The Play of “Selves” in Organization
The purpose of the work of building adaptive organizations is to bring out the best human qualities in people instead of sub-human qualities. To do so it is important to understand the three elements of impulse, control and wisdom and how they play out in organization. Impulse arising from the material self, often called lower self, control being the domain of the reactional self, often called ego, and wisdom pertaining to the true self, often called higher self (see previous posts for more on these three). One might ask – why does this matter?
It matters because if our lower self and ego are running the show, it is not possible to create adaptive organizations. An adaptive organization is one which relates sustainably to its environment which depends on a viable value exchange. The organization must provide value sufficient to receive the resources it needs to continue to function. In my experience organizations tend to be created to serve a real human need, and it is the fulfillment of that need that makes a value exchange possible. Unfortunately, there is a tendency over time for organizations to degenerate into a condition in which their actual purpose is solely to perpetuate the organization and or to serve the interests of the people in power. Such organizations have lost their focus on those they should actually be serving.
Adaptive organizations have the advantage of keeping one eye on the people they exist to serve and the other on the changing circumstances of their environment. You can recognize an adaptive organization by how the people in that organization pay attention. Do they seem to be lost in their own cloud of distractions, or are they “in the game”? Do they make eye contact, do they listen and hear? Do they look for ways to get the job done, or do they sink into the quicksand of “why we can’t”? People in an adaptive organization understand their business, their role, and are motivated to stay engaged.
For healthy human beings, work needs to be something they care about. Most people want to feel they are part of something greater than themselves, and that their work is going toward something meaningful and noble. There are of course exceptions. There are people who just want to serve their personal ego needs and agenda, and there are businesses that can be built around those motivations, but, in my experience, those organizations are not adaptive. They stay trapped in the clutches of serving the ego needs of a few people who master that game, which is usually a predatory game (meaning something is taken from others without a fair value exchange).
To be adaptive, an organization must fulfill a need that its members perceive as valid and useful and in alignment with their personal values and interests. I have worked with many organizations that were once clearly in service to human beings, but which have lost their way, and others who are in service, but which have not clearly articulated for their employees what the service is, and why it is important. This first step is very important, especially in an era in which organizations must find ways to engage the millennial generation, which tends to be more clearly motivated toward civic responsibility and service if they understand the organization, how it works, and that it is truly in service to build a better world. The one they will inherit.
In an adaptive organization, the members understand the strategy and culture that is required for success. Simply stated, strategy is a formulation of “how we succeed”, and culture is a definition of “how we need to think, behave and relate to each other to succeed”. This sounds very simple, but in practice, it is very common for most of the members of the organization to be unaware of what the strategy is as it applies to them, or what cultural norms are expected of them. It is common for an organization to lack a strategy altogether. People just do what they have always done whether or not that behavior makes any sense.
What must be done to cultivate an adaptive organization? The material self and the reactional self (ego) must be properly engaged and not allowed to run the show. And the conditions required for true self, (which is the seat of conscience), must be created. Let’s consider what happens when material self is allowed to run the show.
The Material Self Dominated Organization
The material self-dominated organization is fundamentally dysfunctional. It is most commonly encountered in government organizations which are supported by tax dollars irrespective of whether or not the organization provides value. It does not seem conceivable to have any form of organization in a purely material self-dominated group of people. There would only be chaos, everyone for themselves. So, in any organization that has continued to exist, there is some degree of reactional self controlling the material self. The primary dynamic is as follows: The material self of one individual is getting its way, taking what it wants, doing what it wants, and the reactional self of others is busy blaming and feeling self-righteous.
One of the most dramatic examples I have encountered of an organization where material self ran rampant was a government agency that regulated the sale of liquor. I was asked by the human resource director of the city to seek a way to stop the ever-escalating cycle of interpersonal conflicts, which ranged from verbal attacks to vicious pranks, to grievances, then civil lawsuits and finally allegations of criminal misconduct.
What I did not know at the time is the FBI was conducting an investigation at the same time I was doing my work. Their investigation led to the conviction and imprisonment of several of the liquor investigators. At the completion of the assignment, as I considered how such a debacle could have occurred, I concluded that the organization was really designed to fail. It was designed to bring out the worst in people.
