Deeper Personal Challenges in Being able to Attend to Needs

A question in my feed at Quora triggered me to write an answer about some of the challenges that we confront when we attempt to attend to needs–both our own and those of others. Organizations have their very own issues with the shift from exploitation to need fulfillment as a business value proposition. But business cultures are also what emerges from the sum total of the people who staff the organization, and from the quality of their interactions. What we bring to the organization personally contributes to the overall culture of the organization, so that change must also begin with each individual.

Attending to needs is something which the whole of modern society has been struggling with for hundreds of years, as we make the transition from authoritarian patriarchies to genuine democracies which is still ongoing today. What we have learned at home and in society we bring with us into our organizations, and we will need to reevaluate many of the strategies we have learned at home in terms of their usefulness and productivity for our role in organizations focussed on fulfilling needs as a value proposition.

It may seem from a business perspective like a step too far to think about needs on such a personal level when considering what makes for business success. Inevitably, however, when we understand that it is our ability to connect with our employees and customers on a needs level that marks success in today’s markets, we have to think about how we can develop the capacity for connection individually as people as well.

Here is the post from Quora: Adult emotional health depends at its root on our internal capacity to attend to our core needs.  “Connection,” “attunement,” “trust,” “autonomy” and “love-sexuality” belong to the core needs whose fulfillment is essential to well-being. As the primary care-givers who attend to an infant’s needs, parents play a huge role in the development of emotional and neurological capacity for “self-regulation.” If our care-givers connected with us well, were attuned, and trustworthy, then we likely developed a neurological and emotional capacity for the same.

When core needs are not met, especially at an early formative stage of infancy, we show psychological and physiological symptoms of compromised self-regulation, sense of self and self-esteem. Typically, we develop predictable survival strategies to compensate for the early trauma of unmet core needs. An adaptive survival style is a set of physical states, feelings and thoughts we develop when the core need behind the survival style has not been met. For example:

– In a connection survival style we disconnect from our physical and emotional self, and have difficulty in relating to others

– In an attunement survival style we find it difficult to know what we need, and feel that our needs do not deserve to be met

– In a trust survival style we feel that we cannot depend on anyone but ourselves, and feel we always have to be in control

– In an autonomy survival style we feel burdened and pressured, and have difficulty setting limits and saying no directly

– In a love-sexuality survival style we have difficulty integrating heart and sexuality, and self-esteem tends to be based on looks and performance

The survival strategies the brain develops to adapt to developmental trauma come with a high price: we survive, but at a much diminished capacity for happiness, fulfillment, relationships, health and productivity.

The good news is that it is never too late to attend to our core needs. Good friends and family can provide deep support. However, the survival strategies are their own barrier when it comes to meeting the needs they were developed to compensate, and family and friends are rarely trained to understand the relational dynamics which can be the result.

To compensate for unmet needs, we develop shame and pride-based identifications which fortify the survival strategy and make it resilient to change. For example, in the connection survival style we tend to feel shame for existing, and feel like we don’t belong. To deal with the shame, we will often feel pride at being a loner, in not needing others, and at not being emotional. A friend who responds to a perceived need for connection may be rebuffed, as his response challenges our identification as a loner, and so the identifications stand in the way of the fulfillment of exactly the core need they compensate for.

To heal the trauma of early failure to attend to core needs as an adult takes a little help in understanding our needs and strategies, and a lot of time to gain new experiences to address our core needs. We know we are doing this successfully when we experience an increase in our capacity for connection and aliveness in our relations with ourselves and others, and the better physiological and neurological health that comes with good self-regulation.

I can recommend the book of one of my training supervisors, Dr. Laurence Heller, a behavioral  psychologist specialized in developmental trauma, for a deeper explanation:

Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship: Laurence Heller Ph.D., Aline Lapierre Psy.D.: 9781583944899: Books

Understanding Business as a Way of Attending to People’s Needs

One of the biggest challenges of modern organizations trying to make the transition from command and control hierarchies to agile bottom-up innovation organizations is to learn how to connect with people.

Where many organizations think they are connecting with people, they in fact produce the opposite effect of alienating and pushing people away. The operational mode of classical organizations is work in terms of rules and processes, where employees are resources and the purpose of customers is to be exploited to fulfill a profit motive.

Connecting with people, on the other hand, means attending to their needs, to create an experience of employee and customer intimacy which provides the genuine value that ultimately is the reason employees are engaged, and that customers are interested, loyal und want to finance our livelihood.

Bob Marshall @flowchainsensei has developed a framework he calls the Antimatter Principle, applying Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication to software development by showing how the objective categories of business management can be understood in terms of needs.

Identifying business areas of action as needs fulfillment issues is a first huge step in shifting business away from its classical exploitative mode of operations to a sustainable value creation mode. Once the intellectual framework has been articulated, however, people still need to learn how to connect with people on a professional level that organizations are by their very nature as functional hierarchies of power very bad at, because it involves letting go of most of the things that businesses have identified with in the past. Hierarchies give way to networks, top-down initiatives give way to bottom-up innovation, profit gives way to value creation (an oblique approach to making money which works much better!), reporting up the hierarchy for control purposes gives way to transparency based on metrics that teams use to regulate their activities themselves. Most importantly, employees and customers become partners in the search for ways to fulfill needs, which becomes the ultimate purpose of the organization.

Businesses can start making the transition to genuine value creation through human connection by practicing a combination of agile organizational culture, supported by methodologies like Kanban or Scrum, through servant leaders who enable the self-organizing dynamics of their people, and by helping people to develop the personal skills of connecting to others on a needs level.

