The context is an international and multi-ethnic meeting with some 20 participants, with the aim of reconnecting with the organisational purpose, in order to then be able to set the activities for the coming months and to appoint suitable leadership to accompany the emerging future.

The official language of the meeting is French: it was estimated that all members of the group speak it well enough to be able to follow without problems. Sporadic and spontaneous translation ‘as needed’ from Portuguese to French is offered, but not vice versa, organised voluntarily among the participants.

The method of animation includes that, at the end of each day of collective work, one-hour evening debriefing sessions are held, with a small group being part of the large one, called the “Coordination Committee”. The group’s objective is to review the contents and topics that have emerged, but above all to be a place for analysing the large group dynamics that have occurred during the day in order to link them with the dynamics of the broader system, and to draw up coherent work proposals for the following days.

The ‘Coordination Committee’ is composed of four fixed and two variable components, members of the large group who offer to participate, on a voluntary basis, at the beginning of each day.

One ‘fixed’ member of the committee, joking about the fact that a lot of chocolate had been consumed the night before during the ‘Coordination Committee’, and with the intention of encouraging the two volunteers from the large group, jokes “And then there will be a compensating factor, we will eat a lot of chocolate”.

One of the members of the large group, a young African girl, Louisa, appears evidently perturbed after this joke and remains silent. The two volunteers are finally found and the day continues by exploring the topic “What leadership is needed to lead in the coming years?”. Suddenly Louisa blurts out, in Portuguese “I didn’t offer to be on the committee this morning because I realised that the volunteer members would be treated like chocolate and eaten by the group members as a reward”.

Several years ago, during a then pioneering work on the emergence of alternative leadership models (at the time it was called “Emergence of Women’s Leadership” a title I would no longer use today) that we were carrying out in a large bank, we used the term “alterphagia” to describe one of the collective resistances to change, manifested during the project.

Alterphagia describes the attempt to transform the other by manipulating them, turning them into an object, assimilating them to oneself through “eating” them, thus denying their difference.  For the bank we worked for, alterphagia manifested itself in various attempts to assimilate women into the male stereotype-based leadership model that was dominant at the time.

In the case of the ‘chocolate’ a staff member makes a joke, having no intention to excluding or insulting. This joke, however, is misunderstood in a particular way, among the many possible misunderstandings, which touches on an organisational dynamic that has been present in the organisation for years, concerning leadership and the feeling, on the part of the people in Africa in particular, that there is a European (and white) thinking head and an operating arm in the South (black) undergoing a process of colonisation. This dynamic means that people in Africa are never considered in the shortlist of candidates to lead the group.

The ‘chocolate misunderstanding’ allowed the group to make explicit something very difficult to say, in particular the feeling of inferiority felt by some of its members, the perception of exclusion from certain roles, and this not on the basis of skills more or less possessed but on the basis of personal characteristics such as skin colour and geographical origin.

It also allowed the European side, identified as the group’s ‘coloniser’, to reflect on what they had (unconsciously) done, a reflection that, due to a creeping feeling of shame that emerged during the exchanges generated by the analysis of the metaphor, had not yet been done in full.

The space that opened up when we offered the opportunity to stop and explore more fully what had happened allowed for a deep, authentic, moving dialogue about what one part of the group had experienced for years.

After an initial almost violent, minimising reaction, the group opened up to the possibility of enriching the metaphor of ‘chocolate’, of making other associations than those that had been offered by the staff to go further.

It opened up a moment of deep exploration of mental models, their function, their limits and the consequences they can have on people and performance that allowed for a healthy regeneration, in view of the appointments of the new leadership team.