Freedom and unconscious dynamics

How free can we be at work?


Anabelle holds a very promising job in the online products department of a prestigious investment company in Paris. She’s been coming for monthly coaching sessions for the last few months because she’s struggling with some management issues within her team, and would like to explore how to handle them differently. In parallel, she’s not getting on with her boss, who she feels is micro-managing her, and thus stifling her abilities.

One day she comes in, looking much chirpier, all smiles and lightness. As she sits down, she launches straight into telling me her great news: “I’m quitting my job!”. With that she goes on telling me how much better she feels since she’s taken that decision, how lighter she feels, how suffocating the last few months had been at work, what with her boss always breathing down her neck, leaving her zero freedom, how important freedom is for her, and how by taking that decision to quit she feels she has recovered her freedom…

Rather than congratulate her, my response came in the form of a question: “Are you sure that it is in freedom that you have taken that decision?”. It must have felt like a bit of a cold shower, I guess …

“Well yes of course, why are you saying that? I wasn’t feeling well in the team, Fred [her boss] is treating me like an 8-year old, I worked so hard to get where I am, so I want to choose what’s good for me and what isn’t. That’s why I made that choice, and it’s freed me up – both the result (I can choose where to move on to now), and the process (finally, I could exercise freedom, no more of this stifling environment!). So why are you trying to spoil my fun? Are you worried that our coaching will end prematurely and you’ll lose your client ?”.

Yes, good questions. Why indeed did I question whether she’d acted in freedom, rather than rejoice with her about something that clearly had generated joy for her? Was I annoyed that she’d taken that decision without bringing it to our coaching sessions first? Was I – as she suggested – worried about losing a client, or at least fearing premature ending of our work-relationship? As a coach, I feel it is my duty to question my own inner dynamics, lest they come and derail me off my role.

But none of that resonated with me. Paradoxically, I felt some sense of non-attachement, of “inner-freedom” as Jesuits might call it, in relation to the decision being taken outside of our sessions, or at the prospect of the coaching ending.

Rather, what had struck me when she announced her news is a powerful sense of déjà-vu. History repeating itself, patterns weaving their web and catching their prey unaware. No freedom there, as far as I could see, but instead the sense that she was a puppet held-up in her own inner drama – so that’s what generated for me such a direct – and rather challenging – response.


A bit of history might be helpful here.


Anabelle is the eldest of 4 siblings, with probably loving, but certainly anxious (1st time) parents, who grew up with a sense of constant restrictions: she couldn’t go out to play when she was a kid, or with her friends to parties when she was a teenager; her school subjects were chosen for her by her parents, and so was her university path later on – until her first act of self-affirmation, when she dropped out of engineering to sign up for one of France’s top business schools.

Her career was then off to a promising start, when she was recruited by Total, after a 6-month internship there. But soon she grew restless, feeling that her creativity was being restricted, that the management culture was infantilising, so she sought a way out and quitted.

Her time with Danone was more promising; she liked the culture there, and held several roles until she found herself (again) with a boss that, she felt, clipped her wings, but seemed to let the others in the team off the hook (“just like at home when I was a kid”, she commented once in a coaching session, “when I kept being told I couldn’t do this or that but later on my siblings were allowed much more than me”). So Anabelle quitted her job – again.

Then came a spell with a retail bank – which ended in the same way, and for the same perceived reasons.

And now this new decision; in other words, 4 times in about 12 years. I can’t help it: my job is to try to identify my clients’ patterns, and to help them discover them. And what Annabelle’s pattern was revealing, is that, far from acting out of an inner freedom, she was in fact helplessly repeating a pattern that had been governing her life hitherto – deceiving her into believing that she was making free choices, when in fact she was unconsciously projecting her unprocessed childhood experiences onto her current work situation, and rebelling against it in a way that she had not been able to do as a child.

If it was freedom she wanted, it would need to be about freeing herself from the very pattern that controlled her behaviour. It would require her acknowledging and owning the feelings that growing up with such parents had triggered in her; claiming back those parts of herself that she had not been allowed to express; and learn to discern and decide from “the whole of herself”, rather than only from that wounded part of her that kept seeking reparation.

Thank God our working relationship was very good, so Annabelle – despite raising her own challenging questions to me – was able to hear me out, trusting that somehow I was speaking from a place that might hold an interesting perspective, one that she might be blind to.

And indeed the rest of the session was very constructive. She was able to recognise how she was repeating an old and long-buried pattern, and work through her own initial feelings of guilt and shame for having done so.

However, her decision to quit her job had been taken, and our joint task now was to help her manage as best as possible this period of transition, and of letting go: of her job, and of these coaching sessions, paid for by her current employer, which would end when her job with them ended.