Making need fulfillment the subject of business activity is what provides the context  for genuine innovation and growth, as nothing drives human activity as productively as the striving to have our needs met, or the joy we experience meeting others’ needs and having our needs met in return.

A Zen Story About Dealing With Our Demons

In a discussion thread at Naked Capitalism I found this Zen teaching story about dealing with a troubling hallucination (below). It shows how perceptive and practical Zen discipline strives to be. The master sees the ghost for what it is (a figment of the learner’s imagination), and he thinks of an experimental way the learner can discover for himself where the ghost comes from. Telling the man the truth would contradict his experience and lead to denial. Enabling his own discovery of the truth resolves the problem.

The challenge of teaching lies in having just such ideas again and again, in ever-changing circumstances, for people seeking answers to problems that cannot be resolved because they are sustained by the perception of the seeker himself. Objective answers reinforce the belief behind problem. Insisting on the truth of what one says leads to unresolvable debates–secondary rationalizations employed to win arguments that only obfuscate reality.

Even more challenging is that most of us don’t know what we are looking for when we ask for answers to our problems, as the learners in Zen stories never fail to express in their surprise at what they discover.

Mastery develops when the teacher can be relied upon to enable an effective learning experience for the learner. Even greater ability is demonstrated when he has given up wanting to teach altogether, and begins to respond without purpose as the situation demands.

The larger historical issues addressed in the Naked Capitalism post are beyond individual actors to influence. Change comes through collective experience, to which we can be but witnesses. But to witness is not passive. Collectively, awareness can move mountains.

The Subjugation of a Ghost

“A young wife fell sick and was about to die. “I love you so much,” she told her husband, “I do not want to leave you. Do not go from me to any other woman. If you do, I will return as a ghost and cause you endless trouble.”

Soon the wife passed away. The husband respected her last wish for the first three months, but then he met another woman and fell in love with her. They became engaged to be married.

Immediately after the engagement a ghost appeared every night to the man, blaming him for not keeping his promise. The ghost was clever too. She told him exactly what had transpired between himself and his new sweetheart. Whenever he gave his fiancee a present, the ghost would describe it in detail. She would even repeat conversations, and it so annoyed the man that he could not sleep. Someone advised him to take his problem to a Zen master who lived close to the village. At length, in despair, the poor man went to him for help.

“Your former wife became a ghost and knows everything you do,” commented the master. “Whatever you do or say, whatever you give your beloved, she knows. She must be a very wise ghost. Really you should admire such a ghost. The next time she appears, bargain with her. Tell her that she knows so much you can hide nothing from her, and that if she will answer you one question, you promise to break your engagement and remain single.”

“What is the question I must ask her?” inquired the man.

The master replied: “Take a large handful of soy beans and ask her exactly how many beans you hold in your hand. If she cannot tell you, you will know that she is only a figment of your imagination and will trouble you no longer.”

The next night, when the ghost appeared the man flattered her and told her that she knew everything.

“Indeed,” replied the ghost, “and I know you went to see that Zen master today.”

“And since you know so much,” demanded the man, “tell me how many beans I hold in this hand!”

There was no longer any ghost to answer the question.”

The Soul of Talent Management

In our daily work, we often forget that management is a tool, not an end in itself, and so we miss the reality of what it is we are managing. In the case of “talent,” we want to support the growth of people, and to this end management can be at odds with the needs of talent.

The goal of talent management is to find good people to hire, motivate them to join us and give the best of themselves, and support them in seeing their strengths and weaknesses and developing themselves in the time they spend with us. From the organizational side, it wants to understand the needs of the managers looking for talent, bring the right people together for the right functions, and enable the succession process which ensures that the best people will succeed the current managers in steering the fate of the company.

Management systems can do none of this by themselves, only people can. There is no replacement for personal contact and interaction, where experience and insight enable us to exercise good judgment about who we can and want to work with. Many companies have understood that they are in the “people business.” But very few seem to have grasped what it means to live with people as people, not functions, on a professional basis.

As always, grasping the soul of something is complex. At a first level, talent management is about relationship abilities.

At a talk over coffee this week, a friend who does global talent management and I reflected on some of the leaders she supports. What I enjoyed from the start was the absence of manager-speak. The way she talks about people is based in complex perceptions about, e.g. their ability to connect with their staffs (or not), how they are able to see interrelationships and relate details to big pictures (or not), and of combinations of great skills with breathtaking blindspots and how those go together in personalities with a history she knows and reflects upon as the context of her understanding. Her complex understanding lets her describe developmental paths that the personalities behind the functions could take to realize their potential, and the ways she could provide the environment and the resources they would need. If I were in their place, I would feel seen und supported in ways the management systems by their very nature cannot do.

When we focus on people like this, solutions are often quite simple. Difficult is managing the emergence of insight into the nature of the problem. How many talent management teams devote their time to emergent insight into the potential of their people?

At a second level, understanding the essence of a task takes a philosophical bent of mind. Thinking, as one of my philosophy teachers used to say, has little to do with logic and much more with the presuppositions which inform our reasoning. For example, if we believe that business is about making money, and people are but resources to be used to that end, then we can spare ourselves the effort of talent management from the start and reduce HR to the transactional processes of contracts and compensation. In a shareholder value environment, talent management is a waste of time. It is much more efficient to focus on performance through outcomes than to invest heart and soul into developing people.

But if the company embodies a philosophy of customer intimacy, great and innovative product development, or service to customers and society, not to mention the internal success factors of creating value through knowledge or design, talent management will be the company’s most important success factor (incidentally creating more shareholder value obliquely than the direct approach).

