An Introduction to the Healing Organisation

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” Brene Brown

Credit: TripAdvisor

Image credit: TripAdvisor

The first of a seven-post series introducing the concept of the Healing Organisation, co-authored with transformational coach and consultant Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi

In 1990, Peter Senge published The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization – with Systems Thinking as the eponymous fifth. Since then, we’ve also seen the continued rise of Agile and Lean thinking across organisations – both with a strong emphasis on learning and taking a systems view. However, the increasing ‘topple rate’ for large firms sees no sign of abating.

Senge provided an answer to the question of organisational adaptability when he outlined the following facets of a Learning Organisation:

  • Systems thinking – the practice of thinking of the organisation as a whole, comprised of interrelated or interacting elements.
  • Personal mastery – individual commitment to the process of learning.
  • Mental models – a culture of challenging the assumptions held by individuals
  • Shared vision – developing a shared vision and ‘intrinsic goals’
  • Team learning – developing learning-friendly structures such as boundary crossing and openness.

THE MISSING PIECE

So, why the continued issue with maintaining adaptability amongst organisations? We believe there’s a missing component: healing capacity. When one of your co-authors has attempted to apply Learning Organisation principles with consulting clients, he has found major challenges. Becoming a Learning Organisation takes huge emotional courage. Senge does not recognise this and nor do most of the ‘Systems’ schools. Taking a few examples:

  • Challenging others’ worldviews
  • Testing novel practices with a risk of failure
  • Group negotiation towards commonly agreed visions and goals

Individuals taking these on need high levels of creativity, emotional courage and resilience. They must be well able to deal with the messy, often undignified expressions of people going through change.

So, whilst we ascribe to many of the practices and values encouraged by the Learning Organisation vision, we believe it is truncated in its scope. It is largely a cognitive-behavioural worldview, blind to the reality of the painful emotional experience of adaptive change. It lacks appreciation for the emotional realm in human relations. Organisational learning is a long way removed from academic-style knowledge acquisition. So, again, the principles of the Learning Organisation miss a key facet of learning and that is the ability to pick yourself up after a fall – the ability to heal.

A DEEPER TRANSFORMATIONAL VIEW OF ORGANISATIONAL CHANGE

We believe that a new paradigm is needed. In the language of the Learning Organisation and in the various Lean and Agile schools, we hear so much of mindset, structure and of process. Either the individual is a mind to be shaped, or they are a ‘fleshbot’ to be corralled into an optimised structure or system. Questions of philosophy, structure and process are of course important, but we hear less of the great potential of that raw, wild soul in all of us. At a practical level, this new paradigm urges us to take up the experimental, probing ethos of Complexity Theory, whilst also fully embracing the emotional connotations of a culture of experimentation. This is a world that values the emotional and creative growth of its individuals as much as it does the development of analytical skills and learning techniques.

We’re interested in a paradigm that enables and encourages a full human flourishing – a merging of the rational with the full gamut of the experiential, incorporating a wider and deeper emotional range. A more-than-rational approach, combining logic, intuition and free expression of emotion. We have started to see this broader approach applied at the very top of organisations. Companies invest in coaches to work with executives from all angles of their lives, often diving deep into their psyches and encouraging a broader expression of who they are.

We hold a vision for a culture where this deep, multifaceted investment in people occurs not just for all creative workers, but also throughout the creative cycle. Companies invest not only in acute cycles of change but in preparation for these inevitable episodes. Our vision for the organisation is one that accepts and embraces the full spectrum of the human experience whilst developing the broadest scope of human capacities. We call this the Healing Organisation.

Below, we outline the five principles of the Healing Organisation. We will write six further posts in the series: one to cover each of these principles in turn, finishing with a concluding piece.

PRINCIPLES OF THE HEALING ORGANISATION

  • Healing Organisations embrace complexity. Healing Organisations understand that our connected, fast changing world is complex. They understand that they create much of their long-term value through creative experimentation – and that that requires vulnerability.
  • Healing Organisations accept pain. Business failures result in collective and individual emotional wounds that must heal to facilitate sustainable recovery. Healthy businesses accept that “failure” is part of business life, that it is painful and that they can openly process and integrate the learning from the pain, before moving on to the next challenge. In this manner, the organisation retains valuable wisdom and history is less likely to repeat itself.
  • Healing Organisations find ways to continually break their denial – to ‘stay real’. Denial is the psychological response we use to block the inevitable pain involved in truly grieving a business failure or personal loss. At a corporate level, businesses must actively encourage agents within with the courage to break corporate denial – internal truthsayers. Sharing of unadulterated cultural and emotional data is key. The ongoing ‘organisational body scan’ is a core idea. Breaking denial is the first, crucial step in a broader healing cycle.
  • Healing Organisations let their people express their emotions freely. Effective grieving necessitates emotional expression. Businesses must enable and encourage the expression of the full spectrum of human emotions in order to become and remain self-healing.
  • Healing Organisations ask for help. When needed, healing organisations and their members request external assistance to help them face reality,  engage in healing and find inspiration for the next challenge. This ability to be momentarily vulnerable serves longer term resilience.
  • Healing Organisations see their growth as the growth of the individuals within. The healthier the individual, the healthier the organisation as a whole. Healing organisations encourage and assist individuals to engage in ongoing work on themselves to grow emotionally, develop authenticity and collaborate honestly and creatively with colleagues.

Footnotes:

  1. Hanson, Robin. 2016. “The Age of Em”, p. 128 http://ageofem.com/