If there’s one criticism of Holacracy I hear again and again, it’s some variation on this theme: “Holacracy is too rigid. People aren’t robots. It’s inhuman!”
This is an unfortunate misconception, but I understand where it comes from. Especially in the beginning, the meeting processes may seem rigid and restrictive. It can feel awkward and unnatural to follow a new set of rules rather than just doing things the way we’ve always done them. But when people get through that initial transition, here’s what they discover: Holacracy is in fact the most “human” system available for running an organization.
Holacracy honors some of the very best parts of our humanity, and it challenges us to develop and become more human, not less. Here are four ways in which practicing Holacracy brings out the best in people.
Holacracy’s meeting processes include very specific rules about who can speak, and when it is or is not appropriate for others to respond. To those unfamiliar with the system, this is often a sticking point. “What do you mean, I’m not allowed to say what I think or feel? I’m not a robot — I have feelings, and I have a right to express them!”
Here’s the problem with that approach: Have you ever become aware of something that could be working better than it is? (In Holacracy, we call this a “tension” — the sense of a gap between what is and what could be.) You bring your tension to a meeting, hoping to make a change and improve the situation. The words have barely gotten out of your mouth when one of your colleagues jumps in. “Yeah, I agree that X doesn’t work. But you know what? Y doesn’t work either!” Before you know it, everyone has added their own tensions to the table, and your attempts to create change in a specific area are stalled.
Holacracy’s meetings are designed to avoid this frustratingly common situation. They protect the space for one person to bring up a tension, propose a solution, and actually initiate meaningful change. In order to do this, the meeting processes don’t allow other people to simply pile their own reactions and related issues on top. That may sound rigid or inhuman, but in fact, it’s deeply honoring of the human being making the proposal. And for everyone else, it simply asks them to practice a fundamental human skill we all learn as children: taking turns. Young children find it difficult to be patient, to make space for others, to allow others to go first. When they master this skill, it’s an important developmental step. Unfortunately, as adults, we seem to forget the lessons of the playground when we sit down in business meetings.
In Holacracy, everyone has an opportunity to process their own tensions and share their perspectives. But in order to give each person a safe space in which to do so, we can’t all speak at once, and tensions need to be processed one at a time. Everyone else is asked to exercise patience, reserve judgment, listen, and honor their colleague with their attention. If those are not human virtues, I don’t know what are.
Honoring Human Creativity
When I think about what makes us human, one of the things that strikes me is our creativity. We notice problems and we come up with solutions. Our consciousness can sense when something is not working (a “tension”), and we envision how it could work better. We’re not satisfied to just make the best of things as they are. Holacracy is designed specifically to harness and honor this uniquely human capacity.
Too often, in organizations, we experience great frustration because we can sense tensions but we don’t have the capacity to turn them into creative improvements. When an organization is running on Holacracy, everyone is empowered to process their tensions. Human creativity and ingenuity becomes the company’s most valued tool — not just for coming up with new products or services but for continually improving the way people work together and organize. The result, for each human being in a Holacracy-powered organization, is a much more deeply fulfilling experience of being a creative partner rather than a cog in the system.
Another capacity that differentiates humans from our fellow creatures is self-awareness. Human consciousness can reflect on itself. We can observe the arising of thoughts, feelings, and reactions, and make choices about which ones we act on. We are not simply slaves to instinct. Holacracy challenges people to exercise this gift — to become more self-aware and, when appropriate, exercise self-control while another person is taking their turn. I’m not suggesting we have to suppress our humanity, in all its messiness, but I am proposing that it’s healthy to learn not to be blindly driven by it.
Our instinctive responses can be quite powerful. Self-concern, excitement, competitiveness, inspiration, judgment, relief, defensiveness — all these emotions and more may arise as we listen to someone else processing their tension. Without self-awareness, we may not even realize which feelings are motivating our reactions. When a facilitator cuts us off, or we catch ourselves wanting to speak out of turn, it shines a light on what’s driving us. The resulting reflection may not be comfortable, but it will help us know ourselves better. And in the process, I believe we become better human beings, with a more profound self-awareness and self-mastery. There is a lot of talk about “mindfulness” in the organizational world these days. Holacracy offers the opportunity to put mindfulness into practice, every day, and in so doing, create more conscious workplaces.
Treating People Like Adults
Early in the development of Holacracy, we were brainstorming “taglines” for our marketing material, and my wife and business partner Alexia Bowers half-jokingly suggested “Organization for Grown-ups.” I’ve always thought this was among the most accurate descriptions of what Holacracy strives for.
Those who see Holacracy as “inhuman” often complain that it doesn’t take care of people enough. And that’s true —the process is not designed to take care of everyone; it’s designed to allow people to take care of themselves, through the processing of tensions. Too many organizations adopt a parent-child relationship to their employees. Modern management hierarchies almost inevitably treat people like children, who need to be supervised, told what to do, and taken care of.
Holacracy honors each person’s sovereignty, seeing them as perfectly capable of managing themselves, driving their projects, staying motivated, and taking care of their own needs. In other words, it treats them as adults. Holacracy doesn’t treat people as subordinate, or needing to be managed, motivated, or mothered. It treats them as mature enough to manage their own workflows, lead their own roles, and seek the help and resources they need to do so.
That’s not to say people don’t need a safe space in which to thrive; in fact, researchers in Google’s “People Operations” division recently conducted a several-year study into what makes a successful team, and found that a feeling of “psychological safety” was by far the most important of the defining traits. Holacracy’s structured meeting processes help create this feeling of safety by protecting the right of each individual to process tensions.
So it’s true that Holacracy’s process doesn’t take care of people. However, rather than being inhuman, it’s a more human approach: giving people the space and safety to exercise their human creativity, protecting their right to do so, encouraging them to develop self-awareness, and treating them like adults. That’s the kind of humanity we need more of in our workplaces.
Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine