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Organizations That Bring Out the Best in People

Sometimes I have the opportunity to ask as group “When did you experience working really well together?” Quite often the answer pertains to a situation that involved some level of crisis. In Hawai’i, the answer often relates to hurricane Iniki which caused very widespread damage and disruption. The incident may also relate to a fierce competitor entering the marketplace, or a disruptive technology challenging a business model. As is often pointed out, the character for “Crisis” in the Chinese is made up of two characters: One for “Danger,” and the other “Opportunity.” It seems the presence of danger or challenge creates an opportunity for people to be their best.

Unfortunately, as we return to non-crisis conditions, this “best” often disappears, and is replaced by something less exemplary, less cooperative, less innovative, less patient, less resilient, and less forgiving. Observers of the human condition worldwide, and over the centuries have observed this in people. We might consider what is this “best” in us called out by the crisis, and where does it come from? And what is it about our organizations that causes the withdrawal of this “best” in us when the crisis is over?

Consider that an organization is an amplifier of human energy. We create organizations to get more output, effectiveness, quality, satisfaction. The good news is that organizations amplify human energy effectively. The bad news is they amplify negative human energy as efficiently as they do positive energy. Because of this it is important to understand the varieties of human energies of awareness and their dynamics.

Life looks quite different from different levels of awareness, and the quality of work that can be accomplished is similarly very different. Have you ever wondered why, for some people, work is a wonderful creative adventure, for others a hellish torment, and for others a dull, flat emptiness? To understand these differences, it is helpful to consider a very fundamental and profound principle:

The quality of our experience of the world, the quality of the work we do, and the meaningfulness of our life is a direct function of our level of awareness.

We encounter this principle in many concrete ways. For example, we may know different people who live in remarkably similar circumstances, but who experience those circumstances in different ways. For one it is misery, for the other it is an exciting learning experience. One day our work is engaging and fascinating, and another it has become flat and empty. The work is the same, but our perception has shifted.

Our level of awareness can have dramatic consequences. There are those times when we are “asleep at the switch,” and we don’t see the accident coming, or we miss an opportunity. We are not present in the moment to avoid the damage or take advantage of the moment. In our western world, we tend to make a simple distinction between two states of awareness: awake and asleep, but in actuality there are a wide range of possible levels or states of awareness, which have been charted and named and explored in psychology and in various cultures around the world. Our interest here is practical application of these states of awareness. This work requires a map or model of awareness, and a way to shift intentionally from one level of awareness from another.

Positive and Negative

Perhaps the simplest distinction in this model is: positive and negative. We are familiar with characterizing the behavior or attitude of another person as positive or negative. The positive attitude has an uplifting effect on us, while the negative “brings us down”. The positive is light and expansive, which the negative is heavy and contracted. Positive is encouraging and supportive. Negative is hostile and cynical. There seems to be an association of positive with moving toward and enthusiasm, while negative is associated with shrinking away and fearfulness.

The positive and negative tendency is rooted in an essential feature of our psyche, which might be called sympathy and antipathy, or attraction and repulsion. We would be in great danger without this function, which produces an energy which moves is toward that which we perceive to be good for us and away from that which is damaging. The problem is when this function becomes the central feature of our lives, producing addiction or paranoia of one degree or another.

There is an extensive self-help literature on the benefits of positivity and the dangers of negativity. We now understand the destructive impact of negativity on health, relationship, problem solving, and success in life. We may feel the positivity or negativity of another person strongly, and this attitude can be observed in all aspects of the person’s behavior, in posture, gesture, word choice, tonality, and thought process. We may also be aware that the attitude is extremely contagious. We can easily “catch” the attitude of another person. There is the saying “Attitude is contagious, is yours worth catching?” Positive or negative attitude is such a general phenomenon that for many people it is perceived as a quality of energy that encompasses and pervades the person. It can be exceedingly difficult, however to be aware of and understand our own attitude as it colors our experience; what we perceive, think, believe, how we feel and act.

In the world of work, we can see the manifestation of the positive and negative clearly. The negative is always “about me;” my preferences, my disappointment, my opinion, my complaint, having it my way, being the center of attention, making every moment as much as possible about me. It is about me talking and you listening, me telling and you doing, and when things go right, I must of course get the credit. When things go wrong, it is of course, not my fault. How could you even think it would be my fault?

One of the wonderful things about work is it is a terrific opportunity to work on being positive. All of the mechanisms in a healthy organization are designed to align positive human energies coherently to serve a common purpose. Positive energy is characterized by service, production, execution, and accomplishment. It is about the joy of producing something useful with the gifts we have been given and the time and energy we spend. H

uman beings get tremendous joy out of this experience.

The sad fact is most organizations have discovered a great many ways to systematically interfere with the expression of positive energy. A lack of clarity on expectations, poor communications, poor training, placement of people in roles that do not suit their competencies, self-serving managers, allowing poor morale and conflicts to fester, and not thinking through the best ways to serve the end purpose are common examples.

The qualities of positivity and negativity also relate to the tendencies toward wholeness and separation, between concern for the whole and fixation on “my part.” Brian Hines describes this dichotomy as follows:

Consider how everyday language speaks of our longing, for union and distaste for separation We say positively "I'm really into model trains" (or jazz, or Shakespeare: whatever). "My therapist is really helping me get my head together." "I got so immersed in the book I am reading that I lost all track of time." And we say negatively: · “I’m all mixed up.” "This relationship is tearing me apart.” I woke up with a splitting headache.

It's clear. Union is Pleasant, whether it be sexual intercourse, a meeting of minds, or the soul merging with spirit. Separation is unpleasant, whether it be a forced parting of lovers, scattered attention, or disconnection from God. This is only a general rule, of course. Close contact with a poisonous leaf or a high-tension wire is painful, just as fleeing a burning building or an obnoxious companion is a cause for joy. Yet all in all, people, along with almost every sort of living being, have a strong inclination for love, togetherness, intimacy, sharing, and similar signs of union. (Hines, Life is Fair, 1999, pp. 84-85)

This association of positivity with wholeness and negativity with separation plays out very dramatically in organizations. When I am fixated on myself to the detriment of my partner, my team, my organization, or its customers, that is perceived as negativity. When I am concerned about the whole, the shared enterprise, our customers, our community, our environment, my co-workers, that is perceived as positivity.

Most of the mechanisms that we employ in bringing out the best in people in organization relate to cultivating a positive attitude, and a concern for the whole. In order to understand what can be done at work to encourage positivity, we need to understand the most common state of awareness that human beings tend be in at work; automaticity, or “waking sleep”.


Let’s expand the model to include a third level or quality, which is often described as “automatic pilot”. We say, “the lights are on, but nobody is home.” This state is neither positive nor negative. We recognize this state in others, but not in ourselves. We see it as a kind of vacancy or flatness. Something is missing in the eyes, the person is “somewhere else.” We don’t recognize it in ourselves because we are not there to notice it. We are lost in a dream or internal dialogue, going through the motions. We only realize that we have been in a state of automatic pilot after we wake up, for instance after we have driven from home to work and wonder where we have been while we were driving.

It is possible to complete very complex tasks on automatic pilot, such as driving a car, having a conversation, doing our job. In such a case we are repeating complex, programmed routines, but what is missing is quality, and if we encounter anything new, we have to “wake up” into a higher level of awareness to deal with the situation. This can happen when we are surprised, when we make a mistake, or when someone else wakes us up, for instance to inform us that they are leaving us because we have been engaging in the marriage on automatic pilot, or that we are fired because we have been doing our job in our sleep.

Perhaps our biggest errors in communication arise from not understanding the prevalence of the automatic state in others and in ourselves. We learned to speak when we were infants. We do it automatically. We tend to do it without thinking. We assume that the other person hears and understands, and when they do not behave in ways we expect, we blame them for having some negative intent.

My father was a salesman, and he used to always remind me to “tell them what you will tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them.” It was only when I came to understand the prevalence of automaticity that I began to appreciate the genius of this formula. When we speak to others, we assume they are listening. In fact, they may only register that we are making some sound. If they do hear content, their automatic processes will tend to lead them to interpret what they hear based on their automatic assumptions, on their “common sense”, and, by the way as Einstein has pointed out, common sense is actually nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen.

Effective communicators realize that they must first “wake the listener up,” get their attention. Then they must communicate in a way that takes into account the frame of reference, the assumptions and prejudices of the listener, to put their point across. Then they must check to see if the message got across. This is intentional communication, and it cannot be done in the state of automaticity. There must be somebody home on both ends of the communication.

This is of course just one example of the importance of understanding automaticity. The plot thickens when you begin to realize that, as soon as the person you have just communicated with intentionally leaves your presence, or even before they leave, they are likely to fall back into waking sleep again. They may not remember what they heard! This is the root of the difficulty of being a boss, a co-worker, a parent, a spouse. When we are responsible for and/or depend on the actions of others we are depending on a being that is most likely in the state of waking sleep. If we can understand this deeply, it is possible to become more patient, and more compassionate in our working relationships. It does not really sink in until we get a clear experience that we too are on automatic pilot most of the time.

So now we have a three-level model:




We can expand the model by observing that there are two primary modes of expression, active and passive or receptive. We can recognize the passive mode of the negative in the form of dependent, resistive, passive aggressive behavior. In this state, the individual does not supply their own direction, motivation, or initiative, and seeks others to depend upon. The active form of the negative takes a more overtly aggressive expression in the form of attack, opposition, and antagonism.

These forms of action tend to be about control. In a negative state we tend to automatically assume that “I am on my own.” “There isn’t enough, so I better get mine first.” “The world is out to get me.” Out of this negativity, which is based on fear, arises a powerful urge to control. This is the work of the ego trying to maintain its belief that it has life under control. Unfortunately, the ego tends to be negative, so its attempts at control tend to be negative. We seek to control other people, to attract attention, to secure power, to avoid blame, to position ourselves advantageously either actively “in your face,” or passively “behind your back.”

This tendency to control is a common human phenomenon. It comes from living in conditions in which people assume that such manipulative behavior is necessary. Sadly, many people learn this approach to life at home, and never encounter a healthier environment in which such wasteful behavior is not needed. These people then progressively degenerate into increasingly passively or actively negative states of being.

Here is the model so far:



Dependent Negative Destructive


There are a range of forms that the positive takes in human expression. The place to start is what I call the “response-able attitude,” which is characterized by intentionally directed attention. Whenever we pay attention to the external or internal world, we are intentionally directing our attention, and we are more present in the moment. The lights are on, and somebody is home.

Any human being can be temporarily awakened into this state of attention. The question is, how much of the time can one remain in that state? It is only possible to have quality of life, and to do high quality work if we can “pay attention.” If we cannot, we are by definition, “not there” to experience the quality of our experience. If not, we are actually only replaying automatic responses to stimuli around us. We experience nothing real, a simulation, only a replay.

Here we can consider two people in the same circumstances, for one the situation is interesting and stimulating, and for the other it is deadly boredom. The first is awake, response-able, and the other is in a state of waking sleep – automatic pilot. The first has access to their uniquely human qualities of curiosity, creativity, persistence, cooperation, patience and so on. The second is limited to rote, repetitive, automatic reactions to the situation within a very narrow band of perception and behavior.

One way to think about awareness is as an energy or fuel that can be “burned” in our human organism. Human beings have a vast range of competencies. Some are remarkably simple and common, some very refined and sophisticated. It seems that the more sophisticated capabilities require a finer fuel, a finer quality of awareness. This is easy to validate. We have all experience an inability to think through a problem, or communicate an idea, or perform a complex task when we are exhausted or angry, or intoxicated. The response-able level of awareness consists of a more refined quality of attentional fuel or awareness, which allows us to access more sophisticated human qualities.

It is virtually impossible to do high quality work on automatic pilot. One can only complete highly routine, repetitive tasks, which cannot be described as quality work. It is fair to say that, for anyone to learn to undertake any complex activity with quality, they must learn to “pay attention.” It is clear, even in the phrase that attention is something of value that, if we “pay it” we will receive something of value in return.

Consider for a moment someone you know who has mastered something, a craft, a profession, an art form. Do they not exhibit a quality not possessed by people who have not achieved a certain mastery? It is as if they possess a different quantum of some kind of energy. They are more perceptive and tend to evidence a higher degree of adaptation to the circumstances of the moment. They have a different kind of intensity, a different presence which is palpable, which may be one reason why the word “master” is associated with those who are respected and honored for cultivating this quality of presence.

Here we can begin to see that people who live their lives in higher levels of awareness, actually live in different worlds. The quality of their lives, even if they are sitting in the same room, is different. The quality of their work will be different, their ability to learn and grow will be different and their relationships with other people will be quite different.

Learning to “pay attention” consistently is guaranteed to change the quality of your life. It may not make it easier, but it will make it better. For one thing we become less subject to “accident.” If we are paying attention, we tend to see things coming, and get out of the way. We tend to see opportunities when they are presented. And we also tend to recognize when we are in an unhealthy situation. One of the greatest strengths of human beings is our ability to adapt. Unfortunately, this strength taken to excess can become a great weakness as we can learn to adapt to situations that are quite unhealthy. When we learn to pay attention, we may well experience more pain. We are less numb, and we register the message of pain, which is that something is wrong and needing attention. There is an old French saying that “Pain is the craft entering the apprentice.”

One of the benefits of learning to pay attention, to be present is we are then in a position to “catch” even higher states of awareness which present themselves in our lives.


The response-able level of directed attention makes it possible to fully enter into life in the present moment, to master the five senses, and the gifts of human action and thought and feeling. There are rare, special moments in life, however, when we are given a different kind of experience, characterized by great depth, expansiveness, and meaning. Often these experiences are exhilarating, and joyful, uplifting, sometimes subtle and deeply resonant.

Most of us have had these fleeting moments in which one’s awareness opens up, and we have a more profound, deeper experience of ourselves and the world. We are aware of being aware. Such a moment, if we catch it, and contemplate it, can have a powerful impact on the trajectory of one’s life. A moment of such conscious awareness can provide a depth of insight that alter the assumptions which guide our motives and decision making.

These experiences tend to present the holistic nature of life and the world. We see more clearly how we are a part of a larger system, our interdependencies, and how there is extraordinarily little we do on our own. Somehow the limiting effect that the ego has on our perceptions is dissolved in this awareness and we see ourselves as a part of as whole rather than an isolated fragment. We may even come to see that in many ways we are taken care of in life by others, by the systems we have created, by life and nature, and even by a larger pattern or intelligence which guides us in our life path.

Moments of conscious awareness offer us a more objective, unconditioned understanding of life and the world, our own nature and behavior and identity. Such experiences can positive and uplifting, but they may also be extremely disturbing, especially if the experience penetrates our defenses and reveals some aspect of life or own nature that we have not come to peace with.

As such many of us do not choose to pursue and cultivate a conscious life. Such experiences then recede into a dim memory, and we build a life around a less profound level of awareness. It is possible, however, to cultivate conscious awareness, to honor and value such experience, to “work on oneself,” and thereby achieve a deeper understanding of the inner forces that mold and structure our experience of the world and our actions in life.


The creative level of being has been a fascination to human beings throughout history. We are captivated by those who carry the creative fire, whether they are artists, or performers, scientists, businesspeople, craftsmen, cooks, or a mother giving birth. The creative pertains to the entry of something new coming into the world. This is no small thing, for a human being to be a vehicle for something new coming into manifestation such as the birth of a child.

The creative act has several common features; an extended period of gestation and preparation, powerful intensity of experience, often disturbing and disruptive, and a culmination in which the creative result is presented, whole and complete, but requiring a developmental process to fulfill its potential.

We may have had the experience of individuals who carry this energy. They are often difficult, even at times bizarre. They may engage in strange rituals to invoke and channel the creative spark. One commonality is an intense commitment to the creative process, which becomes the pivot around which their life revolves.

Unconditional Love

Probably the rarest level of all, but the one most sought throughout history can be called “unconditional love”. This is the level of the saint, the sincere lover, the good parent, the genuinely good human being. The characterizing feature of this level is the willingness to consistently make what appear to be sacrifices for others, but what are not perceived by the lover as sacrifice, because the lover authentically knows the lover and the beloved to be one and the same.

Such people tend to have a subtle, peaceful presence. They do not appear to be aware of or preoccupied in any way with their loving quality. It is not so much a function of thought process, or behavior. It is a matter of being. The quality of loving appears to have become the substance of their being, out of which living perception, and thought, and action flow naturally. Our map of levels of awareness consciousness now looks like this:

Unconditional Love



Response- Able


Dependent Destructive

To summarize:

  • Loving - Willing to sacrifice without a second thought knowing that we and the beneficiary of our work are one.

  • Creative - On fire with ideas on how to make it better, different, and driven to see the ideas become a reality.

  • Response Able - Able to pay quality attention to what is needed, and to take consistent effective action to meet those needs.

  • Automatic - The lights are on, but nobody is home, we go through the motions that we learned at some time in the past.

  • Dependent - Need an external stimulus to take action, to make decisions, and to know who we are.

