If there is one thing humanity needs to learn at this point in history, it is how to live and work together constructively. With so much attention being paid to technological solutions to every imaginable problem and personal development for individuals on every rung of the evolutionary ladder, I keep being drawn to the areas which receive the least attention. Hopefully (i.e. my time permitting) this will be the first in a series of posts addressing some of the issues facing us at global level because of our organisational blind spots. I am acutely aware that I cannot possibly do justice to this subject – it’s vast and subtle, so this first attempt feels like jumping with both feet into a puddle. But we have to start somewhere, and I hope your comments will help to refine the ideas set out here.
22 years in a vast, relatively high-performing supra-national bureaucracy has given me some insight into the functioning of organisations driven by mainstream (both modern and post-modern) thinking. This experience has given me precious pointers to the deepest blocks that keep the mainstays of our civilisation – in particular, government at all levels – sluggish, uninspired, prone to corruption and tragically hampered by blind spots.
Little of our systemic malaise is really the fault of wicked or stupid individuals. Casting about for scapegoats to pin the blame on is not going to solve anything. Rather, I think we will find our way out of our collective messes only once we learn to pay as much attention to the internal dimensions of civilisation – our individual mindsets and cultural worldviews – as we do to the external ones. Only once we are as well-versed with those invisible inner dimensions as we are with the visible outer ones will we be able to design organisational solutions that support the kind of ethics and transparency that can carry our civilisation through the challenges now facing it into the kind of future we all aspire to, rather than the grim apocalypse that awaits us, sooner rather than later, if we just keep on doing more of the same.
Transparency is a 4-quadrant affair
Transparency and ethics tend to be seen as part of the cultural aspect of an organisation, but they must be embedded in its structures, processes and behaviours before they can truly become part of its culture.
This is part of the broader issue of how we deal with fundamentals like building an organisation. In the case of government – which pays lip service the world over to the highest ideals and values – it seems particularly important to heed one universal law: “As we are, so shall it be”. ‘It’ being that which we bring into the world. If we can’t achieve ecority and sustainability inside, then how can we promote it externally?
One point I’d like to make before going further is that as individuals, we are all also members of organisations. Even if we are self-employed or unemployed, even if we live on the streets, we are members of a family, a community, a society. And every organisation we belong to has some function or purpose in the world – be it to promote the wellbeing of its members or to effect some change in its wider environment, or both.
The interface between the individual and the organisation is inside us
The only sensing organ that any organisation has is its members. As members of an organisation that has its own function in the world, we are both individual holons ourselves, and members (not parts ) of the organisation. When we are confronted with something that isn’t right, or isn’t working within our organisation, we feel tension in our bodies. This is how we function as the sensing organ of the organisation.
People who work inside an organisation (most often as employees), typically perform a specific function or fill a specific role in that organisation. They are responsible for ensuring that certain things get done, that certain information gets channelled in time to where its needed, etc. When we are functioning ‘in role’, then the tensions that we feel in our bodies are often about what we perceive is going on in the system. Only we rarely recognise this crucial fact – and our organisations never do.
But we are also souls in roles. We just don’t leave ourselves behind when we go into work. We have only one vessel with which to carry messages to two different places – one to the soul, and one to the role. So it’s very easy for messages to get muddied – we see it happening all the time, often without recognising that this is what’s going on. It is important to learn how to distinguish between the two – it is crucial for the whole system that both be honoured and appropriately attended to.
It is also important to recognise that our individual tensions connected to historical ‘baggage’ can also be shared – they can at the same time be related to larger systemic issues that we need to be looking at.
In a truly integral organisation, it will be recognised that our bodies are a channel serving multiple communication purposes with the same range of sensations. So when we feel a tension, it might be to do with an egoic issue around our own needs for appreciation/safety, etc., or it might be to do with a functional / organisational / systemic issue that is relevant to how we work together and should therefore be addressed as an issue of governance.
The integral organisational practice called Holacracy gives us a language and process for dealing with these tensions in a constructive and evolutionary way, by regularly setting aside time for meetings exclusively dedicated to matters of governance. Not every moment is appropriate for bringing up tensions, so governance meetings are specifically there to acknowledge that the way we improve how we are doing things is by sensing what’s not working, or what could be working better, and voicing it. The decision-making process used in governance meetings – called integrative decision-making – is designed to ensure that all the necessary (i.e. relevant) perspectives on an issue are taken into account.
Individual and collective practices that support integral organisation
There are specific things that we can do – individually and with others – to increase our capacity to co-create and maintain healthy integral organisations. As members of an integral organisation, part of our individual practice should be to track our individual inner tensions and learn to discern what they are about. Part of our collective practice as a the group is to create the space for individuals to voice these tensions, and to collectively unpack, resolve and learn from them. While this process can at first appear to be time consuming, its outputs include collective clarity, transparency and trust – all rare and precious ingredients that make a high-performing, efficient and effective community in the long term.
