentially suggest organizations should seek to reduce the time their people spend on trying to look good and hide weaknesses. That’s s clear example of a bad mask! What if, instead, your so-called “weaknesses” were viewed as assets - the bigger they are, the bigger the potential upside on organizational effectiveness if they are improved. As they say, “what if employees’ continuous development were assumed to be the critical ingredient for a company’s success?” That’s how I understand “wholeness” at the individual level in an organization.
I am whole when I spend zero energy trying to look good to others and can therefore spend time improving my perceived weaknesses - indeed I realize they are not weaknesses, but rather untapped assets of creativity, happiness and effectiveness.
Spiritual and transcendentalism might be a perspective I use to accomplish this, but wholeness is about being in the moment, accepting who you are, recognizing your weakness and trying to improve the ones that you think are holding you back from purpose and engagement.
So the question for me that is really interesting is what should the organization do to support the development of wholeness (as defined above)?
The idea in “An Everyone Culture” is that organizations should be Deliberately Developmental Organizations (DDO). And essentially, a DDO embeds the continuous personal growth of its people as part of the job. The personal growth of the people is the only way to achieve “ever-greater business aspirations”.
This means that the environment an organization sets up is not focused on whether people can bring their dogs to work (they’ll sort it out if it’s important), but rather on the discussing the deeper issues about fear and belonging. People in DDOs are required to develop the ability to discuss these topics and the organization supports this by creating an environment where fear has no place. In doing this, they have an environment that allows them to become better people, and better team members. And more whole.
And this is tough. It means interns are giving negative feedback to CEOs when they screw up. It means “tough-minded introspection” as a job requirement. It means transparency and publicly accepting and working on your “weaknesses”. But if the organization creates the right environment, it means those things are welcomed and encouraged. It means finding solidarity and a place where contributing to a purpose you believe in and personal growth are inseparable.
Laloux is correct. But the Wholeness chapter should include examples like DDOs. They focus on the more important aspect of wholeness. Organizational wholeness takes precedence over individual wholeness. We become more whole by finding a society we fit in (autonomy, purpose, mastery). Yet the organizational wholeness depends on the individual’s ability to improve. So it should create an environment that fosters personal growth. For the benefit of the individual, but more importantly, the group.
No more masks, except those that are useful for a greater good.