The ‘Self’ in Self-Management: Is Holacracy Soulful?

By Gyorgy Lissauer

Is Holacracy Soulful?

In Reinventing Organizations Frederic Laloux predicates much of the rationale for writing the book on how we as individuals, humans, feel at work. He notes “that work is more often than not dread and drudgery, not passion or purpose. That the Dilbert cartoons could become cultural icons says much about the extent that organizations can make work miserable and pointless.” [Laloux, Reinventing Organizations, p3] Laloux points out that this is true both at the bottom and at the top of the pyramid, and the “power games, the politics and the infighting end up taking their toll on everybody. At both the top and bottom, organizations are more often than not playfields for unfulfilling pursuits of our egos, inhospitable to the deeper yearnings of our souls.” [Laloux, p4]

Lissauer 1 above one of 12

One of the 12 pioneer organizations Laloux discusses in his book is HolacracyOne. All of the organizations Laloux researches stand out from the others in one way or another. HolacracyOne stands out because it is ‘the company spearheading the method’ called Holacracy® that can enable organizations to function as a self-managing, non-hierarchical, well-structured operation.

If one of the hallmarks of such pioneering organizations that Laloux discusses is that they are more fulfilling for our souls, then how is it possible that we read blogposts with such titles as ‘Does holacracy stifle humanness at work’? Has HolacracyOne created a method for self-management that is soulless?

The blogger describes in his post how he came across and joined Evolving Organisations, a company that operates with Holacracy. As a founder of The Human Leaders –a platform that seeks to promote and inspire humanness at work – many of his acquaintances were puzzled and warned him that Holacracy “was more focused on process than humanness.” Indeed, he says early on in the blog:

I felt very restricted by this process [the process used for governance and tactical meetings] and it didn’t help that I was learning ‘on the job’ and was making mistakes. I wanted to say something in response to what someone else had contributed but I had already had my turn to speak and wasn’t able to say any more. This was definitely not what I signed up for.… I wanted to work within an organization where my voice was heard, not restricted!

If you want to read his a balanced account about the Holacracy and soul, read the whole blog here.

Oneness: finding Self

What is ‘humanness at work,’ how do we make an organization soulful? There are two sides to the question: what are our expectations from the organization, on the one hand, and on the other, what do we, individually, need to do to feel more one with ourselves at work?

‘Oneness’ is about reducing or eliminating the distinction we make between our personal lives and our professional lives. But in order to unify our separate identities, a separation our western socialisation has instilled in us, we need to be ‘one with ourselves.’ To recognise our place in the world, our contribution, our potential. Our passion, our purpose.

This need not be one static thing; our purpose continuously evolves. But, ultimately, that’s what will drive us, both ‘in private’ and ‘in public’. If we find that deep, inner motivation, it will help us unite how we are at work and with our families or friends. Integrity will then become a defining feeling in our lives.

Gunther Sonnenfeld has written a blog describing his striving to bring humanness into his work. The essence, I think, is in the many paradoxes he highlights in this endeavour:

  • I wear multiple hats while ‘the world’ tries to put me into one box or another.
  • I have a lot of integrity. I also have a lot of flaws.
  • Really tough to sustain mental, physical and spiritual balance in a world that often feels cold, deterministic, calculating, superficial, obsessive and overly consumptive.
  • I am the creator of my reality(ies) … yet practicing temperance and resilience is a daily, if not hourly, challenge.
  • Every single day […w]e tell ourselves all sorts of things that don’t necessarily reflect a truth or reality about who we really are, or what we really want to do in the world. We may lie to ourselves about where we are in life (our personas), and we often live our stories, which carry through into our work lives.

Lissauer 2 above these struggles we live

These struggles we live, so we bring them into our work. We may try to detach these realities from the world of work, but they remain at play in our unconscious and manifest themselves (ourselves) through one route or another.

“Let’s be really honest with ourselves,” says Sonnenfeld: “We bring our baggage into our work environments.” As a result “we struggle to communicate clearly and efficiently, and we make all sorts of excuses around what it is we actually need to do, and what we need to deliver.”