The contrast between these two philosophical world-views could not be more fundamental. In a rip-roaring blogpost on the consequences of the transactional model of management for employee engagement, James Altucher (@jaltucher) explains to the downtrodden and disengaged masses of workers 10 Reasons Why You Have to Quit Your Job This Year (e.g. reason 3: Corporations don’t like you). I suspect that one of the reasons many corporations with a shareholder value philosophy still survive in the face of the way they manage their talent down to its lowest possible denominator (viz. Dilbert), is that their people haven’t yet grasped the more dignified alternatives. Had they enjoyed a talent manager like my friend, they would have had no choice but to leave, which is another serious argument for not investing in talent management worthy of the name for classical corporations. It just creates a mismatch between people’s expectations and company vision which harms the bottom line.

A third level is strategic and concerns how we understand work. In “Race Against the Machine,” economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that one of the root causes of unemployment is not a slowdown in the pace of innovation, but quite the opposite. Technological innovation is accelerating, so that tasks can increasingly be automated which only a short time ago were considered to belong to an inviolably human domain. Google is bringing the driverless car close to the breakthrough point for production and public use; Philips is insourcing shaver assembly to Holland, not to flee rising costs in China and produce jobs at home, but because robots have reached the point where they can do fine mechanical assembly without many people; and the Singularity Hub reports on Philip M. Parker, Professor of Marketing at INSEAD Business School who has over 100,000 books to his name and 700,000 books listed to his company at, each written in about 20 minutes by a robot (a computer system which can write technical books, and whose cousins are working on doing novels). Automation is reaching the sphere of literary production!

In a video post on the book, Rethinking Race against the Machine, John Hagel recognizes how automation makes many jobs vulnerable to elimination, but questions the framing of the fact as a technical challenge. The strategy of corporations has been to define work in ways which make it a perfect target for outsourcing and automation, by striving to define standardized, highly scripted work. But in the current environment of uncertainty, where black swans define our reality more than stability, such work provides little value and is in fact best done by machines. Hagel calls on managers to innovate our institutions and work practices to allow us to race with the machine, rather than compete with it. By inventing work which deals with complexity, our human capacity for pattern recognition and creativity once again comes into its own, and the machine can support us rather than replace us. The lazy dependence of companies and managers on the mechanical paradigm of work is creating a world in which work is an increasingly rare commodity–a paradoxical situation in a world crying out for innovative solutions to complex and systemic problems whose implementation will give everyone more than enough to do.

It is in such an environment of human and complexity-centred innovation that talent management, in the deeper sense of profound interest in the development of human beings to deal with complex problems, comes into its own.

Complexity-Based Talent Management

Compliance is killing our organizations, and the function in which this is most painfully obvious is Human Resources. People are among the many living things which cannot practically be reduced to ordered systems processes–at least not without destroying the very qualities like intelligence, passion, motivation and creativity that make us what we are, and which are the prerequisites for success in the knowledge and creative economy we are fast moving into.

In the quest to be seen as relevant business partners in corporate strategy, HR has attempted to take over the mantel of efficiency which is at home in the technical processes of production, and to gain a position of influence at the top mangement table by making a demonstrable financial contribution to the bottom line.

Much in the tradition of Kaplan and Norton of balanced scorecard fame, who see the main challenge of management as that of aligning the organisation to the mission/vision and strategy of top management along the lines of financal kpi’s, HR has tried to deliver value by aligning human resources to strategy. The result has been what Robert Bolten of KPMG HR has called the “doom loop” in the 2012 KPMG Rethinking Human Resources in a Changing World study, where the implementation of “…the latest best practice generic models… result(s) in a diversion of attention away from where the real value lies–in pursuing solutions tailored to the unique circumstances and requirements of any given business.”

By giving top management what top management thinks it wants, HR merely confirms its credibility gap. Henry Ford is said to have commented that had he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse-drawn carriage. HR’s dilemma is that compliance in terms of the ordered systems paradigm of production and finance does not give top management the agile, flexible and motivated workforce it needs, but quite the opposite.

(As a side-note on the origins of the HR-dilemma, whether the simple systems planning approach applied in Finance makes a productive contribution even to financial results is a question I leave to finance experts like Bjarte Bogsnes from Statoil, who questions the strategic planning paradigm of Finance most convincingly in Implementing Beyond Budgeting, but that is another story. Applying the principles of what doesn’t work in Finance to HR merely compounds the problem down the organisation.)

To make a strategic contribution to value in the knowledge and creative economy, HR will need to break with the ordered systems paradigm still governing the thinking of many Boards, to treat its subject matter on its own terms. People are living organisms, not trivial machines, and so belong to the domain of complex adaptive systems. A teaching metaphor by David Snowden at Cognitive Edge, a colleague from the field of knowledge management, helps to illustrate the difference between the three kinds of order that exist in nature (chaos, order and complexity), and their implications for managing people in this short video called How to Organise a Children’s Party.

The complexity solution to people management, which Dave describes as “managing the emergence of beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries,” provides an alternative to current ordered systems management and HR approaches which is based on self-organisation. But it is one which also requires a shift from the attempt to manage talent by establishing bureaucratic processes, to one of engagement with talent on an operational level, where solutions can be tailored to the unique circumstances and requirements of the actual business.

What Robert Bolton recommends for HR in the summary to the KPMG study is a shift in the operations of HR from cenralized planning and control (“the doom loop”) to a transitional role as a shared services organization staffed by “people agenda architects” reporting to a “Chief Change Officer:” Ultimately, “Some organisations could go even further and have leadership taking direct control of people programs…” HR responsibility would radically decentralize, and HR would morph into a change management organization driving strategic initiatives through its interaction with people.