These practices will quickly surface the kinds of tricky issues that typically lead to all sorts of conflict and toxicity in integral circles. Every group/organisation has some taboos, things that nobody talks about directly, even when they are getting problematic – typical ones are money and ego.
Ego: We are called to be aware of what we are identified with – we are all identified with something. We all have historical baggage, unconscious habits of communication and relationship that can get in the way of collective processes. No one is perfect and we all have areas of the psyche that could do with some healing. In the integral organisational space, we are called to be rigorous but compassionate with each other in moments of unconsciousness, to call out ego – in ourselves and each other – when it is being obstructive, and set it gently but firmly in its place on the sidelines – not in the centre.
Money: We all have baggage – culturally and individually – around money. It’s a minefield that can poison the most promising of enterprises – particularly in non-profits and when working with a mix of paid professionals and volunteers, as many embryonic integral organisations are, where the boundaries and distinctions are not clear or explicit. It can be helpful to spend some time as a team talking about our relationship to money (how it is, rather than how we would like it to be), and making it an explicit practice for all members to track our own individual inner tensions when money and associated concepts come up in a conversation, and voice them. (Also when we are getting a tension around someone else not tracking their tension…). Since money is an expression of energy, raising tensions around money is a form of energetic guardianship, and should be honoured as such. How an organisation deals with money issues is a litmus test about how it deals with energy at more subtle levels.
Having a set of practices and processes with which to resolve these tensions turns an aspect of collective life that often brings misery and disaster into a rich source of individual and collective learning and evolutionary development.
Ethics at its most foundational is practicing that level of awareness where we are awake to the subtlest of contractions (what the Buddhists call emotional and mental obscurations) as they unfold inside us, distinguishing what they are about and acting (or refraining from acting) accordingly. Again, ‘As we are, so it shall be.’ It’s not a principle that we should live up to, it’s a description of the way it is.
Attending to the invisible health of the organisation – ‘Sensing into the field’
The invisible relational space is a crucial part of any human enterprise, although it is never explicitly addressed in most organisations. It is a powerful support for the inner development of the individual members and should be taken into consideration when designing organisational structures and processes. My sense is that a relational field is born whenever individuals relate to any object in their awareness – be it another person, an idea, a value, an organisation, the planet or the cosmos. The strongest fields are those which are held consciously, meaning that people (either all the people in the field or designated members) attend to what is happening within the field consciously and with a deliberately chosen intent.
The highest-performing groups and organisations, be they permanent or temporary, typically operate inside a strong relational field that can sometimes feel tangible to outsiders entering it.
Remembering that an integral organisation has a higher purpose and a value-bearing function in its wider environment, it is important to ensure that all its members are in touch with that purpose. In order to do really good, effective work, we have to build and maintain the field that consciously connects us with life, each other, the planet and the organisation’s purpose in that context.
‘Building the field’ is a discrete activity/process which can be performed deliberately as part of an organisation’s collective life. It is important to recognise that it takes an investment in time up front to build a field for any important occasion, event or meeting in an organisation’s life, but it pays off in terms of the quality and potential impact of the event or meeting itself, as well as the impact on the energetic field of the organisation. Once individuals have built a space of trust together, less time is needed to build and maintain the field, but it still calls for intention and attention. Because this invisible fieldwork nevertheless calls on material resources (time and attention), it is part of the organisational capacity that ‘senior leadership’ must value and commit to. It is in their interests to do so as it will support the organisation’s performance and achievement of its aims in the world.
This is not a ‘nice-to-have’ luxury – an organisation can design it into each one of its processes until it becomes second nature to every member and part of the organisation. This can quickly become one of the ‘unique selling points’ of an organisation – the benefits of this relational field to the individuals who choose to work with/in the organisation should not be underestimated. The support of a powerful ‘we-space’ is one of the greatest draws to high-calibre people – something they often don’t get elsewhere in their professional lives.
Nurturing and holding this field is invisible, ‘behind-the-scenes work’. There is a need to make time to talk, to sit together in silence and wait for the middle to speak. Systematically. Breathing in and breathing out, there must be time built in for reflection. Mankind tends to neglect reflection in favour of action, just as agency gets more of a look-in than communion, the masculine more than the feminine. Much of the malaise and dysfunction we are witnessing all around us in the world today is a consequence of that neglect and imbalance.
We must build reflection into our processes – the ‘being space’ is where we become aware of our blind spots – just as in the ‘doing space’ we run up against them. Balancing being and doing. So before we move, we need to sit back and sense into the field, think strategically and holistically about what’s required (treading the chaordic path). After we act, we need to sit back and reflect on what we have learned. And through it all, we need to be constantly sensing into, nurturing and articulating our shared purpose as it unfolds, as that is our invisible leader.