It had two conflicting functions. The first was the issuance of liquor licenses, which, in a state where the primary industry is tourism, are worth way more than their weight in gold or any other substance. The organization was politicized- the liquor commission is appointed by the mayor, so there were many opportunities for corruption at the very top, where liquor licenses could be traded for campaign contributions.
The other function was investigation of liquor establishments. This was done by liquor investigators, at night, in the establishments themselves. The worst offences were in the hostess bars, who were highly motivated to bribe the investigators to look away from the various violations of the liquor code and laws regulating prostitution. Worse yet the organization tended to hire former police officers who could no longer be employed as police for one reason or another (often suggesting the individuals might be unsuited for investigative work as well).
The organization was, therefore perfectly designed to bring out the worst in the investigative force as well. The support functions of the organization were the most functional component, consisting of clerical and customer service personnel, who just tried to keep their heads down and do their work. Being surrounded, as they were by corruption and nefarious activities, the atmosphere reeked of guilt and defensiveness which then became projected into interpersonal conflicts.
The prescription I gave to the manager was simple. Define and enforce the rules. This is the first step in bringing the material self into line. As you might imagine, however, the rules had long since faded in the minds of these employees. We reminded employees of the rules and made it clear that any infractions would be enforced to the letter. Any employee who conveyed any hostile intent would be suspended and barred from the workplace pending a fitness for work assessment by a psychologist who specialized in such assessments.
It did not take long before one of the managers crossed the line, and off he went to the psychologist. Although he was cleared for duty, he made the decision it was time to retire. It was around then that the FBI indictments began rolling in, and the process of reining in the material self-reached an entirely new level. The worst offenders ended up in prison.
There is, of course, a lot more to creating an organization that effectively manages the material self. The first step is to make the organization safe, to make the human beings present safe from the negative excesses of their own material selves. This is the function of law in any society. Left to its own devices, material self tends to excesses of greed, lust, laziness and aggression.
It is the function of the reactional self (which tends to be called “ego” in common parlance) to keep the material self in check, to impose limits, to create discipline, to instill a sense of right and wrong. It is the reactional self that recognizes the existence of other human beings and thinks “If I do this thing, something bad will happen to me”. Engaging the reactional self properly is the key to controlling the material self, but building the organization exclusively around the reactional self, the ego, is not sufficient to achieve an adaptive organization.
The Reactional Self Dominated Organization
Reactional self, ego dominated organizations are the most commonly encountered form of functional organization. If you can engage the ego to keep the material self in line and coordinate the activities of those ego’s it is possible to have enough control to make the organization functional.
One of the best examples I have encountered is a large financial planning company that sells its own financial instruments to its clients. This organization does an excellent job of training and managing financial planners. It has clearly described every action required of financial planners to prospect for, engage clients and sell them financial products. It measures each of these actions continuously and provides regular reports on each planner’s performance including their actions, and the results of those actions. Managers of the financial planners and managers of the managers are expected to hold regular one on one meetings with the people they manage based on the reports. Compensation, bonuses, awards, and promotions are all based on the performance data. When the system runs the way it is designed, it produces very consistent positive outcomes.
But it didn’t consistently run the way it was designed, which is why I was involved as an organizational consultant. Managers tended to fall into one of three categories. There were managers who could not bring themselves to continuously stick with the performance management process, largely because they perceived the feeling tone of the process to be harsh, punitive, and exhausting.
There were managers who were masters of the process because they were so driven to achieve their own material self and ego-oriented desires, but the people they managed tended to become disenchanted with the work because they felt that they were just pawns in their manager’s game. This group of managers tended to rise quickly in the organization and then flame out in one form of self-centered debacle or another.
The third category were managers who were sincerely motivated to help the people they managed to become successful. And they found ways to make the performance management process positive and humane. There were the sustainably successful managers.
And then there was another problem. After being involved with the organization for a time, after becoming truly skilled in financial planning, the planners discovered that the actual purpose of the organization as not to make their clients successful. It was instead to sell their own financial instruments whether or not they were the right fit for the client. The other thing they discovered was, they were not being paid what other senior financial planners were paid by other organizations. So, what often happened is, after training and cultivating very successful planners, those planners would leave to work elsewhere. This company was very effectively training its competition!