What this would likely mean is that talent recruiting and development would no longer be managed, but fall within the domain of entrepreneurial decision-making and trial-and-error experimentation. As such, the Board would take a direct interest in its high potentials, as Brin and Page have famously done at Google (and which Eric Schmidt describes in this interview at 1:50 as “smart people want to work with smart people and want to be informed…” in an empowerment model of governance), even as the organisation has grown exponentially to corporate dimensions.

Like at Google, talent management would become “disintermediated,” meaning that decisions about talent would no longer be filtered through HR evaluation processes to be reported up the hierarchy in the form of metrics for final approval, but would be made directly by managers responsible for results. Unlike Google, however, whose top-down talent model of the start-up years cannot be replicated by established companies, decisions about talent would be decentralized and made at the operational level, where the practical knowledge about what is needed, combined with the social sense to know what works is located. What it would also mean is that “talent” in all its facets would stop being the focal point of an annual management ritual, but would be the primary focus of daily work. Talent development would become less an exercise in evaluation and training, and more one in experiential learning rooted in actual change management projects triggered by market challenges, where “talent” would have the opportunity to take responsibility for achieving business priorities, learn through trial-and-error, and show through performance what results it is capable of achieving.

Management would need to provide their people with the priorities around which they could self-organize, with the resources they would need to power their efforts, and with the ethical, legal and risk frameworks which would define the boundaries of their self-organization.

HR–to the extent that it would carry such a name or even exist in a recognizable form–would provide the tools (IT and processes) to enable transparency and communication, and do the mentoring and coaching the managers would need to keep their focus on their people and to do a good job of challenging and fostering them in their evolution and growth.

The Conflict between Learning and Results in Talent Management Strategy

Two clients of mine have posed the question to me about how HR can operate successfully in the emerging environment of complexity and Gen Y employees challenging companies today. The question is surprisingly difficult to answer, as a scan of the web turned up no approaches which I could in good conscience recommend, but much which represents the ordered systems paradigm of old style management.

My first client is responsible for HR in a family company operating world-wide, with a decentralized organization coordinating performance in largely independent country organizations, which are very successful and fiercely autonomous. His first attempt to professionalize HR by implementing bureaucratic processes failed, for the simple reason that the countries scented the danger to their autonomy and performance and blocked the initiatives.

When we had our first meeting, the client wanted to talk about organizing a world-wide high-potential group to bring the regions of the organization into better contact with one another, and about how to embed the meetings of the group in an HR selection, development and retention strategy which would support the company’s independent culture and avoid a second rebellion.

I suggested they skip the bureaucratic middle step and go directly for a participatory approach based on the insights of complexity strategies–an approach we will be developing together over the coming months in preparation for the next global meeting.

Here are the first outlines of what we are thinking about, starting with some context in the current norm, before we go to more complexity-based approaches.

The modern HR model saw its most prominent initial large-scale implementation at GE under Jack Welch, who focussed talent development not only on what people in the company deliver, but on how they deliver it based in a competence model which describes behavioural success factors for leadership and performance.

A good representation of this approach is given by Gary Steele, the Head of HR and Sustainability at ABB in Zurich in an interview, where he describes people and talent management as the “spine” or “thread” that determines everything ABB does. The purpose of the programme is to drive the culture of performance and delivery across the organisation. Part of the programme is top-down, through leadership assessment based on a competence model to look at how performance is delivered, and the other part is bottom-up through performance reviews that include the competence model criteria for assessment. At its heart is the attempt to develop core values, which describe the way the company as a whole does business, and to which a large part of the work of coordinating activities company-wide can be devolved.

As Steele explains, the competence approach seeks to create an advantage in the “war for talents” by dealing with the problem that leaders with bad behaviour drive away valuable talent, so that even if they bring in good performance short-term, their cost in terms of people involves unacceptable risk to success. Given the good intention behind the competence model approach to widening performance management to include good behaviour in leaders, it is tragic, then, to see the results in how people experience the process, especially in large corporations that have done their homework in thoroughly implementing a talent management strategy.

Through the ever tighter requirements of corporate governance, combined with a focus on short-term results, talent management largely backfires. Among the hires who come to my clients’ companies, there are a large number of corporate refugees who want out of the bureaucratic straightjacket of competence-based perfomance reviews, and into an environment in which they can work productively and focus on results–and remain the individuals that they are. As employees vote with their feet, it is apparent that talent management is making a major contribution to exactly the problem it was designed to prevent.

To understand the failure of the classical approach to talent management, it is helpful to look at the dilemma it finds itself in for most corporate systems:

Performance is social, in the sense that no one is successful alone. Companies create value through the work of people in groups, whether these are organized through the machine paradigm or, more modernly, in teams or networks. Although companies are social organizations, they exist not for their own sake, but for the external purpose of creating value for others in a market. There are, therefore, two coordinating principles for social organization in companies (see below).


The source of the failure lies in the complete difference in nature of coordination based on judgment of results, and coordination based in social relations. The first system is transactional: we sign a contract in which we are paid for measurable performance based on explicit indicators. We fulfil a function or a role in a structure of power, and we can be replaced anytime. We follow rules, and perform functions. If we overperform relative to benchmark, we get bonuses and promotions; underperformance means stagnation or firing. Having a place in the company social group depends on what we do and how well we do it, without regard to our history, reputation, or who we are as people. Our positon is fragile, subject as it is to the vagaries of power and control and to the incalculabilities of the market and company politics.

