Don’t forget the humans: Keeping the organisational soul in its right place

There’s a growing trend in organisational thinking to consider companies and other organisations to be distinct entities with a ‘soul’ of their own. Like an organism that evolves separately from the humans that created it. With this mindset, the role of the humans changes to listening and sensing where the organisation wants to go next and then acting on that.

It’s a powerful metaphor and can be useful to bring people together in service of something higher. But it’s easy to become attached to a belief that the organisation really is a separate, almost living entity. The risk is that we diminish the importance of the needs of the humans who are working together.

I’ve written about the subject before, for readers of Frederic Laloux’s excellent book Reinventing Organisations who may become overly attached to the organisational soul myth, but I wanted to write a standalone article for a wider audience. So here it is.

 

The biggest truth about leadership that you didn’t know

Big thanks to my friend Charlie Davies who switched me on to the concept of The Source recently. One of the ever growing list of things I wish I’d understood years ago. An incredibly important dimension to leadership with huge implications for all organisations that I’ve never seen discussed so explicitly before in any business book.

These reflections are based on the work of Peter Koenig who has researched the role of “source” in organizations for many years.

Source

1. any thing or place from which something comes, arises, or is obtained.
2. the beginning or place of origin of a stream or river.
3. a book, statement, person, etc., supplying information.

The role of source

Any enterprise, project or event always goes back to a single source; the person who gave the spark of life to an idea and had a compelling vision that wanted to be realized.

In instances where one might feel that “we” had the idea together, closer investigation of the path of creation will always lead back to one particular person. The person who has the role of source has an energetic connection to the endeavour quite unlike any other member of the organization or team. The energetic connection is derived from the source-person being the first person in time to take a risk, i.e. make an investment in manifesting the idea. Often the first risk was taken in communicating the idea to a second person.

As a result, the source has an intuitive knowing about what the next steps are and will have strong reactions, often viscerally, if these insights are not honoured. For the source, the “Gestalt” of the idea can be sensed, even if others can at times have more accurate language to describe it. The effects of the importance of source can be observed, whether or not the source is acknowledged. However, acknowledgment of source will lead to an ease of flow in processes and decrease potential for conflict.

A metaphor for source

If an idea, a project or an organization was an individual we could attempt to trace back how this being first came into existence. At the beginning of the child’s life, there was the act of creation, which required a father and a mother.

Let’s assume there was a field or a dimension in which all ideas and all creations exist; the field of limitless potential. Let’s say this field is the “father” in this metaphor. The field chooses a carrier,the source, a “mother” that will bring the child into existence. This person is inseminated with the idea; the source might indeed feel as if “going pregnant” with the idea for a while prior to it’s birth.

Even after the baby (the idea, project) is born, the connection to its creators (the field and the source) is very strong. The field and the source are the genetic parents of this baby and regardless of who will help to raise the child to be an independent person – the birth parents will always remain the birth parents.

For the success or the child in life, it seems to be vital that this primary connection is recognized and honoured, even if other people do a bulk of the childrearing work or if the child is going to be adopted by another parent in the future.

The role of helpers

The role of others as supporters and helpers for the success of a project envisioned by the source is paramount. As in the metaphor of the child, a single parent would never be able to do as good a job raising the child as a whole community could. As they say: It takes a village…

The bigger the original vision the source brings into existence, the more likely the source relies on others for realization of this vision. The helpers can take on all kinds of different roles; from translating the idea into concepts or tasks, to taking on roles as “sub-sources” with full responsibility for a sub-project that feedsinto the larger source.

The more connected the helpers feel energetically to the idea/vision of the source – and this comes not just from liking the project content but from their relationship to the source and acknowledging the source’s source role – the more they are able torealize and exercise their own source within the project. This increases the momentum of the endeavour.

Each helper can form his or her special connection to the projectand become a central figure in the growth process – but the source as the point of origin must be recognized. If anyone unrightfully claims ownership of the idea, the balance in the system is disturbed and will suffer a multitude of consequences.