Helen Titchen-Beeth in the Kosmos Journal begins to unwrap what it means to bring personal purpose into our work through exploring evolutionary entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship for Beeth is a determination to manifest a vision and bring something new to society. And therefore, evolutionary entrepreneurship assumes that we want our undertakings to take root in the world and thrive, to truly make the world a better place.

Organizational Culture: Back at Work

This is of course all very well, but what happens when we come as ourselves to work, armed with our best understanding of our evolutionary purpose, and cannot, for all our best intentions and efforts, implement it there? Where is the culture, what is the culture, which will allow us at work to be who we are or who we are trying to become?

Various organizations have made significant strides at helping us achieve a more ‘total life.’ For example, treehouse has introduced 32-hour workweeks.

Treehouse, as its CEO Ryan Carson and team, makes a strong argument for a shorter workweek. As Carson says: “It’s not about more family time, or more play time, or less work time – it’s about living a more balanced total life.” And that total life, freeing up the mind from the constant pressures of work on the one hand and family on the other, allows for greater creativity, more passion, greater presence – not simply at work or at home, but in life.

Arguably the company Virgin, following in Netflix’s footsteps, has gone a step further with their non-policy on annual leave. Virgin staff, just as employees at Netflix, can take off whenever they want for however long they want.

While treehouse has shortened the ‘encapsulated’ time, Virgin and Netflix axed the rules and transferred full responsibility to the employee. Netflix calls it a ‘culture of freedom and responsibility.’

Laloux writes extensively about organizational culture traits in Teal organizations all through his book as well as in a chapter dedicated to the topic. Some of the tools he describes I have seen played out in organizations: for example, the idea to check-in at the start of a meeting by sharing a personal memento.

However, the practice was told to me as something dreaded by participants, rather than an opportunity to open up and be more of who they are at work, to be accepted, recognised and respected for their wholeness. Another, now oft-cited organizational ‘cultural practice’ is the creation of open space offices.

It’s a tough lesson that an open space office is not sufficient in itself to spur creativity and cross-cutting work. While not being in siloed offices but sitting in close proximity creates opportunities to communicate, we need to have a shared sense of what we want to achieve beyond the next pay-cheque or promotion.

Conclusion: self in a system

What then is needed to make such practices have a deep impact on organizational culture, on how we function as individuals in a community?

Sonnenfeld echos Virgin and Netflix: Success in any business is contingent upon your self-responsibility. It amounts to an abject desire to evolve through learning, reciprocity and empathy.

An employee at Zappos turns the table and puts the emphasis on trust. Self-responsibility and trust are really the two sides of the same coin: the employee or partner takes responsibility for their own presence at work, while the company entrusts them to get the job done.

So where is Holacracy in all this? Holacracy is a system or method, sometimes referred to by the Founder of HolacracyOne as an ‘opearting system’. It enables those who will. It provides a structure and a framework for communities that are willing and able to transcend personal interests for the sake of a common purpose.

Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations highlights three breakthroughs that are prevalent in Teal organizations: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose. Purpose and wholeness are prerequisites in my view of self-management. Holacracy creates a platform for self-management, but if there is no evolutionary purpose and individuals striving for wholeness, self-management will likely fail.

There is nothing better that shows the extent to which Holacracy can have differing impacts depending on the community that employs it, than the ‘Holacracy Self-Organization Maturity Map’ created by HolacracyOne itself. (Posted here on Enlivening Edge as a Tool and Method.)

In the case of the founder of The Human Leaders, the attempt at Holacracy was not a failure: there is “no going back” he claims: “Having experienced a few more tactical and governance meetings, I have now not only adjusted to the holacracy ways of working, I am totally hooked.”

I am only speculating, but my sense is Holacracy leaves less space for the ego to speak and is more focused on getting decisions, to which there is no sound objection, made quickly for work to continue. For those who are not yet focused on the company’s evolutionary purpose but finding their way through a new system, not being able to speak their mind may well feel limiting.

As Titchen-Beeth says in the Kosmos Journal, who we are together is always different and more than who we are alone.

Working together for an evolutionary purpose, we need both to be ourselves and to be in an enabling environment.

Gyorgy Lissauer’s current evolutionary purpose is to better understand barriers and bridges to practicing purposeful self-management and to support communities in their own evolutionary processes. He is striving for oneness.

Featured Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay