Building Sustainable Legacies


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Why We Work

Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Studs Terkel

How much of your life do you spend at work?  For many of us the answer is shocking.  Working adults residing in the United States spend a third of their time at work, according to recent estimates.  Many of us spend more time at work than in any other endeavor including time with our families and friends. I am not going to debate whether this is the right way to live. However, since many of us will work a large proportion of our adult years, we might reflect on what work means to us.  Are we working only for a paycheck or for something more?

Through my own conversations with working people, I have found that most want to work for companies with a distinct purpose and clear values.  Research that I referenced in my August blog, confirmed that all generations, not just millennials, want to find purpose in their work.

Last month Katrin Muff discussed the importance of connecting our values with our life purpose as it relates to the world outside of ourselves.  Certainly, the workplace is part of that outer world. While our jobs may not suffice to define our total life- purpose, our work and/or our profession are part of our identity.  For example, reflect on how you describe yourself to others.  Chances are if you are a working adult, you include a reference to your profession or what you do for a living.

Since we tend to identify with our work, it is not surprising that most of us want it to be meaningful.

Evidence collected over decades shows a relationship between meaningful work, motivation, engagement and a sense of well-being.  While each of us may have our own definitions of what makes a job meaningful, some common factors are:

  • Person-organization fit
  • Positive and reinforcing personal relationships
  • Opportunities to align with or further one’s values
  • Fulfillment of a social or moral purpose, or broader reason for being. [1]

Year after year we hear that a very large percentage of working adults across the world do not love their jobs and are not engaged with their companies or their work. This disengagement from our work often has a negative impact on our health and well-being.

When we view our work as meaningful, we are also more likely to be motivated to do it well.  In 2015, Alison Alexander conducted research as part of her master’s studies at Northwestern University on how organizations are making work meaningful.  She found a direct connection between the presence of meaning in life and making meaning through work.  She also discovered that organizations with a strong purpose, clear values and commitments to social responsibility provide employees with ways to find meaning through their work.  She concluded that when corporations are committed to serving society, employees can “live their values through their work.”

Last month Katrin Muff argued that each of us must know who we truly are if we are to live an authentic life. I agree, and I believe that that this is also the first step in finding meaningful work or conversely, making work meaningful.  We must be keenly aware of our own values and what we perceive to be our purpose in life before we can expect work to be meaningful. Nancy Collamer, a contributing author to Forbes Magazine, suggests asking yourself questions such as “what five words best describe you”, and “what would you do if you couldn’t fail”.  Regardless of your method of reflection, you must know who you are before finding meaning in your work.

For job seekers, Alexander recommends that you “look under the hood” of the companies you are considering. Determine the degree to which their commitment to social responsibility is embedded throughout the company or isolated to a small group of people in a corporate social responsibility function. Reflect on whether the principles that the companies demonstrate through their words and actions are aligned with your values.  Pursue companies that are committed to the greater good of society.  Ideally, they will have embedded this commitment into all aspects of the company, and every employee will understand the role that they play in contributing to the greater good.

Even if you plan to stay in your current job, most likely you can find ways to make the work more meaningful.  For example, you might seek clarity from your manager about the significance and purpose of your work.  Or if your specific job tasks aren’t fulfilling, you might find others in your workplace who share your interests and values. Perhaps a group of like-minded people can design and carry out on your own time, projects that are fulfilling and contribute to the broader society.  If your company has a Corporate Social Responsibility or Sustainability Department, you might contact them to find out how you can get involved, perhaps as a volunteer.  And if all else fails, start looking for a new job with a purpose-driven company aligned with your own values.

I realize that work will not always be meaningful no matter what we do.  However, despite the role that work plays in our lives, very few of us find all our life-meaning from our jobs or our professions.   In fact it is a bad idea to try to put all our eggs in our professional or work basket. No matter how much meaning we derive from work, we should all seek and find meaning in other parts of our lives as well. We can find meaning from family, spirituality, personal growth, education, community.  The list is very long.  I believe that a sense of well-being, if not happiness, comes from our deepest sense of purpose and our constant pursuit of meaning every day throughout our entire existence.

“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”  Viktor E. Frankl

[1] Cardador, T.M.& Rupp, D.E. (2011) “Organizational Culture, Multiple Needs, and the Meaningfulness of Work,” The Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, Chapter 10.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

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The tricky interconnection of values and purpose

Being values-based implies a connection with oneself, a deep inner knowing. Embracing a purpose requires, so I argue here, a connection with the context in which we live and operate, a deep outer knowing. When these two senses are disconnected, we are in trouble, as individuals, as organizations and as societies at large. When the senses are aligned, thriving individually, as an organization and as a global community means thriving at all of these levels for the benefit and well-being of all.

Brené Brown recently said in an interview with Marie Forleo “our worth and our belonging are not negotiated with other people. We carry those inside of our hearts.” Brené is a widely recognized and respected psychologist in the domains of authenticity and vulnerability. She talks about how an individual can find herself, find her roots and core and how to stand up for herself and what matters to her. In many ways what she talks about has to do with finding one’s own purpose and identity or what she calls knowing who you truly are. To her, the importance of knowing who you are is key in living an authentic life as it ensures that you can always belong to yourself, rather than fitting in with what others might expect.

I can resonate with this and I understand the importance of what she says. How are we supposed to know what is right and what is wrong if we don’t know who we are and what that means in the context of what happens around us? This journey of self-knowing, of self-awareness, is a key component in the journey of being a responsible leader. It may well be the first and most important one, the dimension without which all the rest doesn’t really make sense. It certainly is critical to create role models that can serve others to find the courage to adapt their behavior and attitudes in order to re-connect with who they truly are. Or, as Lena Faraguna claims: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over the island looking for boats to save. They just stand there shining.”

Quote and image by Lena Faraguna

Let me zoom out a bit. How would we translate this self-knowing, this inner self of self-belonging in the context of working with others, of teams, and of organizations? How can a sense of belonging among a group of people, be it a family of a company, be created without negotiating with others? How can a group of individuals that belong first and foremost to themselves ever belong to a greater cause? I am troubled when I imagine how a particularly purpose-oriented company, such as those that Kathy Miller described in her last blog, might do if it decides to “not negotiate with others because its self-worth is inside of its own purpose”. Isn’t that what we are accusing the modern corporation of doing? Of putting its own priorities first and to forget about the rest? Where is the line drawn? If investors and owners are part of the inner core, then profit-maximization sure makes sense. If they are not part of it (and how might they not?), then how can a company protect its interest from investors without negotiating? Tricky.

When adding a further dimension and zooming out to an entire society, what changes in that frame? If a society decides that it needs to first and foremost belong to itself, its citizens, and not negotiate with others, what might that mean? Wouldn’t we be moving very close to the explosive sense that nationalists are expressing when they say “my country first”? And when they start protecting themselves from perceived outside threats, such as immigrants, refugees and trade agreements?

There is something dangerous in all of this. And this might well also be the dangerous in purpose-oriented firms. Purpose, after all, means what? The dictionary says purpose is “the reason for which something is done”. Well, and that is the entire problem. That is not good enough. There are excellent reasons to do something and there are incredibly stupid reasons for doing other things. Let me take the three-step zoom back from society, to the organization to the individual.

A society that defines a purpose, or “raison d’être” as something that is distinctive from what is around it, will in the worst case create harm to other societies and possibly even to itself. Global well-being can only be achieved if a society, a nation, embraces the idea that it is fundamentally and indisputably a part of the larger context in which it operates. And finding a purpose that does not take this into account is potentially harmful, as the Swiss President and many other statesmen have pointed out after President Trump gave his disturbing “America First” speak at the UN SDG forum last week.

Zooming now in to an organization or a team, what does this mean? If an organization chooses a purpose that is purely self-serving and that may seem like the best way to survive and ride the increasingly turbulent waves of change, then this organization is also very likely to harm those around it, and as a result, potentially itself. The metaphor is the cancer cell that builds its growth on eating into the very organism that is providing its living substance until that organism has been emptied out and can no longer sustain the ongoing growth of these cells. That sounds ugly and I apologize. What I mean to say is that a purposeful organization is not good enough, if that purpose does not imply taking into account the well-being of the context in which the organization operates.

Further zooming in and back to the individual, I struggle to see how an individual can and should have a sense of identify to herself that is limited to herself only. It appears limiting and potentially dangerous. As it if was necessary to put up guards against something outside. As if that sense of inner belonging needed protecting. An inward journey of discovery will uncover, I am certain, that there is both nothing and everything that can shake you and me in our core. Nothing in the sense that we are who we are irrespective of what happens outside of us, our sense of self is based on how we see and talk to ourselves. Everything in the sense that we are shaped by the events in our lives and we respond to them, in the full understanding that we have no idea what lies ahead of us.