In the couple of sessions that followed – and were the last of our work together – it became clearer and clearer to her how this particular session had been pivotal for her, because it enabled her to finally see the elephant (her patterns) in the room (her life at work), to name it, to recognise it, so that next time she will face it, she will – at last ! – have a real choice: to follow the elephant once again, or to ask him to leave the room.



"Why?” The ecological transition in search of meaning

"God is dead, Marx is dead, and I don't feel very well myself," said Woody Allen. Today, it is what we commonly call "the planet" that is not doing very well: climate disruption, rising temperatures and water levels, collapse of biodiversity, increase in zoonotic diseases, of which Covid-19 is the devastating incarnation.

By 2050, planet Earth could be unliveable for a large part of the world's population, which would then be forced to migrate to countries whose economies, if they continued on their current trajectory, would have little chance of being able to absorb such a migratory shock.

All the more so since the very capacity of the Earth to continue to feed us is being called into question, not only by enlightened collapsologists with apocalyptic visions, but by renowned scientists, including Dennis Meadows, author of the famous 'Club of Rome report' which, in the early 1970s, had already modelled the biospheric disruption that we are experiencing today.

This future is not written. It will only happen if we do not act; if we continue with 'business as usual'. The solutions to bring about a different future are known: they can be summed up in what most people call the 'ecological transition', or in what some pioneers have already initiated: the regenerative economy, i.e. economic activities that produce value while regenerating the ecosystems on which life on Earth - our life - depends.

And yet, we are forced to admit that we are not able, collectively, to take this step, which is nevertheless beneficial. Why is this so?

The first level of explanation lies in our economic model itself. It would be too hard to transform it, or even to get out of it, because we have become so 'addicted' to growth that an ecological transition would threaten to plunge us into a major economic depression.

These arguments are now outdated, not only because of the scientific studies and financial modelling of the last ten years, but above all because of the revolution in dogma that the Covid crisis has triggered: if the stakes were really worth it, we could do it, "whatever it takes".

Hence the importance of exploring a second level of explanation: our relationship with Nature, or more precisely our disconnection, our disunification with it. Over the centuries, Man has extracted himself from Nature, has repressed the inalienable links that inscribe him in this 'web of Life'. He has turned it into an object, external to him; an object to be controlled, dominated and exploited for his own development. What is the point of 'saving the planet' if it is a commodity like any other?

Today, most political discourses remain anchored in this utilitarian vision of nature. At one extreme end, there are the bellicose discourses, which see climate change and its consequences as phenomena foreign to us; as enemies to our good life that we should fight by waging "war on climate".

But even in the more measured, and equally voluntarist, discourses, it is the utilitarian vision that predominates: we are urged to commit ourselves to this ecological transition in order to preserve the conditions for the viability of the human species on the planet for centuries to come; to leave our children a viable, liveable and sustainable world; to revive the economy thanks to a green growth that respects the ecosystems on which we depend.

Even if all this is undoubtedly true, and commendable, let us note a great absence in these speeches: the meaning of our life on Earth, and our place in the great narrative of creation. Well, not completely absent, because on 8th November 2020, for his inaugural speech, the new vice-president of Bolivia, Mr David Choquehuanca, did not go for half measures. His speech, which went largely unnoticed by the Western media, set out a political project that explicitly draws its source and legitimacy from Bolivia's indigenous stories of the creation of life on Earth, and the unbreakable bonds that unite us with Nature.

After a long opening in which he anchors his authority by asking permission from 'the gods, the elders, the Pachamama (Mother Earth), the Achachilas (protective spirits)', Choquehuanca presents his vision of a Bolivia that finds its unity and vitality by reconnecting to the principles of life, and in so doing, ensures that all Bolivians are included in this prosperity, and that no one is left behind.

This is a speech by a head of state that is different from those we usually hear, full of figures, indicators and complicated acronyms. A speech that challenges us at another level of our humanity: that of the meaning of life, of its sacred dimension, and of our belonging to the heart of this web of life. It reminds us why Man, on Earth, is invited to leave it in a better state than the one in which he found it - not because of some moral imperative, but, on the contrary, to live fully his ontological nature as a human Being.

David Choquehuanca is not the first head of state to make such a speech. Pope Francis (yes, the Vatican is a state!) did it before him, in his encyclical Laudato Si in 2015. There too we heard very strong economic and social proposals, anchored in a spirit of justice, solidarity and, of course, respect for the Earth; and all of them stemmed from a grand narrative of creation, and of the place of Man in this narrative. While there are of course differences in theological perspectives between these two statesmen, their convergences are far greater than these differences.

