How tempting it is to long only for spring, or summer: the days getting longer, the plants growing, Nature blossoming. So tempting that we often forget that there is only life in ecosystems because there is also death.


Similarly, in the organisations where we work, it is tempting to focus on good relationships; to preserve a certain harmony in the group; to avoid conflict. Again, this is forgetting that human relationships, especially at work, cannot be only harmonious; that conflicts are part of the relationship. And I would go even further: that conflicts can have a positive, necessary, life-giving function in relationships – that it is not right to assign them only a negative dimension.


Here’s a quick explanation…


In a company I work with, Thierry, a senior manager attached to the sales department, began his career in the company 25 years ago. He is by far the longest-serving employee, even though he never really broke through in his career. But, little by little, he has built up a pleasant world – for him: long lunch breaks, extensive expense accounts, setting his annual targets retrospectively, sexist jokes, etc. Over the years, none of his managers have really challenged him, for several reasons:

– Thierry is a ‘smooth talker’, he knows how to plead his case and always has a good excuse

– His misdemeanours are, of course, reprehensible, and could – indeed should – lead to a reprimand, a warning, or even some sort of sanction from his managerial line; but none of them, in itself, is that serious. It is rather their cumulative effect that becomes problematic

– Thierry is a close friend of the union representative in the department, who would not hesitate to get on his high horse if he felt that Thierry was being victimised


So nobody has called Thierry out so far. Fear of conflict, among other things, has so far paralysed his managers, who have preferred to keep harmony in the group. Except that …


Except that the harmony is only superficial; because many employees who work with him are not fooled, and see that Thierry does not respect the rules that they, on the other hand, are required to respect – and to which they adhere for the good functioning of the group. And underneath the veneer of harmony, there is a lot of resentment.


However, the conflict with Thierry, in this situation, would on the contrary be life-giving, and not destructive. Or more precisely: making the conflict explicit – and then of course working to resolve it – would be life-giving, because for the moment the conflict exists, but in an implicit, unacknowledged, and unworked way. It is created by one person breaking the rules, challenging the collective boundaries; not challenging it back is not conflict avoidance, it is avoiding to work through the conflict. Working through the conflict – working towards a transformation that brings organisational actors back within the boundaries of the collective – is to bring life back into the system, because it is to bring back trust in the collective, in the rules we set for ourselves and the values that underpin them; it is to show that the system is capable of regulating itself, of regaining its balance.


From the point of view of organisational theories, working through the conflict by challenging Thierry is what Agyris and Schon would call reducing the gap between espoused values and values-in-use. This gap is deadening in organisations, whereas their alignment is a source of meaning, trust and therefore motivation.


From a psychodynamic point of view, we could say that the over-investment of Thierry’s managers in remaining the ‘good object’, i.e. the manager who is appreciated and loved – because he doesn’t make waves and doesn’t prevent me from doing what I want! – allowed this dysfunction to take hold. In other words, their refusal to take on the role of the ‘bad object’ – the one who interferes with the egocentric pursuit of my own happiness – is co-responsible, along with Thierry, for the stagnation of this dysfunctional situation.


From an ecosystemic point of view, and more specifically, with reference to our model of the 6 principles of Regeneration, it is the cycle of death that has not been well managed here. Both by continuing to allow energy to feed a behaviour that had to die (Principle #1 of the model); but also because this behaviour was an attack on life (Principle #3), which their managers should have tried to reduce to preserve the regenerative dynamics of the organisation.


A year ago, Marc, the new GM of the department, decided to address Thierry’s behaviour; he gave him three months to put it in order. The rest of the employees said: finally! Thierry then went on sick leave, apparently too shocked by his boss’ behaviour.


Is Marc an expert in organisational theories? On group psychodynamics? Of the functioning of natural ecosystems and the regenerative momentum that runs through them?

Not that he knows of; for him, it’s a question of common sense: when a group sets itself rules, and one person regularly breaks them over the years, it’s up to the person whose role is invested with this authority to sanction him or her, to do so.


And this is perhaps the moral of this story: by wanting to avoid “hurting” people, or creating tensions, all of Thierry’s previous managers have only built the foundations of a much more traumatic situation for everyone now. Authority, and the exercise of that authority in one’s role, is not something abusive, quite the contrary – it is what regulates life. To hide from it, on the pretext of avoiding hurting others, is to lay the foundations for a much more violent, more hurtful outcome.

Nature knows this: it does not invest energy in what must die.