The source of organizations

Every organization has a point of origin, the moment when the idea was conceived and someone gave shape to what was previously shapeless. This idea of source in organizations is especially observable in family owned businesses. However, it is important to note that identifying the source may not always be as obvious as it might appear at first sight. Often, the founding of the company is attributed to one person (for example the patriarch), but the driving force behind the endeavour was in fact another (for example the matriarch of the family). It is therefore essential to examine closely who was the original life force behind the organization before drawing premature conclusions about the source.

The source can be inherited or passed on from one person to another. The passing on of the source is not a legal but an energetic act. Even if due diligence has been done to ensure that all the right contracts are in place, the source can remain with the original founder and the transmission has not occurred. If this is the case, the new leader/CEO, and subsequently the organization, will be weakened. Succession can only occur if the person passing it over and the person receiving it are conscious and open to the process. Without full transmission of the source, a struggle for dominance and recognition ensues.

A few of the tell-tale signs for the source not having been transferred (or not transferred fully) can be that the newly appointed leader:

  • feels disconnected from the business,
  • is unsure about next steps, has no vision,
  • does not feel what his or her place or purpose in the endeavour is,
  • has no execution even though has all the legal power,
  • experiences power struggles with other people in the organization,
  • is not accepted by others in the organization as the new leader.

It is important to know that only one person can fulfil the role of source. The ownership structure of an organization or the distribution of profits are not tied to being source, but the final say about strategic decisions is.

In family run businesses, it is not unusual that the passing of the source skips one generation. If the source remained with a grandparent that has already passed, the transfer might be accomplished through a personal ritual of initiation that honours the vision and importance of the source, before the new CEO steps fully into his or her new responsibility as the new source of the organization. If the person fulfilling the role of source is still alive, this is a ritual that can and should be conducted in person.

The role of source in leadership

In any organization, there are numerous sources for numerous projects. The vital importance of accepting that the source will “sense” what has to be done should not be underestimated. If the leader is the source, this might be easier than if another employee is the source for a particular thought or project. Regardless of the position of the source in the hierarchy, the source needs to be recognized in order to function as the channel through which information flows into the organization. Furthermore, a lack of recognition of source is noted by members of the system and feels unfair or unjust; members of the organization/team will revert to “just doing their jobs”. Trust in the leaders and or the organizationas a whole is diminished. Acceptance of source creates harmony and trust and is also the key to all people being able to realize their own source potential. The recognition of source is thus key to innovation.

If the role of source is not acknowledged in leadership, this either results in a dictatorial approach to running the company (“I am the new boss now and you will do as I say!”) or in a spineless egalitarianism (“we are all the same and we all have equal say”). The first often leads to organizations with a high number of sick days and a work morale weakened by fear whereas latter leads to inefficiency and a culture that values comradeship over performance. Both will bleed the organization of talent since intelligent and self-responsible individuals will neither choose to work for an organization in which submission to an authoritarian leader is required, nor an organization in which every process is stalled because no one ever feels empowered to take a decision.

This short article on source was written by Nadjeschda Taranczewski and Peter Koenig in July 2012. Please feel free to copy onto your own letterhead by mentioning the authors.

Are humans selfish or cooperators?

I’ve previously written about dangerous and wrong assumptions about human nature. That the view of humans as fundamentally self-interested limits us to ineffective methods of motivation, and that we actually have evolved to cooperate.

I’ve heard more evidence over the last few days at the Imagine conference that humans are naturally cooperators. Let me give you a couple of examples.

David Erdal, author of the brilliant book Beyond the Corporation looked at first contact reports of hunter-gatherer tribes. He found that across the world they all had one thing in common: When they hunted meat, it was shared amongst all members of the group. You might expect that it was shared mostly with close family to help propagate ones own ‘selfish genes’ or shared in reciprocal agreements between individuals, but in every case it was discovered that ‘the criteria for receiving meat was simply having a mouth to feed.’