Three Types of Organization
Consider how different these three kinds of organization are:
The dysfunctional organization is about exploitation. – impulse out of control. It is about “What I can get away with”.
The competitive organization is about self-interest – control of impulse in order to get what I want and avoid what I don’t want.
The adaptive organization is about sincere service and value – inspiration overcoming self-interest.
For each of these types of organization there is a fundamental attitude toward work:
Dysfunctional - To take whatever I can get.
Competitive - To give and to receive and, in this exchange, maximize my return.
Adaptive - To be of service to others and receive a reasonable value in work environment and compensation.
The results of our actions evolve out of which of these purposes we live by. There are vastly different ramifications of each of these intentions.
If taking is our purpose, then our success depends on our ruthlessness and skills of exploitation.
If our purpose is maximization of return, then our success depends on our skill in managing the quid pro quo and ability to maintain control.
If our purpose is being of service, then our success depends on our skills of perception and adaptation and our ability to collaborate with each other.
The Core of the Reactional Self
Given that our work culture is so consistently designed to engage the ego, it is worth understanding the dynamics of ego. Ekhart Tolle, in “A New Earth” provides a fascinating insight into the ego. He points out that the ego is a “mind-made self”. It is made up of thoughts and emotions and as such it is ephemeral, insubstantial. It in fact does not exist other than in the mind and is therefore fundamentally threatened. It lives in continual fear of non-existence and as such it is continually striving to maintain and strengthen its sense of itself. Tolle describes one of the fundamental mechanisms the ego uses to maintain itself. It complains about other people, about situations, about life itself.
The purpose of this complaint is to portray itself as right, better than, more important than, more victimized than, and so on and on. This complaining can then degenerate further into resentment in which the complaint is saturated with negative emotion, bitterness, indignation. We then begin to project our own negative traits on others and exaggerate their shortcomings.
The ego is thus in reaction to others and the world. It in fact recreates itself, makes itself separate, and reinforces itself as real in this negativity, which can then degenerate further into emotional acting out, aggression and ultimately, war. Consider the advice of Hafiz, a great Sufi Saint:
A Gigantic Ego
The only problem with not castrating
A gigantic ego is
That it will surely become amorous
A hundred screaming ideas and kids
Who will then all quickly grow up
And skillfully proceed
To run up every imaginable debt
And complication of which your brain
This would concern normal parents
And any seekers of freedom
And the local merchants nearby
They could easily become forced
To disturb your peace;
All those worries and bills could turn to
The only problem with not lassoing
A runaway ego is
You won’t have much time to sing
In this sweet world.
The Tendency for Ego to Overreach
The ego has the important role of controlling the material self, preventing excess, imposing discipline, as well as planning, and decision making. But the ego usually does not stop there. It then attempts to affirm itself as a self, as “the self”, as opposed to simply a psychological function in service to the true self. If we engage in this work on ourselves, we discover that we each have many selves within, which must be brought into discipline and inner cooperation in service to what is higher in us. P.D. Ouspensky in “In Search of the Miraculous” (p. 60) quotes Gurdjieff as follows:
“Thus, in one teaching, man is compared to a house in which there is a multitude of servants but no master and no steward. The servants have all forgotten their duties; no one wants to do what he ought, everyone tries to be master, if only for a moment; and in this kind of disorder, the house is threatened with grave danger. The only chance of salvation is for a group of the more sensible servants to meet together and elect a temporary steward. This deputy steward can then put the other servants in their places and make each do his own work: the cook in the kitchen, the coachman in the stables, the gardener in the garden, and so on, In this way the ‘house’ can be got ready for the arrival of the real steward, who will, in his turn, prepare it for the arrival of the master.”
It is worth calling attention here to the idea that, if we want to create adaptive organizations, we need to start by creating a functional organization within ourselves.
Building Organizations That Nurture the True Self
To create organizations that nurture the true self, we must have some understanding of what the true self is. True self is our real identity, it is the seat of our experience of “feeling like myself”, of inspiration, sense of deep security, meaning, and conscience.
