Monday, March 8, 2021

Advocating for an organic, wholistic view of organizations

There are a number of sources exploring the concept that an organization is a lot more than a machine, adjustable and amenable to various tweeks, new ‘plugs’ additional oil and especially high-octane gasoline. Lines like, “Maybe if we change ‘drivers’ we will get more and better results!” are just an example of the kind of thinking, perception and especially conception that linger in the minds of executives, supported by a culture whose archetypal roots were ‘poured’ in the industrial revolution. This specific ‘metaphor’ lurks in and through the minds of many male organizational leaders, dependent on and supportive of a set of management principles that point to raising production, lowering costs, enhancing performance as measured by observable, predictable and reliable data.

As the cultural consciousness about the risks to global warming and climate change rises, there is a predictable and almost inevitable shift among some organizational leaders and theorists, to a different metaphor. No longer a machine (auto), some of these thinkers/executives are revising their notion, into something more organic…a kind of natural system, interacting with its environment, not only on those traditional scales of profit and loss, sales and revenue streams, but even more complex. Some of this thinking details environmental (eco-system, political, economic, labour and even values determinants and goals) as a much more complex, inclusive and even ‘living’ thing that requires detailed attention, nuanced and sensitive observations and judgements and monitoring.

Half a century ago, Charles A. Reich wrote a book entitled, The Greening of America, in which he outlines three levels of consciousness:

1)    The values of rural farmers and small business people that dominated the 19th century

2)    An organizational society that features meritocracy and social improvement through large institutions like the New Deal, the Second War and the 1950’s Silent Generation

3)    The worldview of the 1960’s counterculture, including personal freedom, egalitarianism, and obviously recreational drugs.

Twenty-five years later (1995), Reich penned an even more urgent warning inside the cover: “If there was any doubt about the need for social transformation in 1970, that need is clear and urgent today…I am now more convinced than ever that the conflict and suffering now threatening to engulf us are entirely unnecessary, and a tragic waste of our energy and resources. We can create an economic system that is not at war with human beings or nature, and we can get from here to there by democratic means. Predictably, given the ‘hippy’ characterization of the author, the book and the author received many ‘one-star’ reviews. Words like naïve, idealistic, were amply applied. George Will argued it was the worst book ever written.

However, as the world “turns” and we face some still urgent dynamics over which we (collectively, especially in liberal democracies!) potentially can have an influence, the ‘organic’ notion is finding resonance in our diet, as well as in our glimpses of how we would like our world to be perceived and engaged. Authenticity, that cliché criterion/lens by and through which many assess people and situations, we can hope, may be a glimmer of candle-light in our tunnel to the future.

With respect to organizations, when they are considered “organisms” (rather than machines), they take on a vibrancy, as well as perceptible needs in order to ‘function’ in the most optimum manner. Working conditions from the most basic that include adequate training, effective equipment, personal safety and security, environmental protections, to such human resource benchmarks as ‘worker turn-over,’ employee reviews, even extrinsic evaluations (Top 500 companies, for example) and evidence of social responsibility are all included in many of the profiles of successful business organizations. Some corporate organizations use these indicators in their arguments against the right of workers to unionize. (Not incidentally, the labour movement has suffered serious depletion in both Canada and the United States over the last two or three decades.)

Obviously, many of these metrics, taken individually and together, offer both the potential of increased costs, as well as enhanced worker loyalty. Human Resource departments, at least in the larger firms, keep track of both the company’s and the employee’s relationships as they monitor sick-time, scheduling, holiday time, potentially merit incentives, and also potentially dis-incentive programs, as well as the long-standing pay-distribution, accounting and reconciliations as required.

All of these variables, when considered in the albeit growing portfolio of organizational responsibilities and expectations, continue to be monitored as well as to reflect those social and cultural waves that occur outside the walls and the fences of specific organizations. For example, over the recent months and years, there has been a growing public consciousness of the disparity in employment and unemployment numbers between with and non-white workers, as well as a significant gap in the wages earned by black and brown workers, when compared with white workers. There is also a rising tide of political activism around the disparity between the income earned by men and that earned by women doing the same jobs with the same qualifications. These metrics, too, are having a significant impact on the expectations of both the labour supply, as well as on the management theories and practices especially in larger organizations. Added to this “stew” of organizational ingredients/expectations/perceptions, is also the issue of gender politics, given that women experience abuse from male colleagues at a rate that continues to grow, in the public consciousness.

Race, gender, social and professional guidelines, these are all a matter of growing importance in all organizational settings, whether they are operating as for profit or as not-for-profit.

Serving as one of the driving energy forces in the organization too is the growth in the development and deployment of technology, giving rise to new working conditions, as well as completely new and deeply embedded social media communications among people everywhere in real time. So it is not an exaggeration to note that whatever is happening in the social and political discourse is going to make its way into the deepest recesses of each and every organization. And this dynamic is especially true, if not actually exaggerated, at a time of a pandemic, like the one infecting every nation and organization on the planet.

So far, we have been exploring objective data, even that data that discloses racial and gender conflict inside and outside the organizational boundaries.

Now, it seems a reasonable time and place to stretch our consideration beyond the extrinsic, the objective, empirical and the ‘scientific’…given the considerably high importance in our culture as well as in our organizations, of numerical, algorithmic instruments of manipulating mountains and seas of information.


