Staying with nothingness to enter fullness: leading transformation in the VUCA world
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
A good traveller leaves no track. Lao Tse
Many of us have been realizing that growth must not go on and that growth imperative is leading to the dead end and killing the Earth: we need a completely new system; we need to build a world in which growth is unnecessary (Monbiot, 2017). How organizations are subsequently set up facing the pressure of continuous growth, is neither effective nor healthy. Researchers are experimenting with new organizational models, being quite successful at times. But by far not many organizations have tried even such new models yet, although it is possible to apply them already now. As long as we have not changed the system yet, we have to help its players to survive in it. Organizational and people developers can hugely contribute to that.
The world has changed since the era of industrial revolution, which organizations and its leaders were used to command and control in. Laloux (2014) described such kind of organizations as “orange” which are characterized by fixed hierarchies, being efficiency-driven and thoroughly infused by control. Static approaches of organizational management and development were increasingly arising and worked well to some extent in the corporate and political world of closed countries and economies, clearly divided businesses, fixed and clear organizational structures, long-term or even life-time career planning, prevalence of individual differentiation, and competition rather than team spirit. ‘To some extent’ means that it worked and is still working in many places in order to keep short-term control and power of a few egos. Scarlett (2016) explains the crucial impact of neuroscience on organizations and their development in the way our brains react to threat, see any change as a threat, and follow their utmost goal: to survive. Subsequently, decision-makers in the organizations followed this goal of their brains, too, and employees followed those decision-makers in the same way. The former introduced static organizational development concepts and performance management systems based on forced rankings like GE and Jack Welch, who pioneered this.
For some time past, we have entered the new post-industrial era of information, which we are still partly living in. This age has been developed towards what we know as a VUCA world: a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This development was caused by globalization, digital revolution, tremendous amounts of information and its speed, to name the few most impactful, and it has been happening not gradually but in thrusts. It disrupted the status quo and made our brains struggle even more, as they can cope less and less with their need to predict and protect. Obviously following protection instincts, organizations have still kept on going with their control approach, believing that it would fix the problem if they would control even more. I remember giving feedback from business to a high level HR executive that forced ranking performance management is not serving business, but preventing it from being successful. The answer I got was HR were not there to serve the business, but to follow the agenda of the HR HQ – a mix of motivational slogans with the actual objective to keep control over the complexity from one central point.
We arrived in the age of complexity. Complexity theory studies how non-linear systems such as social systems, neural networks, etc. are functioning and (self)organizing (Cleveland, 1994). They possess a structure and continuity that prevent them to fall into chaos and still stay dynamic and flexible in order to balance on ‘the edge of chaos’. The higher development level of such systems is called ‘complex adaptive systems’ (Cleveland, 1994). They are made up of many individual actors in self-organizing manner and are characterized by autonomy, networks, and experimentation. Following the research of Laloux (2014), a bright example of such systems would be ‘teal’ organization with its principles of evolutionary purpose, self-management, wholeness (people bringing their whole self to the organization) – it is a living organism.
Gestalt highly correlates with complexity science. Some of its corresponding core principles are experimentation and creative adjustment. Paradoxically, as the nature of Gestalt itself is, its concepts and interventions were developed during that same industrial age and humanistic freedom movements, the movements against some outcomes of that age, which led to the emotional and intellectual crisis of nowadays. It is based on the ideas of the philosophy of phenomenology and existentialism of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre. I deeply believe that our age desperately needs Gestalt. Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman (1951) considered his work to serve opening the ears and the eyes of the world, replacing ‘I’m telling you what you need’ with ‘I’m listening for what you want’ and thus contributing to the start of rational discussion.
Its concepts are wonderful answers to many of current organizational challenges. In the static change management concepts, the basic idea is to fix the change, which became an illusion. One of the basic principles of Gestalt is, on the contrary, the paradoxical nature of change. Change happens all the time like all living organisms do change all the time. The paradox is in the principle that staying in the present and with who we are, change flows, rather than putting efforts into becoming somebody or something else (Leary-Joyce, 2014).
Perls et al. (1951) puts another important principle of Gestalt in the following way:
‘The greatest value in the Gestalt approach perhaps lies in the insight that the whole determines the parts, which contrasts with the previous assumption that the whole is merely the total sum of its elements’ (p. xi)
This holistic approach is truly helpful in organizational development as it helps embracing the whole picture (and not solely some of the organization's individuals).