It is the “witness” in us, the focus of awareness which can be trapped in an engagement with the material world of objects and sensuality and or trapped in our reactional world preferences, our likes and dislikes. If the seat of our awareness and identity is “stuck” in these levels of self, we are limited to the manifestations and behavior of the material and reactional selves. We may be self-centered, insensitive, cruel, opinionated, narrow minded, and rigidly conditioned by our past experience.
Under the right conditions, the true self can emerge from and evolve out of this entrapment in the lower and middle selves. Fortunately, according to many observers over the ages, this evolution is a natural process through which we can become truly human. Abraham Maslow was a deeply insightful observer of the human condition as well as modern organizational dynamics. His work provides important insights into the qualities of a true human being which he called the “Self-Actualizing Human Being”.
The “Self-Actualizing Human Being”
Maslow identified the following qualities as descriptors of the self-actualizing human being:
Superior perception of reality
Increased acceptance of self, others, and nature
Increased autonomy and resistance to enculturation
Greater freshness of appreciation
Higher frequency of peak experiences
Increased identification with the human species
Improved interpersonal relations
More democratic character structure
Greatly increased creativeness
A tendency to manifest superior development of basic talents, capacities, and constitutional potentialities.
Depend not on external circumstances, but rather on internal resources, potentialities, and creative impulses.
Less dependent on others, and as such are less hostile, anxious, and ambivalent about others
Lessened dependence on the environment, and show increased resistance to deprivation, loss, tragedy and ill fortune
Goble, F., The Third Force, Grossman Publishers, New York, 1970
Clearly, an organization made up of self-actualizers would be more likely to succeed and excel than an organization made of non-self-actualizers. An organization made up primarily of non-self-actualizers might be expected to be fairly dysfunctional. So how does one create such an organization? According to Maslow, human beings naturally evolve into self-actualizers as they learn to fulfill their other needs. This sequence of needs is called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, which include (in the sequence in which they emerge)
This sequence is easy to appreciate as a developmental sequence. Infants are occupied with simple physical survival, eating, breathing, and sleeping. Toddlers are concerned with security, dependent on others for providing their basic needs, but eventually learning to provide the basic needs for themselves and navigating their immediate world. As the child enters school he or she becomes increasingly concerned with belonging, seeking to find a viable place in their social world, beginning to create a sense of who they are in relation to other people. Ultimately the child must achieve a sense of self-esteem based on respect from others and self-respect.
The most dramatic example is the organization where people do not feel safe. In such an organization, most of people’s attention is expended on staying safe, and most behavior is defensive behavior which serves to avoid perceived dangers.
At the next level, where the unmet need is security, employees tend to be fixated on concerns over the loss of their jobs. This can happen anytime the financial viability of the organization is in question, or if there are rumors of reductions in force, or if employees fear the loss if their job for any reason. The fear of loss of job is an extremely destabilizing force for any human being, which creates a high level of distraction and dysfunctional behavior.
We encounter the next level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where belonging needs are not met, in organizations where there are strong cliques, gossip, undermining behavior, favoritism, and inappropriate discrimination on any basis such as gender, age, ethnicity, religion and so on. In such organization the attention and activity of its members is distracted by the need to belong, or to maintain a position of preference, along with all the negative emotions which are attendant to feeling excluded.
The next rung on Maslow’s ladder is respect, which is a very commonly unmet need in the workplace, because there are so many ways a person can experience a lack of respect. The need for respect is fulfilled in a wide variety of ways. We respect people by valuing their contribution, by appreciating their worth. We show respect in the simplest courtesies: we make eye contact, we say hello, we use their name, we listen to them when they speak, we consider their needs, we make agreements and keep them, and we act on their behalf wherever it is our responsibility to do so.
If it is our responsibility to serve or support the individual, we consider them to be a customer, whether or not they are member of our own organization, and whether or not they report to us, or we report to them. We think of them as a customer and provide quality service to them out of respect to them as an individual as out of respect to our role as a service provider.