The second kind of coordination is rooted in social dynamics: in a complex reality whose vagaries cannot be known ahead of time or planned for, we look to each other as people for orientation. Through give and take, we learn to rely each other, and the history of our behaviours forms our reputation and instills trust or mistrust towards us in others. In the absence of full knowledge, we orient to values to inform our decisions, and how reliably we do so contributes to our standing in the group. Our influence is based more on our experience in dealing with uncertainty, on our tacit knowledge and who we are as people, than on our position in the organisation, and so is resilient to the changes in the power structure.

When in the talent management process behaviours are evaluated, we effectively collapse the second world of social coordination into the first of performance and results–with catastrophic results:


Picture for a moment the dynamics of the goal-setting meeting between a manager and an employee in sales. The manager’s incentive is to set a high goal for the sales represenative, both to maximize performance and to minimize the bonus. The incentive of the sales representative is to agree to a minimal goal, both to reduce effort and increase his certainty of achieving results, and to maximize the bonus. The boss says 20%, the sales rep. 0%. Then it is 15-5, and agreement might come at 10%. There are always good arguments for both sides. However it is achieved, the result is not an objective response to market realities and a reflection of personal abilities, but a negotiated settlement which has to do much more with the illusion of planning and with tactics. In the worst case, top-down planning is simply imposed through the agreement, and the employee is told to perform accordingly.

When behaviour is treated on the basis of the same logic, the result goes beyond the pseudo-objectivity of the planning process to effect cynicism and distrust in the social fabric of the organisation, as an employee report on the Stack-Rank performance review system at Microsoft under Steve Balmer devastatingly shows. In the video above, the interviewer mentions to Gary Steele that talent is an emotional issue, and asks him (without any apparent sense of irony), how to mandate the emotions aimed at by the talent management process. Steele doesn’t lose his stride.

Picture the same sales representative negotiating about the evaluation of his behaviour as a communicator and team player. His manager may criticise his behaviour, and the sales rep. will explain or justify himself. The manager will find examples, the sales rep. counter-examples. In the end, the evaluation is just as arbitrary as the planning number, with the employee trying to show himself from his best side, while the manager tries to reduce him to his failures to satisfy the bell-curve of possible evaluation distributions. The best managers, who genuinely try to support their people’s development, learn how to game the system, giving their team a leg-up relative to others in the rating game, against which HR must find counter-measures, and so the irrationality potentiates itself up the system.

The simple answer to the question of how you mandate emotions is, “you can’t.” Values, beliefs and emotions cannot be mandated, and attempts to do so bring with them all of the nasty consequences of social engineering. To enable people to develop their potential, what my client and I are working on is how to ensure that performance appraisal on the one hand, and potential for development and growth on the other, are treated differently, each according to its own logic and mechanisms of success, and the one is not collapsed into the other.


This is simple to do, but difficult to manage within a short-term performance measurement environment. The key lies in the concept of “obliquity,” and in the ability of the company culture to tolerate the disconnect between supporting the development of employees on the one hand, and planning for and getting results on the other. Very much according to the maxim of giving unto Caeser what is Caeser’s, key performance indicators need to be aimed at, and results measured. But since only a tiny part of what takes place in companies operates on the transactional level of planable ordered systems, the rest is beyond direct control. For system two, managers need only to foster human potential and… to trust! And that is what makes system two management so intolerably uncertain for classical management. The highest performing groups are the ones whose skills we support, but whose behaviour we do not measure. The whole point of transactional goal-setting is that it does not matter how we get there–only the results count.

How then do we deal with the legitimate concern about abusive or destructively instrumental behaviour in our leaders? Healthy social groups take care of that on their own. Thieves, liars, the abusive and the sociopathic are quickly disposed of by a team with a purpose, that knows where it wants to go, and has a healthy values culture among the team members. Those who want a place in their group will gladly be honest and reliable and get results to best of their abilities. (The same principle counts when we look outside the company to customers and markets, who are more than able to regulate what is socially acceptable and what not in their relations to a company when empowerd to do so through, for example, the internet.)

What organisations can do to support the process of social self-regulation is to provide their people with the resources and opportunities to do so, not to sabotage their efforts through bureaucratic, pseudo-objective planning and control systems, to listen, and to take the opinions of their people seriously when it comes time to make decisions about talent. For the rest, “talent manages itself,” as Kevin Wheeler and Murry Christensen of Jet Blue say in an interview snippet from the Future of Talent Retreat 2009. That is of course a simplification, as talent flourishes best in a rich environment full of experienced people, interesting challenges, trustworthy leaders, and immediate reality-based feedback– things which do not happen by accident. That will also be the point of the Talent Management strategy, to focus on creating the environment and resources talent needs to succeed.

My second client is at a different point in his trajectory, having come to the insight that the traditional and informally highly networked family corporation lacked even the most rudimentary global processes in many areas, including HR, and the new General Managers have embarked upon a thorough and consequent strategy of making the organisation compliant through stricter process-orientation. While getting their ordered systems processes created and under control will be a boost to solving many of their challenges, it will be interesting to see where the system type boundary is seen and what influence it will have on Talent Management.

Post Scriptum: By the way, the talent development challenge in business is logically identical to the problem of learning and performance measurement in the education of our children, as the more we measure learning performance in schools, the less education our children receive, leading to poorer–not better–performance in the jobs market, as a lucid RSAnimate video of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson explains for the curious, and from which I am tempted to see an analogy between the “epidemic” of ADHD in children and the alarming rates of burnout among managers who are caught between competing imperatives of the two systems they work in, and which companies do not help them to resolve.