The Circle Model (Katrin Muff 2016)

Let me attempt to conclude. In order for purpose and values to be aligned, an ongoing journey between the inner and the outer world in which we live is needed, allowing an emergent transformation as we advance. This allows a development of the inner knowing and the values we build on. In addition, purpose will need to be defined not just as the “reason for which something is done” but “the reason for which what is done serves the well-being of the next larger holon” or unit. Arthur Koestler coined the term holon (“whole”) as something that “simultanesouly a whole and a part”. Holacracy, which is founded on the principle of Holons, embraces this nicely as an operating system. A holon is a unit that is contained in another holon and that may (or not) contain other holons. Each sub-ordinate holon by definition must embrace the purpose of the holon of which it is a part and the entire system is guides by an overarching missing that should – and here Holacracy stops – again serve the next larger holon. Imagine if individuals would understand that we are holons, as parts of organizations, which in turn are holons as a part of societies, which in turn form a part of a global community, all while being in and of itself a whole that again contains other smaller holons. This understanding would allow an alignment of purpose and values based on the understanding that we are all a part of another, infinitely interconnected.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


Pessimism in the developed world runs rampant

This disturbing declaration came from a 2017 study of millennials by Deloitte, a financial and risk management company.  Deloitte has been surveying millennials for the past 6 years and this year they found more general anxiety about the future than ever before.  The concerns expressed included terrorism, income inequality, crime and corruption and climate change.  Interestingly, the participants regard businesses as a force for social impact, however, they believe that companies are falling short in applying their capabilities to alleviating society’s challenges. So where is the disconnect between what millennials believe corporations could contribute versus what they think they are doing to address these overwhelming social issues?

Last month Katrin Muff’s blog was related to this theme.  She wrote about her frustration with companies that cannot see beyond their own short-term self-interest.  Obviously, she is not alone with this grievance.

Over the past few years, the news has been filled with stories about companies that acted solely in their own self-interest with calamitous consequences.  Consider the Volkswagen emissions scandal or BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These companies flagrantly neglected all responsibility to the environment in pursuit of profits.  And, thus, both companies suffered reputation and financial damage.

While most companies do not commit fraud as was the case with VW, many do operate as if their only reason for existing is to create as much wealth as possible for their shareholders. These companies describe themselves by the products they make and the profits they generate. Consequently, they are in danger of becoming irrelevant to customers, employees and investors, all of whom are becoming increasingly impatient with corporations that lack any social purpose.

On the other hand, many companies do take their responsibilities to society very seriously.  Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a widely-recognized expert on organizations, says that an increasing number of successful companies emphasize purpose, values and long-term institution building.  These purpose-driven companies believe that they are inherently connected to society at large, and thus have obligations as members of society beyond mere economic transactions.  That is not to imply that financial success is unimportant to these companies.  In fact, Kanter says that they embrace financial success partly if not wholly so that they can carry out their commitments to society.[1]  And in fact evidence from a 2014 Deloitte study shows that companies focusing on a broader purpose are more likely than others to achieve success for the long-term. The confidence that stakeholders place in these purpose-driven companies tends to lead to investments and growth.

Most of us want to work for companies with a distinct purpose and clear values.  A  2016 study of purpose in the workplace conducted  conducted by the consulting arm of PWC, showed that  a large percentage of all generations in the workforce, not just millennials, want to find purpose in their work. The study emphasized the following:

“A truly purpose-driven company must have purpose as its guidepost for decision-making—including the opportunities it decides to pursue and not pursue—to demonstrate commitment to responsible business leadership.”

Unilever, the company that Katrin cited in her blog last month, serves as a great example of a multinational corporation that lives its purpose every day. Their vision is as follows:

“Unilever has a simple but clear purpose – to make sustainable living commonplace. We believe this is the best long-term way for our business to grow.”

This purpose is embedded in all of Unilever’s decision-making including how they interact with their shareholders, as well as how they develop and package new products.

It is time for all companies to critically examine their roles in society. Certainly, at times our global challenges can seem overwhelming so it is no wonder that we will see alarming headlines about millennials’ pessimism! Nevertheless, we can’t become so discouraged that we are paralyzed.  It is time for all companies to act with purpose.

Of course, the business community alone can’t fix everything.  However, those of us in this community can and should contribute to finding solutions to our world’s challenges, which, at the same time, will help us make our businesses more profitable and sustainable.  And those not working in the business community can and should hold us accountable for more than merely creating wealth for our shareholders.

[1] Kanter, R.M. (2015) How purpose-based companies master change for sustainability. In R. Henderson, R Gulati and M. Tushman (Eds.), Leading Sustainable Change (pp.11-139). Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.