This is group selection in action – something that for many years even Richard Dawkins denied (but I believe has since come around to in the face of the evidence.) Beyond an individual’s own genes, it’s advantageous for the whole group to be well fed. Hunting meat is sporadic and tribes where nobody goes hungry are ultimately better for everyone within them.

Bringing this up-to-date, there are modern studies which show that in more equal societies which have smaller gaps between rich and poor, there are lower instances of social problems like infant mortality, crime, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence. Most interesting is that beyond a certain point in wealth, it’s income equality rather than extra income that correlates with healthier societies. And surprisingly, both rich and poor people in less equal societies suffer more from social problems. In other words, you are likely to enjoy a higher standard of wellbeing being slightly less well-off in a more equal society than richer in a less equal society. So cooperation with others in your society to create equality is actually in everyone’s best interest.

There is also cognitive psychology research (G. Cory, 2006) which indicates that humans have dual motives – ego and empathy. We have a drive to protect out self-interest but also others. This makes sense based on the evidence about cooperation. Further, it seems that the binary question of whether people are selfish or cooperators is actually wrong. I heard a speaker assert that studies have shown that around 40-45% of people are indeed more selfish dominated and the slight majority are inclined more towards cooperation. This is why the hiring process is so important for organisations which want to set up a high-performing team that works together towards common goals rather than an under-performing team of selfish individuals working solely in their own interests.

There are many examples which break the theory of the ultimately selfish human. In the hugely successful, employee-owned retailer John Lewis, partners (owners) have consistently invested in their own company on timescales that would benefit future generations of employees rather than themselves. They understand that empathy for future generations gave them the business that they benefit from today and they work to improve it for those that will follow them.

I talked to a director of a credit union in Australia over the weekend which is 100% owned by its members (customers.) He was planning to direct some of the organisation’s surplus (profit) into a new charitable fund and he expected that the members would be supportive of this and not only that, contribute more of their own money on top. There’s no explanation for this kind of behaviour in the model of the purely selfish human but it is very heartwarming to know that humans can and do think beyond themselves and behave cooperatively.

So yes, humans can be selfish, but we are a sophisticated species which has evolved to cooperate in order to reach higher levels of wellbeing for ourselves and the societies in which we live.

10 crazy town ideas for extreme organisational democracy

Crazy Frog

Here are 10 ideas that take the principles of organisational democracy to the extreme. In the context of mainstream business today they seem far-fetched but there are organisations in the world who are pushing the boundaries of democracy every year. If you think that these ideas are just too radical for your business, imagine how you will attract and retain the very best employees if you have a competitor who is bold enough to do these things. Will you be able to stand out and remain relevant when someone in your market is doing this? Welcome to the world of extreme organisational democracy.

1 Purpose and Vision

The radically democratic company has a vision and mission that transcends itself and its people. It describes a world that is richer not just for its shareholders but for all of humanity, and the planet. How about a soft drinks company that sets out to alleviate the problem of thirst and water shortage in all of its forms for every human and animal on the planet. Now that would be a real purpose.

2 Transparency

Radical transparency can build an incredible level of trust both within an organisation and with the outside world. It shows you have nothing to hide and beyond that you invite criticism and input into your business. How about publishing every single line item of expenditure in the business? How about turning the 20th century wisdom of ‘secrecy and closedness unless there’s a very good reason to do otherwise’ on its head and publish every item of income, profit, loss, remuneration and even decisions by default – available to all employees, and anyone else in the world including competitors to see. Opening a pandora’s box? Certainly. But who wouldn’t trust an organisation brave and open enough to do this? And what new insights would the company gain from having their inner workings opened up for others to analyse?

3 Dialogue & Listening

What would happen if you invested in training every single person – from the cleaners to the CEO in an organisation – to a professional level as relationship counsellors? OK it might fill you with fear to think of a business full of shrinks and endless meetings on comfy chairs with tea and biscuits. But what would the outcome be when you have truly professional standards of listening and understanding other human beings and a deep ability to forge and maintain great relationships. What would it be like to work somewhere like this? What would relationships with customers and other stakeholders become?