Perls et al. (1951) calls Gestalt ‘a concept of growth'. Connecting the dots with the insights of neuroscience and organizational development, organizations of today and tomorrow as complex adaptive systems are on a continuous learning journey, and we can greatly support them on the way. The good news from neuroscience and a correlation with Gestalt as a concept of growth is that our brains are continuously forming new neurons and learning is highly beneficial to them. As Perls et al. (1951) states, ‘in our time the average person uses only about 10 to 15 percent of his potential’. We could help to get away from the solely protect-and-fight mode of organizations’ brains with Gestalt and thus contribute immensely to thriving in the VUCA.
It is a very insightful journey, but also a challenging one because it requires being true to one’s and organizational self. It requires to ‘invade your own privacy, …and observation of your Self in action’ (Perls et al., 1951). This is another basic principle of Gestalt: self-awareness. What (especially neurotic) organizations often do is repressing and suppressing their authentic selves and leaving many unfinished businesses – gestalts. Our endeavor as organizational practitioners is to help organizations, in particular their leaders, in becoming aware of how they are functioning as an organism and as a person (Perls et al., 1951). Perls writes further on developing self-awareness:
‘Our strategy for developing self-awareness is to extend in every direction the areas of present awareness. To do this, we must bring to your attention parts of your experience which you would prefer to stay away from and not accept as your own. Gradually there will emerge whole systems of blockages which constitute your accustomed strategy of resistance to awareness. When you are able to recognize them in your behavior, we shall turn to direct concentration on them in their specific forms and attempt to rechannel the energy with which the blockages are charged into the constructive functioning of your organism.’ (p. 82)
In this context, an insightful research and case study by Mias De Klerk (2007) comes to my mind which dealt with organizational trauma and its healing. Unresolved emotional trauma (or unfinished / incomplete gestalt) in many organizations blocks the capacity to be effective and the ability to perform. Different factors cause an organizational trauma, such as constant transformations and no stability phases in between. Each minor loss can cause a trauma. According to Allen et al. (2001) and Baruch & Hind (2000) as cited by Mias De Klerk (2007), the accompanying symptoms are aggression, cynicism, distrust, higher absenteesm, and inner resignation.
I remember a team intervention I did while working with unresolved gestalts in a business after a reorganization. Using elements from expressive arts therapy helped extremely in getting closer to resolving unfinished gestalts and gaining new team energy.
Another case which hugely benefited from Gestalt-inspired intervention: going through a significant change, an organization faced issues connected with the loss of autonomy, chaos and high level of uncertainty toward the future. At the same time, some sophisticated long-term hidden issues – unfinished gestalts – were coming to light during transformation. In one of such unfinished gestalts, there were very strong team tensions including a conflict between a manager and an employee. Both the manager and an employee were quite different personalities and a conflict, which has been hidden for years, came to a culmination. In a meeting, the employee got quite aggressive and the manager stayed apparently cool and distanced, as if he did not care. But it did not resonate with my sensations. When the employee left, I reflected on my sensations to the manager, took a longer moment of silence and asked how he felt in that moment. The manager burst into tears and a very open, authentic, and liberating dialogue started. It showed a true person with fears, vulnerability, and a big heart. It freed up energy so desperately needed for living, working, breaking out of fears to lose, and taking a next step. I was again very grateful to have come across Gestalt which sharpened my sensations, made me more patient to stay in here-and-now, to follow the flow, and opened my ears. As Leary-Joyce (2014) put it so beautifully, staying in 'nothingness' led me to fullness; his metaphor of ‘fertile void’ describing Gestalt suits exactly what and how it happened. I used the only instrument – my Self, responded to my embodied sensations and enabled a big step towards creating self-awareness, closing a gestalt and thriving instead of solely functioning.
To explain and reflect upon the topic of an unfinished gestalt, I would like to quote Perls et al. (1951):
‘In meeting the new situation, the old unfinished situation is necessarily suppressed: one swallows one’s anger, hardens oneself, pushes the urge out of mind. Yet in the new situation, the painful suppressed excitation persists as part of the ground. The self turns to cope with the new figure, but it cannot draw on the powers engaged in keeping down the suppressed excitation. Thus the ground of contacting the new figure is disturbed by the existence of the painful suppression, which is immobilizing certain of the ego-functions. Beyond this, the sequence cannot develop.’ (p. 430)
To accompany organizations and their leaders in going beyond that, ‘getting out of their own way’ (Harrison, 2017) and facilitate their identification with their growing self (Perls et al., 1951) is our task as organizational development coaches and consultants.