Moral Foundations Theory

It is one of the signs of our political times that many–if today not most–arguments about policy e.g. economics, history, social policy and women (especially about the role of women in society!) are based not in rational analysis but in competing beliefs about what is good and right for the world. As a moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt researches the question in his book The Righteous Mind of “why good people are divided by politics and religion” through his model of “moral foundations,” which describes how we make decisions in terms of biologically evolved moral “modules” which determine our allegiances, associations and rational justifications of our moral proclivities prior to any act of reasoning we might use to justify our leanings after the fact.

The book first establishes the current neurobiological understanding of the role of thinking in the debates with the insight that for all thinking, “intuitions come first, reasons second.” He uses the metaphor of the elephant and the rider to describe how the rider of our thinking may believe it steers the elephant of our moral intuitions, but when we look at the results of research into decision making we see that it is invariably the elephant which moves first, with the rider leaning in the elephant’s direction after the fact and using reason to justify its leaning post hoc.

What, then, is the basis of our decisions? Haidt has discoved six moral foundations:







Around the world, liberals, he has found, base their morality and their political orientation on the first three foundations. Conservatives are based roughly equally in all six foundations, while liberterians constellate almost entirely around the Liberty/Oppression module with a smattering of a conservative version of Fairness/Cheating thrown in to round things off.

Even more intriguing is Haidt’s understanding of the origins of our moral leanings which, he finds, e.g. through the studies of twins, are less learned than they are biological predispositions. What we believe, how we see the world, what we feel strongly about, and how we vote is largely due to our biological predispositon to some or all of the modules which universally make up the foundations of our moral intuition.

What moral foundations theory helps me, for example, to do is to experiment in my own self-reflective processes more consciously with the orientation to those moral foundations which I have less of a natural affinity to. For example, as a modern, European, self-employed networker, the moral foundation of Authority/Subversion plays no role at all in my moral leanings. Yet I recognize the importance of healthy authority in child rearing, community organization, company leadership, and in many decision making processes. And my experience of the 60’s has helped me to understand how anti-authoritarian rebellion can cause Harm, the downside of a moral foundation of Care which is very important to me indeed.

In my business dealings with Arab and Asian cultures, understanding and respecting the Loyalty/Betrayal module or the Sanctity/Degredation module can be critical to the success of both business and social relations. Haidt provides a good map to go exploring with, and adventure is guaranteed, especially for people like myself operating with only a part of the total foundation we share as human beings.

The final conclusion which Haidt arrives at for himself, however, and the recommendation he gives to resolve the impasse in current debates, falls entirely too short of where I thought he might be going. In an impulse to quantitative completion, Haidt argues that liberals and libertarians might have something to learn from the conservative orientation simply because the conservative moral landscape involves all six moral foundations, whereas the liberal involves only three and the libertarian only two. More, Haidt seems to argue, must be better.

But the fact that our brains have evolved these six modules cannot, in my evolutionarily inspired view, automatically mean that having any version of one of these modules active is better than not having it operating at all. For example, in liberals, the Sanctity/Degredation module plays almost no role in responses of moral intuition. For the conservatives it does. But the current conservative version of Sanctity/Degredation issues is rooted in religion at the developmental level of a mythical consciousness. Liberals, in their more secular/scientific approach to life, have little patience for mytholgocially-based imperatives. Does that mean that liberals lack the Sanctity/Degredation module? That would seem to be unlikely, since even if through evolution certain brains focus less on the second triad of foundations than others, too little evolutionary time has passed for the second triad to have atrophied completely in the liberal brain. Liberals, I would think, respond just as intensely to the issues of life from the Sanctity/Degredation module as conservatives–but differently. As Haidt also notes, the counterculture interest in spirituality, meditation, alternative medicine and natural foods had a “purity” aspect which would seem to fit well to the Sanctity/Degredation need (ridiculed, interestingly, by conservatives–perhaps because it reminds them of the irrationality of their own versions of the Sanctity need). To take another example, the liberal rejection of patriarchal authority as arbitrary and discriminatory would seem to express in mature liberals a need for authority more suited to a complex, networked world, not the rejection of the Authority/Subversion impulse as such.

At, a website run by Haidt and a number of academic colleagues, one can participate in a plethora of surveys to get a profile of one’s own moral orientation among a host of other topics loosely related to politics and morality. The few I have filled out so far put me pretty much where I expected, in the liberal/libertarian moral range.

However, many questions left me feeling caught in both/and or neither/nor dilemmas, so that I answered them without feeling my orientation had been grasped. For example, I am both socially liberal and fiscally conservative, a values-orientation closer to what the Economist uses as its moral foundation than any of the parties in the US. Then I am complexity and network-oriented and not socially communitarian, which the questionnaires seem unable to distinguish from a socially liberal perspective. And while I am strongly fairness-oriented in the conservative sense of personal responsibility and reward for performance, I can’t imagine a context in which performance could operate effectively which was not created through the regulatory policies of an intelligent social community and efficient government bureacracy, again a moral orientation which the questionnaires did not seem to be able to grasp (though as I learn more, I may discover how they do include such perspectives).

In sum, Moral Foundations Theory could enable us to explore the world’s moral landscape more fully, providing an objective framework for issues which most of us argue over intuitively, passionately, unconsciously and increasingly irrationally. I find it already helping me to develop a more objective perspective on these conflicted issues.

What I miss is a developmental model of the moral modules. As Haidt himself seems to argue, a module represents a biological predisposition, not an orientation to a particular content. How the needs of the module are fulfilled is a question of personal and cultural development. I suspect, for example, that liberals have as much spiritual potential as conservatives in their biological substrates. But dogmatic religious beliefs and behaviors are not suited to activating the Sanctity/Degredation module of a scientific or pluralistic consciousness. I would love to experience what would happen if the religions were to update their versions of Sanctity so that a scientific consciousness could relate to them, or political leaders were to emerge who understood how to exude authority which enables networked communities and so potentially activate the Authority/Subversion module in liberals.