And here we cross into the realm of what is common termed ‘anthropomorphism’….the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, an animal or an object. This tendency to attribute traits, emotions and intentions to non-human entities is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. The study of religion and theology has included the notion of giving human traits to God, whereby God has eyes, hands, feet, and molds humans out of dust, plants a garden, takes his rest is an area familiar to many. The very notion of ascribing traits of humans to an organization, runs the risk of ridicule, for many reasons.

First, the separation of religion and state has been long advocated especially in the United States. Secondly, the corporate and scientific, including the medical and legal disciplines, rely heavily on the observation, detection, collection and curation of empirical data, in order to conduct their ‘business’ generating a conventional tidal wave of ‘authenticity’ and validity, and reliability and thereby trust, in the pre-eminence of the objective, empirical way of knowing, and assessing and then deciding. Clients, patients, workers, managers, and leaders all gravitate to the conventional vernacular as well as the epistemology that undergirds this way of seeing and of knowing.

It is the artist, the poet, the shaman, the psychotherapist, the dreamer, and the spiritual guide, while clearly aware of and capable of grasping the empirical reality in every organization, is not only open to the connotative, the poetic, the imaginary and the wholeness of the picture, based not only on cognition but also on intuition, imagination and the images the empirical reality generate. Just as there is much “more” to a human being than the list of symptoms and numbers in a diagnosis and prescribed treatment, there is certainly ‘more’ to an organization than those empirical digits that are assigned to the many and varied symptoms of the operation of an organization.

Call it the intuition, the psyche, the spirit, the so9ul…that dimension which, in some way perhaps, integrates the reflections, the data, the symptoms, into what some call the gestalt. There is what we common term a conscious and an unconscious in each of us…following the mapping of both Freud and Jung and their successors. Let’s speculate, for a moment, that it is legitimate to consider that there is a conscious and as unconscious aspect to each organization, each family, team etc. And while the conversation today centres around the word “identity” especially as it regards ‘identity politics’ (under which classification each voter’s identity falls using such categories as race, gender, ethnicity, age, income, education etc.), and we hear every day about how an athletic team needs to find its ‘identity’ in order to be successful, here we are picturing a slightly different, slightly more complicated and complicating aspect of the human being, not to the exclusion of those identity markers, but in addition to them.

Instantly, many will have already shuddered at the thought of considering something that smack of therapeutic language and its inferences and implications when discussion an organization. The last thing most executives seek, want or even will tolerate, (and this tragically includes too many educators and theologians) is to consider the relevance, important and need for ‘help’. The Los Angeles Times reports on royal biographer, Anna Pasternak’s response to the Oprah interview with Harry And Meg last night: It was a very soft-serving, soapy interview in Meghan’s favor…This is a woman who seems to make a habit of falling out with people.” The LA Times reports also includes this quote from Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, “I expect all this vile destructive self-=service nonsense from Meghan Markle—but for Harry to let her take down his family and the Monarchy like this is shameful.” Also, in the LA Times report, “A column in the Sun tabloid, which alleges that palace staff have dubbed the interview “Moperah” because of all the complaining, called the interview the ‘biggest theatrical performance of Meghan’s life.” In the same report, Clare Foges in the London Times said Harry and Meghan should have their titles removed. ‘The Oprah interview seems like the Sussexes’ own queen sacrifice: a strategic decision to burn bridges with the British in order to build them with the Americans,’ Foges wrote.

Any suggestion that the ‘firm’ (the British Monarchy) can and will tolerate a request for help against the tabloid press, who themselves are regularly entertained at Buckingham Palace, seems to have evoked, “That’s just the way it is; we have all suffered the same treatment and survived,” if Harry is to be believed. And it is precisely the chasm of both reality and perception that separates the “management” view of their organization and the “intrinsic, organic, intuitive, imaginative and (obviously the much more sensitive, compassionate and caring, and wholistic concept which, from their perspective would only lead to a “surrender” to the emotional frailties, akin to what they consider the emotional frailties of the Sussexes.

And yet, if Harry’s perspective has credence, especially his view that he “saw history repeating itself”, following the appalling treatment of his mother at the ‘hands’ of the tabloid press, then it seems some are more willing and ready to take a walk in his ‘mocassins’ than others.

The discarding of an organic perspective, including an organic epistemology, is a risk that too many in positions of power and leadership are not only willing to take. They may even be taking it unconsciously, unaware of the underlying, apparently imperceptible, and therefore unimportant energies that are flowing, potentially erupting and complicating the effective, efficient and ‘successful’ running of the organization.

This organic, intrinsic, wholistic, intuitive, imaginative, psychic and spiritual lens and the many nuanced colours, rhythms, patterns, and pulsations at the heart of the organization are not to be lumped into the category of facial technology that robs individuals of privacy. It is more aligned with a perception and a cognition of “identity” not as a demographic marker, but as a ‘fellow being’…in which those charged with its growth, health, and survival can feel an enhanced sense of comradeship. This organic framing, too, could apply not only to the organizations in our human community, but to the planet itself. We are long past time when we can legitimately continue to grab whatever resources the planet has for our corporate, political, ideological, narcissistic “profit”. And, the same is true of how we treat other humans: if we are nothing more than a productive resource, objectified, replaceable and easily and casually disposed, like trash, we will all have to live with such an attitude and a mind-set, long after the multiple human tragedies will have witnessed, and been complicit it permitting. 

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