How do we assist, facilitate and bring about healing? As ‘organizational doctors’, we observe, study and assess our ‘patient’ – we inquire. What distinguishes our work as Gestalt informed practitioners is that we include environment and simultaneous action into our inquiry. Barber (2006) calls it being ‘a practitioner-researcher’. This and the fact that we take into account not only the past, but also the present and the future into our inquiry, differentiates action research from traditional academic inquiry and equals rather artistic process (Torbert & Taylor, 2007). We become ‘researching artists as much as researching scientists’ (Barber, 2006). Besides, action inquiry is being ‘conducted simultaneously on oneself, the first-person action inquirer, on the second-person relationships in which one engages, and on the third-person institutions of which one is an observant participant… and it generates double- and triple-loop transformations of structure, culture, and consciousness that influence ongoing interaction’ (Torbert & Taylor, 2007).
Action inquiry directly relates to holistic inquiry described by Barber (2006):
‘One of the great shocks of the twentieth century came about when Science began to realize – largely from insights born from the study of ecological systems and quantum physics – that it could not reach an understanding of the physical world merely by collecting ever more quantitative data of statistical analysis. This was especially brought home when physicists discovered that solid matter started to dissolve at the sub-atomic level into wave-like patterns of probabilities. There were therefore no ‘things’ to be studied, but rather sequences of dancing gestalt-like patterns that interconnected with everything else.’ (p. 14)
Gestalt-inspired holistic action inquiry includes transpersonal aspects and phenomenological patterns as well as contact and implies staying in ‘moment-to-moment awareness’ (Barber, 2006) while going through the Gestalt cycle of experience.
Torbert and Taylor (2007) mention four phenomenologically accessible territories of experience in action inquiry: the outside world, one’s own sensed behavior and feelings, the realm of thought and the realm of vision, attention and intention. As Gestalt-informed practitioner-researchers, we use our Self as an instrument along with all the sensations arising during the inquiry gaining unique insights from staying present in here-and-now. According to Reason and Bradbury (2001) as cited by Torbert and Taylor (2007), action inquiry is ‘a participatory, democratic process concerned with development practical knowledge in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes, grounded in a participatory world view’.
At the end, I would like to quote Barber (2006) talking about different, holistic levels of influence of us as practitioner-researchers:
‘I believe these come together as I begin to embody the organizational field; that is to say, when I see and hear and relate to a group or organization in a sensate and physical way; when I’m informed and shaped by the socio-cultural milieu that prevails; when my emotional history resonates with current events; when I am imaginatively impacted; when I am sufficiently open and in flow with the holistic field that it intuitively speaks to me. A good traveller leaves no track. Lao Tse’. (p. 240)
The sad truth is that after all that, our clients often return to their realities that feed relapses into organizational trauma through the underlying economic system. In order to break the dead circle with its inevitable interruptions, and give the way to flow and serendipity, the change of the entire system is desperately needed. We have to embrace transmodernism, Cultural Creatives and innerpreneurship. Otherwise our work as organizational and people developers will stay similar to the effect of aspirin: if prescribed to treat headache without solving the underlying headache's root, it will cause only a short-lasting improvement. After that, the risk of the relapse into self-cannibalism and self-damaging remains quite high, both on the organizational and whole society's levels.
Barber, P. (2006). Becoming a Practinioner-Researcher. A Gestalt Approach to Holistic Inquiry. London, UK: Middlesex University Press.
Bill Torbert. (n.d.). Action Inquiry Leadership and Action Inquiry Fellowship. What is Action Inquiry. Retrieved from http://www.williamrtorbert.com/action-inquiry/
Clevelan, J. (1994). Complexity Theory. Basic Concepts and Application to Systems Thinking. Retrieved from https://de.slideshare.net/johncleveland/complexity-theory-basic-concepts
De Klerk, M. (2007). Healing emotional trauma in organizations: An O.D. framework and case study. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285875563_Healing_emotional_trauma_in_organizations_An_OD_framework_and_case_study
Harrison, J. (2017). Getting out of our way with Gestalt. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/getting-out-our-way-gestalt-jason-harrison
Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing Organizations. Boston, MA: Nelson Parker.
Leary-Joyce, J. (2014). The Fertile Void. Gestalt Coaching at Work. London, UK: AoEC Press.
Monbiot, J. (2017). Too right it's Black Friday: our relentless consumption is trashing the planet. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/black-friday-consumption-killing-planet-growth
Perls, F., Hefferline, R., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt Therapy. Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York City: The Julian Press.
Scarlett, H. (2016). Neuroscience for Organizational Change. London, UK: Kogan Page.
Torbert, W., & Taylor, S. (2007). Action Inquiry: Interweaving Multiple Qualities of Attention for Timely Action. In P. Reason, & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Systems. The SAGE Handbook of Action Research. London, UK: SAGE Publishing. (p. 239–251). Retrieved from http://www.williamrtorbert.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/HAR-chapter-Torbert-Taylor.pdf