I suspect we have a way to go…

America’s Strangely Ambivalent Relationship to Competence

We’re on vacation, so I’ve had some much yearned for time again to do some reading and peruse the blogscape for mental stimulus. Following a tweet from Richard Florida titled “Is Meritocracy a Sham?” which caught my eye, I landed at a blog called The American Interest, at what looks to be a conservative site strong on religion, and the article by Walter Russel Mead reviewing the book “Twilight of the Elites” by Christopher Hayes.

The book attacks the liberal and secular elites, graduates mostly of Ivy League Universities, who run government, and focuses on the fact that the social democratic vision of society held dear by “technocratic progressives” has not been realized.

Mead writes that:

“the technocrats were — and are — committed to the concept of rule by the best and the brightest. This is not a temporary stage on the road to a higher and ultimately more equal stage of society to gentry liberals. It is a natural division of power and responsibility based on innate differences in human beings. Gentry liberals believe that people who score high on SATs, do well in college, and get through the PhD process are, well, smarter than people who don’t do those things and that society will be better off if the dumb people get out of the way and let the smart ones make the important decisions. (And the unimportant ones too — like how big a Slurpee should be.)”

The problem with the technocrats is that they have been corrupted, and serve not the interests of democracy, but those of their own power. Such an insight would not be remarkable, as the old adage that power corrupts would simply be confirmed yet again, with the attendant question to be raised of how one is to cope with the current iteration of corruption to strengthen democracy should one find the claim to be true.

What gave me pause, however, was Mead’s analysis of the cause:

“This has to do with another dimension of today’s American meritocracy that I think is deeply problematic: atheism.”

Now, as someone who grew up and studied next door to the American system, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by such a religious suspicion of the secular, but Mead expresses it in a way which shows how far conservatives have gone in giving up all pretence to modernity to push a religious agenda:

“But caveats and cautions aside, there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk, and I think we can see today in American life some of the consequences that come when a powerful but to some degree godless social elite lacks the spiritual resources and vocabulary that would better equip it for its role…. The first problem is arrogance.”

To sum up, Mead seriously argues that without God, one cannot be moral, and that Jesus himself was the first to fight and win against the meritocrats of his day:

“From the standpoint of the Gospels. much of Jesus’ public career was a struggle against the meritocratic social and intellectual elites of his day. Yet his attitude wasn’t simple demagogic populism. Over and over again he speaks of his respect for the knowledge that they have, but insists repeatedly that while it is indispensable, it is also worthless unless your heart is right. And you can’t make your heart right by study or achievement. For your heart to be right, you must be born again. You must look outside yourself, your education, your offices and your honours. Your “merit” on its own doesn’t stand. Only the merit of another can give life and meaning to who you are and what you do.”

Being on vacation, and having nothing better to do that get involved in a theologico-political debate, I added a couple of posts to the lively comments thread, at first tenuously testing the waters:

Tom K says:

July 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

“The argument hinges on how we judge merit. That people with high SAT scores helped to engineer the financial crisis does not make believers the better candidates for positions of responsibility. The nuggets of wisdom contained in the world’s religions are embedded in so much mythological thinking that it takes a fine mind and strong character indeed to emerge from a religious education with well developed judgement rather than as an ignorant instrument of blind faith.

People of merit come from all walks of life. We need people in positions of responsibility who are outstanding at what they do, who can reference a lifetime of learning and experience in their area of expertise, who care, and have a record of good judgement. All of these criteria are independent of religion (without excluding a religious background). We should have had enough by now of people whose claim to fame is that they are as ignorant as he next guy but somehow good because of their faith.”

A few posts in the thread later I realized that I had missed the point, that not intelligence per se was under attack so much as the lack of its subordination to revealed truth, so I added:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 11:30 am

“@59 Russel, it seems more likely that religious morality codifies evolutionary achievements like empathic attunement and reciprocity than that it originates them through a revelation. Our increasing knowledge of our biologically social nature makes revelation not superfluous, but one more fascinating and valuable if somewhat dated expression of our nature. We have a loving God because we are by nature moral, not moral because of a God.
@ 63 exactly …:-)”

The “@63 exactly” refers to the 63rd post’s comparison of the whole thread to Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel.

But not quite satisfied, I thought I would break a lance for the evolutionary-psychological supercession of revelation thinking:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 8:26 pm

“Kris@88 From a psychological perspective, all gods are projections of our own developmental states onto an outside world. What we fear or worship is of our own creation, reflecting the degree to which we are able to integrate our unconscious processes into conscious self-awareness.

The theist-atheist distinction is not helpful to my thinking, and is but one more dichotomy we can overcome. But I agree with LukeLea@89 that the monotheistic God is one of our singular cultural achievements, and is the basis for most of the great achievements of Western philosophy and politics.

Beginning around the time of Hamurabi (if I remember my history correctly), and then increasingly in the stories collected in the Hebrew Bible, we see the emergence of a subjective, self-aware narrator, able for the first time to move freely through narrative perspectives of self, other, community and objective world. We also see the emergence of psychological dynamics for the first time in descriptions of our relationships, ranging from the psychopathological Yahweh of the book of Job to the attempts to deal with intrapsychic conflicts through self-refective treatments of myths of creation, fall and sin in Genesis, and the gorgeous subjectivity of the Psalms.

We in the West gave the name God to our often overwhelming conciousness of subjectivity (which today from a neuropsychological perspective we would e.g. call the “Self” which comes to “Mind” as an emergent phenomenon of our increasing neurological complexity).