4 Fairness & Dignity

Decisions that impact fairness happen every day in businesses, from allocating work to setting pay. Typically its people with power (managers, directors) who make these decisions and others have to live with being treated fairly or not. How about having a rule that states that any decision made in the company which could impact feelings of fairness or dignity to a group or individual must be scrutinised by a peer-selected group of their colleagues. Yes, it will slow down some decisions, but the gains in loyalty and the removal of the politics of favouritism or discrimination will more than make up for it.

5 Accountability

Democracies are not soft. As Worldblu puts it, ‘they are crystal clear about who is accountable to whom and for what.’ In most businesses, employees are accountable to their managers. In an extreme democracy, people are accountable to everyone they work with or even influence indirectly, AND the outside world. 360 degree reviews don’t go far enough, especially for senior managers. People need to be able to hold anyone to account where necessary, regardless of who they are. Local communities and even activists can be brought closer to the organisation to create deeper accountability with the outside world. But accountability isn’t about blame. In extreme democracies, accountability creates a tight support network.

6 Individual & Collective

Google and other companies famously have ‘20% time’ where they are able to work on projects of their own choosing for one day per week. How about upping this to, say, ‘100% time’? In other words, employees choose ALL of their tasks and projects. To get this right, the collective mission of the company will have to be not just well-defined and understood, but genuinely bought into so that all work supports the mission. You also need to have good accountability in place from peers.

7 Choice

Throw away the rulebook for dress code, working hours, work location, pay reviews and holiday entitlement. Take a punt on assuming that employees can be trusted to make decisions that are fair to them, the business and their colleagues and customers. Crazy right? Not really when you think that this is how millions of freelancers and self-employed people work. Many of the most talented people in the world opt out of the corporate world because they have more choice by going it alone. It works because they are ultimately accountable and have direct alignment with the purpose of their 1-person business. But if we can create this alignment and accountability in a larger business, then why not give them this freedom and choice? The business that is brave enough to do this may never lose a talented employee to a competitor again.

8 Integrity

Google started a change in the corporate world with their mantra ‘Do no evil.’ But that’s just the foundation. ‘Extreme integrity’ is about doing GOOD in all your actions, not just avoiding evil. Imagine a company that has a set of ‘values’ that are more than just filler on the boardroom wall. Values that were created by, and truly believed in by every person throughout the organisation. What if in your culture, every decision and idea is checked against these values as a matter of everyday routine such that it becomes instinctive and automatic. Could you build extreme integrity such that a company can be trusted as much as a close family member or friend? Businesses are made up of human beings with the capacity for enormous integrity so I believe they can.

9 Decentralisation

Do away with the ‘centre’ or ‘top’ of an organisation altogether. A network structure is the ultimate in decentralisation. It is possible to create an organisation that has no ‘top leaders,’ board of directors or even any sort of legal entity. In the extreme democratic future there will be large organisations with the power and impact of large publicly listed companies today that are a mesh of individuals and relationships. The network can swarm together around projects and customer needs, then disassemble and re-form as needed. No formal ‘lines of responsibility’ or control, just agreed roles, responsibilities and accountability that are completely dynamic. Networks are incredibly resilient. That’s why it’s hard to fight al-Qaeda and BitTorrent because there is no ‘head’ to cut off.

10 Reflection + Evaluation

Why not reverse the current trend of business needing to become faster, faster, faster and instead spend more time reflecting and evaluating than actually ‘doing?’ Sounds hopelessly inefficient? Well how about all of the rushed, high-pressured years of ‘doing’ that led to the effective collapse of the global banking system? What would the world look like now if more time had been spent reflecting and evaluating? Perhaps sanity would have prevailed. At Mindvalley, a company in Malaysia, they already hold group meditation sessions to envision the future and reflect on what they are doing. Sounds almost cult-like, and it’s uncomfortable to expose our souls at work, right? But imagine the wisdom and breakthroughs that could surface if we slowed down more, and became more mindful. Perhaps not so crazy after all.

DALAI LAMA