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Walking the path of change: from the invisible hand to the invisible heart!

Kate Raworth left me with a question I could not answer: “How do we transform the ‘value-extraction’ mentality of the 20th century with the ‘designed-in benefits’ mindset needed in the 21st century?”. I walked home after a lovely dinner with her and pondered about why arguments that make total sense to some of us can be dismantled so easily by those who follow the profit-maximization drumbeat that has brought havoc to the world and economics in my lifetime. Kate had shared a story of well-regarded expert who proposed a cleverly designed building able to extract CO2 from its environment to a CFO. The CFO killed the genius idea with as little as: “But why should I do such thing? It doesn’t serve me!”

Kate was in Lausanne to inspire our graduating students along with Peter Bakker, President of the WBCSD, both recipients of BSL Dr. Honoris Causa awards. And they did! Peter shared a story of when he was CEO at TNT and his purchase of two long-haul planes doubled the CO2 footprint of his company in one year. The planes served to fly mobile phone from China to Europe – customers like their orders fulfilled overnight irrespective of the cost to nature. He reminded the graduates that the origin of leadership is “path finder” and that they were more than ever required to serve exactly that; as pathfinders to bring organizations to be the positive force our future needs.

Kigen Moi, the BSL Valedictorian, talked about Ubuntu, a word well known where he grew up “Humanity”. Or, as his story illustrated, the idea that no one can be happy, if the others around him are not. Such a profound thought which stands in such stark contrast to Kate’s struggles we had debated the night before.

I am struck by an oldish HuffPost blog entitled “There is no trade-off between profit and purpose” and that Paul Polman had recently retweeted with the words “To reach the land of profit, follow the road of purpose”. I have been a long advocate of using the right language to talk to various audiences. And that it is necessary to talk to those who see profit maximization as the holy grain by pointing out the immediate opportunity and risks of embracing business ideas that go beyond serving the interest of shareholders but at the same time also serve other stakeholders, society and the world at large.

To hell with it! Why should we adjust a values-based argument to a value-disconnected audience. Why cannot we not shake the CFO in Kate’s story to senses by responding with utter disbelief and exclaiming with wide-open eyes: “But how can you be happy if around you so many are unhappy? And let him reconnect with the humanity that undoubtedly sits inside of him, maybe underneath much dust and fast asleep, but most certainly alive and ticking. Why argue that purpose leads to profit, as if following purpose needed any excuse? Why having to point out there is no tradeoff between making money and doing good?

Why not shake the hearts and minds of those stuck in the 20th century logic of the misinterpretation of Adam Smith’s invisible hand? Take a look at the state of the world, the state of any single country of your choice and you can clearly and without a single doubt see that the profit-maximization argument has gotten it wrong. We have spent the last decade trying to twist purpose and values-based arguments into the ill-fatted logic of the past century and we have gotten nowhere. If we want to change the mindset that Kathy Miller and I are trying to figure out how to change, maybe the time is now ripe to start talking the truth. Kathy ended her last blog with a deep insight of Mahatma Gandhi: “You must not lose faith in humanity.  Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

Why not point out the amazing power and the beauty of the invisible heart that is beating in every single living thing and that connects all of us into a humanity across all living beings. Why not question empty values and fake arguments, and why not replace them with the wisdom of Ubuntu and insist that we can only rest if all of us are happy that that we will no longer take part in a race against each other but in a journey towards a place where all of us can be well on that gorgeous planet we are living on. Why not?!


Be the Change and Act Fearlessly

As the summer doldrums set in amidst the disharmony and dysfunction here in the USA, I’ve begun looking for inspiration on how to effect constructive change. While achieving change – especially social change- has always been very difficult, it currently seems to me next to impossible in my country.  Here, amidst the everyday claims and counter claims of “fake news”, everything and everyone is so polarized we all feel stuck in our separateness.

In her May blog, Katrin addressed how this schism strikes her and what she thinks we can do as we live through these discouraging times. She concluded that when mass protests don’t work and institutions are too easily by-passed, each of us must step up.  She said that we must “do what is right every single moment every single day” even when we don’t see immediate results. And how do we know what is right?  Katrin suggested that we use our values and our commitment to a common well-being to guide us.

Katrin’s words reminded me of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  I immediately thought of the following quote which has been attributed to him:

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Many question whether Gandhi spoke these exact words.  Nevertheless, he said many things that implore us to first look inward before we attempt to change the world.  For example, he said the following:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Gandhi’s teachings include some specific advice about how we might change ourselves.  While his words of advice are simple, the actions he recommends are not. For example, he directed us to seek harmony in thoughts, words and deeds. And he advocated for individuals to pursue truth selflessly and with enormous humility. The pursuit of truth is hard work and takes time.