The experience of our subjectivity through the God of the sermon on the Mount as love which, in its capacity to trust and believe all things and not be disappointed, marks a milestone in the development of human consciousness to wherever we are heading, and a great step forward over the fatalistic tragedy expressed in the consciousness e.g. of Greek theater.

At the beginning of modernity, the consciousness of subjectivity is then distilled and liberated from its theological frame of reference by modern idealist philosophers, and becomes the spiritual essence of social organization through democracy and human rights in the West (here I am thinking of Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and the American founding Fathers).

Part of the drama of the theist-atheist dichotomy (which also gives this thread the Glasperlenspiel quality which makes it so entertaining), is that as we move in our social and economic organization away fom subject-object relations to network-flow architectures and processes, there is just no point anymore in a divine symbol of the subjective self. In a world of science and complexity, we tend to find concepts, hypotheses and heuristics more helpful in understanding reality than symbols and beliefs. Respectful attention to our gods can help us to develop our subjective consciousness at certain stages of our psychological development (the movement through the mythological stage), and help us to understand our historical roots. But it is not an end in itself, just a possible step along the way…”

…and then:

Tom K says:

July 2, 2012 at 9:04 pm

“Kris@88 Thanks for your question, and to answer it more directly, research shows that we are biologically social creatures in our empathic attunement to one another. We are naturally moral because we naturally care about one another. (A lovely summary of the research is in Rifkin’s Empathic Civilization). We are also easily overwhelmed, frightened and traumatized. Our dysfunctional attempts to cope, mirrored in our dysfunctional divinities, are part of our learning process of being human.”

(end of self-citations)

Eric from Texas gave a welcome nod to the larger post (somebody was responding:-)). But then I gave up. There are brilliant posts from wonderfully learned people in the thread, together with examples of the terrifyingly unconscious authoritarianism we know well enough from the history of religious power. It was all like walking through an asylum–voices are involved in heated conversations trying each to convince the other of their rightness, but common reality remains elusive.

We are becoming a world of parallel universes, operating right beside each other, without any points of contact.

I am so thankful to be living in a secular society…

So… back to the Caipirinias 🙂

Change, Trauma and Business

Last week I started taking a three-year professional development programme in Somatic Experiencing, a trauma treatment process based on the work of Peter Levine. Though I am not a therapist, my coaching work in change processes brings me into situations regularly in which trauma plays a role, and I had become aware of the need to inform myself better about what I was looking at and how I could support dealing with it productively.

According to Levine, many of the problems people face in their daily lives are expressions not so much of psychological imbalances as of neurological stuck states. When we are confronted with highly emotional situations, our bodies will either go into fight or flight mode to cope. Both reflexes, if successful, help our nervous system to shake off adrenalin and cortisol and so to regulate itself into a renewed state of balance and health. When these reflexes are blocked, for example because the emotion is too sudden or intense or it is not possible to fight or flee, the nervous system will freeze, locking in the emotional charge and with it a state of shock for which the nervous system will try to find compensating patterns that end up as dysfunctions. The focus of trauma therapy is to bring the frozen state of the nervous system back into a “pendalating” process of moving between trauma and resources, so that it can once again regulate itself and integrate the experience now that it could not cope with earlier.

Levine has worked with war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome successfully with the method, and its applications range from integrating physical shocks from accidents to pre- and post-natal problems, to adult psychological issues. For example, one Vietnam veteran, who was the lone survivor of a bombing raid on troops having a barbeque on the last day before evacuation, would freeze in panic at a barbeque at a friend’s place when a Cessna flew overhead. Good friends would help him to become aware that he was here and safe, and not in the war situation. In treatment, Levine found that the freezing response, with all its associations, could be brought into pendalating movement, so that the nervous system could integrate the experience and develop alternative responses in the present.

What I experience in change processes is that business initiatives are often massive triggers for trauma states in the people we are working with. To improve a plant competitively, or even save it through restructuring from demise, means to redefine the the roles and responsibilities, the structures and processes in which the people working there earn their living and feed their families. Like the soldier, whose freeze response and panic were triggered by the Cessna, so the sense of loss of a boy whose parents split nastily when he was eight and cost him his home can be triggered in the engineer he has become when the department he has worked and been at home in for the last ten years is dissolved in conflict and he must find his place in the new organization.

Even more critically, new roles and responsibilities require new behaviours and self-understanding from people to fulfil them. Old style managers often show a shocking contempt for needs and the fears of the people involved in the change, and so add new traumas to those which people bring with them to work, threatening them with exactly the things their systems are not able to cope with in the tragic belief that they will get productive results that way. (Watching managers in authoritarian mode, I often can’t help but see the trauma in their own lives that they are playing out in their behaviours.)

But even socially competent leaders, who involve their people in understanding and defining the change, are often overwhelmed by the drama which change can push up to the surface of the organisation. New and useful behaviours cannot be learned by nervous systems in freeze states. The dramas which ensue in the dysfunctional struggle to cope can cost a company its existence.

Today, being a great leader or consultant for innovation will increasingly involve understanding what we trigger in the nervous systems of the people we do business with, and knowing how to respond to the reactions that we get. Understanding how to help someone come out of a stuck state is often rewarded not only with deep thankfulness, but frees up the resources of the person to successfully do fulfilling, creative work. Thinking is embodied, so that the route to good thinking often is achieved by good work on physiology.

The professional development programme I am in will teach us how to work with trauma with individual clients. What I suspect I will do over the course of the three years is to translate the principles and process into work with groups and systems for business.

I will report periodically.