Self Esteem Needs
Receiving respect from others is valuable and important, but it is not sufficient for the emergence of the self-actualizing human being. According to Maslow:
Reputation or prestige or applause are very nice and are for children and adolescents even absolutely necessary before real self-esteem can be built up. Or to say it the other way about, one of the necessary foundations for self-esteem is respect and applause from other people, especially in the younger years. Ultimately, real self-esteem rests upon all the things mentioned above, on a feeling of dignity, of controlling one's own life, and of being one's own boss.
A.H. Maslow, Maslow on Management, New York, John Wiley & Sons 1998
Maslow describes those things which human beings avoid in pursuit of self-esteem:
Being manipulated, dominated, pushed around, determined by others, to be misunderstood
To be a nothing (Rather than a something)
Unappreciated, not respected, not taken seriously, laughed at
A ludicrous figure regulated by others (like an object, to be treated like a physical object rather than like a person; to be rubricized, like an example rather than as unique)
Screwed (used, exploited)
An interchangeable man
According to Maslow, what we are seeking for in our pursuit of self-esteem is:
To be a prime mover. Self-determination.
To have control over one's own fate.
To determine one's movements.
To be able to plan and carry out and to succeed. To expect success.
To like responsibility or at any rate to assume it willingly, especially for oneself. To be active rather than passive.
To be a person rather than a thing.
To experience oneself as the maker of one's own decisions. Autonomy. Initiative. Self-starting.
To have others acknowledge one's capabilities fairly.
A.H. Maslow, Maslow on Management, New York, John Wiley & Sons 1998
What is interesting about this issue of self-esteem is the cost to benefit ratio. Consider the value of a workplace populated by individuals who, of their own volition choose to work, strive to make good decisions, and for the most part manage themselves. The cost of providing the conditions is not great in economic terms. What is required is an organizational culture of respectful treatment, sincere concern for people, and fundamental supervision skills pertaining to positive relationship, clear goals, and performance feedback.
It is in this need for self-esteem that we encounter the root of the movement toward participatory democracy in modern organizations. As the world has become more complex, those who seek excellence in their organizations have discovered two things. First, decisions made in a participatory manner tend to be of higher quality and those who have participated in the decisions feel more ownership for implanting the decision. Second, the best people, the people who are needed to solve the most complex problems generate the highest quality and provide the best service are attracted to workplaces where they have input, involvement and access to information.
In my experience there is clearly a very great benefit to open dialogue, collaborative problem solving and participatory decision making in the modern workplace. I tend to encounter organizations at critical points, turning points in their collective process. The engagement may be about conflict resolution, or strategic planning, the communication of a difficult situation, or the solution of a difficult problem, the healing or building of a team, or coaching a leader through a transition.
The real payout seems to come at what can be called “breakthrough moments”. These are times when the mind clears, a new perspective is realized, a creative insight is reached, a relationship is suddenly seen in a different way, forgiveness becomes possible, a new pathway opens. These are the gateways to a new possibility, where crisis becomes opportunity.
These are the moments when the dysfunctional or competitive dynamic shifts to the adaptive dynamic. This is when the true self manifests, and authentic human qualities are realized and engaged. This is the goal, to build organizations that bring out the best in us, where we can be ourselves, our true self, where we can attain to what it means to be a real human being.
The emergence of the true self in the workplace appears to depend on at least three conditions. First, people must be protected from the excesses and distractions of their material self-impulses. This protection is afforded through the agency of the reactive self and the organizational mechanisms that establish, explain and enforce limits on inappropriate behavior.
Second, people must become freed of the incessant demands of their reactive self or ego to maintain itself by always being the center of attention, in control, and of course, right. The organization must avoid the creation of all encompassing “ego-system” as a means to achieving a competitive edge. This approach certainly works as a motivator, but if employed excessively, produces powerfully debilitating distractions. Pitting people against each other and providing excessive awards, bonusses and perquisites to people who succeed in advancing their own interests creates a dissonant distraction and can prevent people from focusing on furthering the mission of the organization.
In their excellent book “Tribal Leadership”, Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fisher-Wright describe five stages that individuals in organizations experience in different kinds of organizational cultures. Each of these stages is expressed in a “motto”.
Stages and Motto's
“My life sucks”.
“I'me great, and you suck”.