We should form our convictions with care. Gandhi said that we must defend our beliefs and not ever compromise on fundamentals such as showing others respect and honoring the dignity of every human being.

Even so Gandhi warned us to avoid arrogance concerning our own wisdom. He said, “It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”

Gandhi acknowledged that people may diverge in what they see as truth. However, he suggested that when we pursue truth humbly, with selflessness and tolerance, we may find that our varying perceptions are all part of a larger truth:

“…where there is honest effort, it will be realized that what appear to be different truths are like the countless and apparently different leaves of the same tree.”

Of course individual change without action is not enough. Gandhi claimed that we should act fearlessly, selflessly, with dignity and without violence.  He, like Katrin in her May blog, reminded us that we must take action even if we don’t see immediate results.  He believed that it is the action itself rather than the fruit of the action that is most important.  And he wisely observed that even if we may not see the results of our actions, if we do nothing, there will be no results.

Clearly Gandhi’s words and teachings have had a powerful impact on the world. Not only did he achieve enormous changes in India and in the world in his lifetime, other great change leaders such as Martin Luther King claimed to have been guided by his teachings. And Martin Luther King is arguably the greatest leader of social change in my lifetime.

Gandhi’s teachings are universally profound. His words transcend the boundaries of country and culture.  His wisdom is equally relevant to individuals, organizations and entire societies.  And for me, one of the most significant results of my readings of Gandhi is that I found the inspiration that I was looking for:

“You must not lose faith in humanity.  Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

I plan to repeat this quote to myself every time I am exposed to the relentless onslaught of disquieting news across the globe.

 

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

 

References

Rosenburg, Shaun.  Mohandas Gandhi Quotes and Their Meaning.  http://www.shaunrosenberg.com/mohandas-gandhi-quotes-and-meaning

Allen, Douglas. The Phlosophy of Mahatma Gandhi for the Twenty-first Century. Lexington Books, 2008.

Nirupama, Rao. Gandhi’s Light Guided MLK.  Politico. 3/07/2013. http://www.politico.com/story/2013/03/mahatma-gandhis-lightguided-martin-luther-king-jr-088581

 

 


The Emperor’s Clothes

When I first heard about the fairy tale of the Emperor’s clothes, I always thought that it would take just one sufficiently innocent and courageous person to point her finger at the emperor and everybody else would automatically fall out of the magic spell that had previously had let them see an altered reality. But, today’s reality is proving me wrong. Today, we are living in this weird situation where about half of the people realize that the emperor is wearing no clothes and is pointing more or less discretely to the naked leader. The other half of the people, however, see the emperor in all of his magnificent beauty of glimmering, luscious and richly decorated clothes. They are blind-sided by the appearance of wealth and the impression of power this creates. They feel the power and they either feel frightened or encouraged by what it may bring to them. If it is not question of how many people see the emperor without clothes, then what are relevant triggers or levers that might open the eyes of those who still see him in his magic dress?

When we talk about change, we remain interestingly speculative with regards to interdependencies, causes, consequences and what are precursors, pre-conditions, enablers and levers of change. Kathy Miller has provided an enlightening response to my blog suggesting that people rather than organizations are the shapers of organizational culture. She points out – correctly so in my opinion – that culture is also shaped by the structure, size, leadership and governance of an organization. These are clearly organizational elements rather than people elements. I would like to further expand that trajectory of thought by investigating what other elements influence organizational and more particularly systemic change beyond the people and organizational related factors.

We have previously established that a variety of aspects that can be summed up as people related factors of change strongly define and influence a culture. We have also established that there are a number of organizational related aspects that impact and shape culture. In the context of the subject of climate change, Andy Hoffmann has investigated why pointing out facts has at best no impact at opening the eyes of those that deny a reality that quasi an entire community of scientists have confirmed. He concludes his assessment with the observation that arguing with facts simply results in the other side generating other (alternative?) facts that further prove the opposite point of view and thus further entrench the already existing difference. If not facts, then what?