  • Destructive - Out of connection with our conscience to the point that we can actively or passively act in ways that hurt others,

The E Series of John Bennet

This model of levels of consciousness is derived from the “E Series” model of John Bennett who was a British mathematician, scientist, technologist, industrial research director and author of many books on the spiritual system of George Gurdjieff. Bennett was uniquely qualified to integrate modern science with the understanding of human consciousness that Gurdjieff shared based on his study of a variety of spiritual methods. I provide this for those who wish to go deeper in their understanding of how the energies of awareness are transformed as a function of the work we do on ourselves. For more on the E Series, see Deeper Man J.G. Bennett. (Bennett, Deeper Man, 1978, pp. 45-71)

Cosmic Energies

E1 - Transcendent Energy: The Supreme Will, the most incomprehensible of the cosmic energies. It concerns us on the ground that, a significant whole must contain all that is significant in its parts and… if there is movement, there is a Prime Mover…if there is Creation, there must be Creative Source.

E2 – Unitive Energy: Universal Love, the omnipresent force through which everything is integrated and made whole, acting upon every consciousness conveying a realization that there is a force directed toward our true welfare.

E3 – Creative Energy: through which the Universe is incessantly renewed, through which life is generated through the function of sex and all human creativity, the highest energy that plays a direct part in human experience. Gurdjieff calls it the “second conscious shock” through which our nature is purified.

E4 – Conscious Energy: an omnipresent energy which is not ours, but in which we can participate, in touch with the central fact of our individuality and will

Life Energies

E5 – Sensitive Energy: enables the awareness of thoughts, feelings, body sensations making it possible to separate from our automatism and experience what it is to be fully alive, to remember the past, and look forward to the future.

E6 – Automatic Energy: enables autonomic sensory motor reflexive functions which have no element of intention or choice.

E7 – Vital Energy: the vitality which allows a living thing to maintain itself on a different level from that which is dead.

E8 – Constructive Energy: catalytic, having the power to not only hold a pattern, but also produce patterns in other materials, the power to create change without changing itself examples include nucleic acids, enzymes, and hormones.

Mechanical Energies

E9 – Plastic Energy: also called structural, free, or fluidic energy making it possible to move and yet remain what it is, enabling elasticity, rigidity, and fluidity.

E10 – Cohesive Energy: chemical, binding energies that make connectedness, the creation of solid bodies possible.

E11 - Directed Energy: electromagnetism, gravity, capable of movement in a direction, but unable to hold together or hold a pattern.

E12 – Dispersed Energy: heat, random, chaotic motion, vibration incapable of work on its own.

Bennett’s formulation is relevant to our consideration of “what is best in us” in that it describes such phenomena as sensitivity, consciousness, creativity, and love as corresponding to specific energies which manifest according to describable dynamics. His framework provides a map for understanding of how our awareness evolves through the “transformation of energies.” The wisdom traditions out of which Bennet's work evolves embrace a vastly different view of the source and purpose of life than the materialistic Western world view, and correspondingly a quite different view of what is best in human beings.

The Great Journey

The Sufi mystic Mevlana Jelaleddın Rumi provides another perspective on the evolution of what is “best in us.”

I died as a mineral and became a plant,

I died as plant and rose to animal,

I died as animal and I was Man.

Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?

Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar

With angels blest; but even from angelhood

I must pass on: all except God doth perish.

When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,

I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.

Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence

Proclaims in organ tones, 'To Him we shall return.'

--Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) Translated by A.J. Arberry

The Decision to Undertake the Journey

It is one thing to study the map, and another to set off on the journey. The first step is a decision. Depending on the individual, this decision may have been made long ago, or it may be a new decision, representing a major change in one’s relationship to life. It is also very possible that one is revisiting the decision like an old friend that one loses track of and finds again at an opportune moment in life.

The decision can be framed as the answer to the question “What is my standard of quality in my life, my work, my contribution to this world?” For some the question is never asked and never answered. Instead a default answer is given in the form of a predominately automatic, or dependent, or destructive life quality. For others, an answer is given intentionally, to be response-able, or to be conscious, to be creative, to seek a life which is permeated by the quality of unconditional love, to seek out the answers to fundamental questions like “Where do I come from?” “Where am I going?,” and “Why am I here?”

This fundamental decision, about what “game” one is playing, frames all other decisions in life. Consider your own answer to this question. If your choice is some quality of life beyond the automatic and negative, then the next question is, “How does one learn to cultivate a higher level of awareness and thereby, a higher quality of life and work?”

Copyright Kim Payton, Ph.D. 2022

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