“We're great, and they suck”.
“It'ss amazing what we can do together”.
These stages are a kind of map of ego development. At stage one the ego is so weak that the urges of the material self, lack of discipline and negativity have made a mess out of the person’s life, which they assume is simply the nature of life. At stage two they begin to realize that it is their life that sucks, and this may lead them to begin to get their life together. This is an essential element of the assimilation of new employees, to encourage this ego development and provide supports for learning to accept direction, to become organized, to identify one’s strengths and to work on one’s deficiencies. As the individual progresses, they develop satisfaction in feeling competent and superior leading to a danger of becoming a distracting problem in the organization. Here there must be a shift from “me” to “we”.
At this stage the individual becomes a functional part of the “tribe” and begins to identify with the tribe as the source of meaning. The "We’re great and they suck” attitude can motivate team success, but it is often accompanied by complaints about other groups, like the accounting department, or management, and it is at this point the work of organization development includes expanding the “we”, so the “we” that is better is the entire organization.
Stage four tends to be the goal of most organizations, but there are times when an organization at stage four jumps to five and manifests an entirely different motivational structure. The focus is no longer on individual and collective ego, but instead on accomplishing a challenging and meaningful mission.
It is common for organizations to dutifully identify a list of values, a mission statement, and even a vision statement, but these tools are seldom used effectively, because there is a lack of understanding that bringing out the best in people requires that they believe they are engaged in a mission that is noble and valuable. This does not mean the mission has to be the ending of cancer or sending people to Mars. Collecting garbage is a necessary and noble mission if the leadership of the organization sees it and leads it as one. This requires that the leadership describe, explain and work with sincere statements of values and mission regularly. Every initiative, every problem solved, every mistake made is an opportunity to cultivate an understanding of values and mission.
Talk, however is not enough. The behavior of leaders is the key to success in building an inspired organization. Most people want to believe that they are working for an organization that is fulfilling an important function and that treats people and the environment well. This belief is atrophied and buried in many people, but I believe it is the absence of this sense of noble employment that is at the root of so much dissatisfaction with work. It is important to appeal to the part of us that is inspired to be of service, to excel, to solve the unsolvable problem, to achieve the unreachable goal that is worth achieving.
When these conditions are met, quite often, something special does emerge. In my experience when this happens, people experience an opening, an expansion of their sense of self. This opening can manifest as an act of creativity, of compassion, of insight, or all three, and in all cases one’s sense of self expands, one becomes unified with, merged into, identified with, no longer separate from something larger and more meaningful. It seems to play out on several levels at work. It plays out in relation to one’s job or task, in relation to other human beings, and other creatures, it plays out in groups of people, especially in the tribe, the team, and finally it plays out on the broader stage of the organization or one’s community.
The evolution from dysfunctional to competitive organization requires active transformative leadership. Passive management will not succeed. The transformation of a dysfunctional organization requires courageous leadership, taking on the rampant dysfunction of the lower self is not for the weak of heart. It means confronting greed, and hatred and resentment and jealousy and laziness, all the lower impulses.
It also requires a caring attitude, an appreciation of the value of human beings and a willingness to provide what people need to succeed. This transformative leadership represents a kind of dichotomous strength, the ability to care for people by both providing for their needs and providing firm discipline including consequence management. Sometimes it means removing people from the organization when it has become clear that the individual cannot function successfully. This dichotomous quality might be called “ruthless compassion” indicating the strength to do what is necessary for the good of the organization and the people involved, even if it is difficult and painful.
In closing, I want to acknowledge that you, the reader might consider might be wondering about the reality of the true self, if this higher way of functioning is possible. Consider the words of the great Sufi Master Jelaleddin Rumi:
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
Move to an infant drinking milk,
To a child on solid food,
To a searcher after wisdom,
To a hunter of more invisible game.
Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say “The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheat fields and mountain passes,
And orchards in bloom.
At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight.
The beauty of friends at a wedding.”
You ask the embryo why he or she stays cooped up in the dark with eyes closed.
Listen to the answer.
There is no “other world.”
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating.
Hazreti Pir Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi
Copyright Kim Payton Ph.D. 2022