Research suggests that in order to even get a chance at changing somebody else’s mind, we need to empathically and authentically connect with that other person. From person to person, not from role to role. And this is where things fall apart. We don’t want to personally engage, there is an inner discomfort, a resistance that creeps up and that communication shuts down. I have extensive personal experience in this and I often self-observe what happens to me when I am confronted with an opinion, a feedback or comment that goes against what I believe in. There is a physical shift inside of me, that turn my receptors from open to close, my smile from broad to narrow, and my heart from trusting to a stand-by mode. Sometimes I manage to turn the switch back on “open”. When I do, it is because I manage to re-establish first my own heart connection to my inner values and purpose, maybe to my soul, and then from that space, to re-establish a connection to the best in the other person that I had previously seen. A colleague of mine describes this as “veils” that are lifted off again that had prevented a clear vision. I pretend that most of us who have self-observed such events will be able to describe some change in our physiological disposition that can serve as a signal and hence potentially allow a reversal of the process. This however, does not work well when I enter a discussion being convinced that the other person holds a “wrong” own perspective that I happen to disagree with or question in terms of honesty of interest and intent. And this is where things get sticky.

If such mastery is required at the personal level to attempt to generate change at the systemic level, we are in for a tough ride. I am struck by the parallel to the current reality across the Atlantic. There are impressive public attempts (including from the New York Times) to influence the personal moral obligation of a high ranking US prosecutor to demand an independent investigation of the Russian intervention in the US election process which is required in order to implement the checks and balances that are in theory well in place from a governance perspective but that don’t get the traction they should. Is it possible that when organizational elements fail to generate the framework for change, that we are thrown back to the individual courage, morals and ultimately mastery which are comprised in the people dimension? If mass protests don’t work, and structural frameworks can be circumvented or be neutralized or ignored, then how are we ever going to point out what one child pointed out so naively in the fairy tale of the emperor’s clothes? Or might it be the simple accumulation of individual, structural and mass pressures that little by little fill the famous barrel until one last drop makes it overflow and thus creates the change. And it mattered very little what that last drop actually was, as long as the drips kept coming. If that were true, then a possible conclusion might ultimately be a very encouraging one. Namely, that irrespective of the immediate or estimated impact of any individual action, new policy or public engagement, what is important is to do what is right  every singly moment a day. Right from an interconnected perspective that embraces values at the individual level, interests at the organizational level and a sense of common well-being and safety at the societal, global level.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs


The Myth of Organizational Culture

There is no such thing as organizational culture there is only people culture

I am curious to explore the difference between a role and a person, an organization and its people. This difference can be illustrated by considering a familiar scenario: What is the culture of the White House? I am suggesting here that it is not the White House that has a culture – the White House is an institution that has a purpose. Those who live and work at the White House represent the people of the White House and these people, how they work together and how they are together define the culture of the White House as an institution. A different set of people will result in a different culture, even if the institution remains the same in its purpose. Individuals may have an influence on the appearance of an institution or organization and depending on the governance structure, also have an influence on the purpose. And yet, the culture is an attribute defined by a group of people, not an institution or an organization. This insight may influence our understanding of how a culture may be changed. Could it be that cultural change is much more about changes that take place at the individual level, rather than those that can be master-minded at the organizational level? Let me attempt to reflect this by considering our lessons learned through the cultural change at Business School Lausanne.

There is a seemingly small but possibly substantial difference between what Organizational Development experts call an “Organizational Culture” and what is really going on. I have become aware of this difference in a reflective talk with BSL’s Holacracy implementation coach Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller of evolutionatwork. We reflected on Business School Lausanne’s (BSL) biggest difficulty and darkest hour in the transformation from a hierarchical to a self-organizing organization that somehow relates to the people space.

As you may recall, Holacracy is a highly sophisticated operating system for self-organization that explicitly takes care of organizing decisions around the “work” that relates to the purpose of the organization and how it very clearly does not organize how people work with each other. Despite hearing and reading everything we could about this, we entered into this transformation and felt entirely unprepared for what was waiting for us.

As we focused on organizing work-related decisions in a power-distributed, non-hierarchical way, learning the complex and sophisticated Holacracy rules that provoked and forced a behavioral change in every single person taking part, we did not pay attention to something crucial: what do we do with our personal relationships above and beyond strictly work-related discussions. In our darkest months, busy negotiating the shadows cast by difficult change, we entirely neglected these personal relationships, trusting that all we needed was work-talk.

With hindsight, we now know that there is a huge need to deal with and find solutions for personal relationships. This is not something a “tribe meeting” can fix as Holacracy may suggest. It is one-to-one work, not something that can be masterminded and implemented across the board. Personal relationships are apparent in every single moment that people work together – in the same space or around a common purpose; rather than being an occasional moment around the coffee machine, they dominate all interactions. Purely work-related decisions form the exception in such exchanges, something we have become able to distinguish thanks to Holacracy, which forces a particular and awkward talk-protocol when work is concerned. As such we would start work-talk with a sentence that sounds like, “In my role of ….., I would like to talk to you in your role of … about …”. And this is where the conversation shifts from a personal talk to a work-talk where the two people share specific accountabilities they can expect within their cooperation.

Such a situation is in stark contrast with the more typical situation where a person with a superior position casually strolls into an office of one of her or his subordinates, leans against the doorpost and in a collegial tone starts a friendly conversation that, depending on personal affinity, is either relaxed, hearty or a bit tense. Typically, somewhere towards the end of that nice chat, the boss comes up with some new expectation, deadline reminder, urgent action to be embraced or a long-term project to ponder. Depending on the managerial style of the supervisor, she or he either checks back about the feasibility of this requests or just strolls out of the office, fully expecting the subordinate to take her/his request as an order. This is a normal mix of personal and work relationship that all of us who work in a normal hierarchy are used to and know by experience in all of its wonderful – and less wonderful – shades of conscious or unconscious manipulation.

Self-organization crushes such situations by rendering them inacceptable in one way or another. It is impossible for any individual to walk into the office of anybody else and expect them to do something just because his/her seniority dictates that their “great idea” becomes an action on someone else’s to-do list. Anybody who has not lived self-organization has no means of truly understanding the implication of this. It makes no sense and any straight-thinking person wonders how anything that needs to get done, does get done. This is where Holacracy and other self-organizing operating systems tend to fail. A leader cannot fathom giving up her or his power and truly trusting that other individuals will not only step up into the space created by defining clear accountabilities in roles, but will have so many more ideas in these roles than could ever have been imagined by one supervisor alone. This trust is a leap of faith that seems to be a big ask for leaders.

At BSL, we were lucky that this was not a problem. As a leader, I was very keen to let go of the implicit power my position held and to focus on activities I could not spend enough time on but where I felt I could add true value for the organization. Given that letting-go was not our main issue (although, despite my wish to let go, I had to check my instincts for a good year!), a deeper issue emerged as a potential deal-breaker in transforming organizations. This is what I am fascinated by: the distinction between what an organization is and what a group of people is.

An organization is indeed NOT a group of people that works together. An organization, and this distinction is crucial, is a “thing”, a legal entity with a very specific purpose that subsequently serves as a vehicle to employ people and resources to realize that purpose. A group of people consists of individuals who, together, form the group. An organization possesses a “culture”, no more than my teacup can possess a culture. My teacup may look a certain way by having a certain shape and color and material, but it has no culture. In the same way, an organization may house its employees in a certain type of building, paint its walls a certain color or serve food of a given quality in its canteen; however, these attributes do not constitute culture. The only aspect of an organization that can have a culture is the people. There is people culture, not organizational culture. If you want to look at what it takes to change culture, you need to look at what it takes to change the individuals who, together, are the people. This is an insight that is not fully embraced in organizational change theory or organizational development. Organizational change in this sense would imply a change of the organization’s purpose or structure, activities or locations, but not of its people. Organizational development cannot mean that its people develop but that the organization grows through new products and services, locations, contracts, partnerships etc.

The reason I feel this distinction is important is that I have a hunch that, by peeling back this layer called “organization” when we talk about changing the culture, we may discover true levers of change to enable cultural shifts in organizations. I am fascinated by this as I still don’t know how our own cultural change came about at BSL. And I was there closely observing it! What happened in these dark months and what came out and into the light after it? When trying to answer this question, examples of individual human actions come to mind. Acts of courage, love and care. All of which are entirely unrelated to any role or accountability. These acts of humanity are what have touched me and possibly others – as individuals, not in a role or a responsibility. Alex sharing his new Chinese tea leaves and showing me how to pour a cup of tea as I walk in tired from a long outside meeting. Denitsa standing up and giving me a big hug as I walk in to say hi. Yasmina cracking a joke as I walk by that makes me stop and see how she is doing, as a person not as a colleague delivering her to-do list. It is Aurea that closes her work notebook and shares how her friend is doing.

These moments which are entirely and totally disconnected from any follow-on comment that says, “and hey, would you mind printing me x and quickly running me this or that report?” or, “hey, since we are chatting, have you heard back from x on y?”. We don’t do that anymore. We were forced to separate these kinds of conversations by learning how to have power-free conversations among roles in a journey to replace our hierarchy. Awkward, coded language that has nothing human or fun in it. But it does its job, it provides a safe space for anybody with a certain responsibility to do the very best she can to embrace this responsibility with all the passion and knowledge and freedom to innovate that she can put into it, given other priorities of other responsibilities she may also have. What happened in these dark hours is that we reduced all of our conversations to such coded, awkward language, and next to that each of us dealt with the pain and the frustration that such cold exchanges created in our own ways. To all the varying degrees of incapacity that humans possess. Some started gossiping, others started to moan and complain, some formed small groups that tried to super-analyze it all and solve it for the team, some retreated in their caves, feeling alone and rejected by a system that was inhuman. All of us, in one way or another, felt alone, helpless and overwhelmed, and all of us reacted to it through the large variety of dark shadows that are a part of our human characters.

Until the human light started to shine through and some started to reach out in caring conversations, daring to question endless complaints by asking, “do you want help or do you just want to complain?”; some started to share their pains and how they went about dealing with them with their coach or in therapy. Somebody organized tea for everybody. Somebody else brought in a homemade cake. Some people started to have really honest and painful conversations with each other. In these early days, everything felt raw and we were all exhausted. Emotionally affected. Small groups of individuals formed who felt more affinity for each other and much energy was spent discussing a problem nobody that nobody could name. Pockets of resistance against the transformation became loud and forceful and the pain was in front of all of us, all the time. The atmosphere was dim, and some people fell ill. They could not understand the coldness of Holacracy and the inhumanity it seemed to require. People who didn’t perform were suddenly very exposed and position power didn’t protect anymore. Difficult talks requiring courage were needed to end long working relationships that probably could have been addressed long before but were hidden due to an overlap with personal relationships. More and more we learned to separate these relationships and slowly, very slowly, too slowly, the benefits started to emerge.

We had focused on identifying work benefits – and we reported many of these, experiencing them with increasing rapidity. The degree and extent of self-initiative is simply mind-blowing. We have moved from a group of people who each felt overwhelmed with the amount of work we needed to do to a group of people open to listen to new ideas, suggestions and opportunities, and ourselves coming up with innovative new, additional things we can do. Where did this space suddenly come from? Our plates were full before – I had long stopped daring to bring in new projects as I feared the reaction of a team that was clearly already overstretched. How come these same people now had ideas far beyond what I had ever dreamt of bringing in? How come, solutions for problems nobody even acknowledged before suddenly were implemented without anybody even knowing? How come costs were reduced where before there was no alternative? How come a suggestion for improvement was suddenly met with “tell me more” rather than “I have no time”? These are all “just” work-related benefits that brought tremendous benefit to the organization and these deserve being studied to be better understood.

What we didn’t focus on was what would happen to our relationships. And this is where more miracles happened. Our human relations have deepened; we know today more about each other than we ever did before and we are forming more of a family in a true sense than ever before. It is wrong to use “we” and “us” as a term. This phenomenon is an individual one and builds on the individual care for somebody else. Massimo and I are sharing the difficult moments we both experience right now seeing our parents with health issues. Carlo and Branko share their worries about their kids during our upcoming company ski-weekend. Denitsa inspired us with daily emails in the holiday months sharing insights about positive psychology from her current Master’s studies. As I present a key note at a big business event, I see the faces of my colleagues in the audience whose smiles encourage me to say what I want to say in clear language. We are all signed up for a course in non-violent communication. Our stakeholders (students and faculty) tell us that it is easier to engage with us, that we listen better and have more time and space for them as human beings, not just as transactional problems. I notice myself that I am careful in responding with a personal comment to emails that I receive. I am friendlier, warmer and more open, and I like that very much.

In our team, a feeling has spread that says “we are cool” and we are proud to belong together. Strength-spotting has become a past-time. Laughter is easier, humor more present and even after a long, tough day at work, I walk out feeling much better in my body and certainly in my heart and soul. Denitsa had asked me midday, “how is your day going” and I was profoundly touched. What a nice question and rather than complaining about all the things that I had going on, I took a quiet breath and I realized, I was having a really good day!

There is a miracle that has happened in front of my eyes and I don’t understand it quite yet. I remain curious and do want to understand it better. For if I can describe it better, others can benefit from such “organizational change” that really is “people change”, and that would be just great! My hunch is that the differentiation between the organization and the group of individuals that make up the people is key. When I worked for Alcoa, it was not the organization I admired and adored as much as its people. It was not “being the best aluminum company in the world” that made my soul sing, it was the positive opportunities I was given, and the leader’s interest in hearing a twenty-four-year old’s opinion on strategy.