Is this what our secularised Western societies are lacking in order to make the transition to ecology with both body and soul? Has the time for grand narratives come again? No doubt. And stories that unite us more than they separate us, the other great thirst that our societies are experiencing at the moment.


Owning Our part

Owning our part: from denial-based business to a regenerative economy - Part 3

Denial is being challenged

In her wonderful paper, the renowned systems-thinker Donella Meadows (1999) explains how, on a housing estate in the US, where houses were more or less identical, the electricity consumption was 30% lower in a particular block, compared to the surrounding blocks. Whilst insulation, number of appliances, cost of electricity, etc., were all the same, the only difference was the positioning of the meter: in the entrance hall for those houses that used less electricity, but in the basement in the other houses. Passing in front of it and therefore having constant access to its information is what made the difference. Any unusually high activity could be noticed quickly, its root cause found, and corrective action taken. In that way, the positioning of the meter brings “information to places where it wasn’t going before, therefore causing people to behave differently”.

Today, humanity too has access to information that it never had before. Beyond the traditional media, we have new broadcasters of raw and unfiltered information: the IPCC for Climate Change, but also Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the Panama leaks, etc. Moreover, we now bathe in a platform that spreads and connects all this information in an instant: the Web.

In that context, we are flooded with evidence of the consequences of our actions, and of the interconnections between what we do here and the impact it has there—and in turn, back here.

This flood of information could exacerbate our individual and societal denial and disowning, or, as the electric meter does for those households, it could give us the impetus for transformative action.


From denial-based business to a regenerative economy

This transformative action would require us, to quote Lawrence again, to move into the depressive position, where we “shift in primary concern from the survival of the self to a concern for the object upon which the individual depends”. Whilst Lawrence refers here to an intra-psychic dynamic, we could extend his argument to the organisational and social levels: shifting our primary concern from the survival of our business to a concern for the objects upon which our business, and indeed ourselves, depend: the natural ecosystems, and the socio-systems they harbour.

It entails shedding the blind-spots that keep us in the “false world”, and mentally and wholeheartedly inhabiting the “true world”, where outcomes (and no longer just outputs) become our orienting principles, where the direct and indirect impacts of our activities are no longer relegated as externalities, but come back to the centre of our strategic decision-making.

This is what the regenerative economy is about: taking up roles in organisations that can generate personal prosperity, system prosperity, and, last but not least, ecosystem prosperity—all at the same time, without one being ignored at the expense of the other two. Figure 2 outlines what it would look like.

leadership trough purpose

Returning to the diagram that we presented earlier on in this article (Figure 1), this means entering the space of “leadership through purpose”: that is, a space in which I mobilise the System I work in to produce an impact in the world that is congruent with the world in which I want to live (and want my grandchildren to be able to live in).

For many, this may take the form, as it did for Michael, of quitting “the old” to foster “the new”, for instance, leaving a twentieth century organisation in order to set up a smaller company, organised from the outset around a clear purpose of having a positive impact in the world. We can’t know yet just how much this trend will spread, but given the level of unpredictability that is characteristic of our current era, we could imagine a future where big dinosaur companies crumble down and disappear, whilst alongside them, new, purpose-led organisations sprout and grow to replace this outdated business ecosystem.

However, for many this may not be an option, and the question can only be framed around: “how can I lead through purpose within my existing organisation?”.

In many organisations, this is possible through bringing more data from the field and engaging the key decision-makers around those data. However, in order to get them there, guilt and shame (that one will most likely feel in realising the part one has played) will need to be contained, so that it does not flood people and induce regression.

Our experience in working with businesses is that this requires a different approach to the one used in group relations conferences or in psychotherapy: for instance, since directly naming those feelings would likely drive more defence mechanisms around them, it would be more productive to enter the transitional space of play by setting up an offsite meeting exploring together possible futures.

Once the “sensing” (see Scharmer, 2013) of the Context and the System is achieved collectively, you can move to pointing together the limits of the current model, stressing what cannot continue into the future if we want to maintain the financial health of the company and, at the same time, contribute to a world that meets our needs, expectations, and requirements and those of the generations to come.

The time will then be ripe to engage the group in imagining desirable futures, accessing their playfulness, imagination, and creativity to solve the basic equation of the regenerative economy: what would it look like for our company to manage to boost its own prosperity, that of its employees, and at the same time contribute to the prosperity of our ecosystems? What would we stop doing, what would we start doing, and what would we do differently?

Fundamentally, rather than just pointing to what has been wrong in the past (which will only exacerbate guilt and shame, and its associated defence mechanisms), one has to bring those decision-makers to create stories of possible and desirable futures that will stimulate their desire to engage in the necessary transformation. This is the philosophical underpinning of the blockbuster documentary Demain in 201510: don’t engage people through guilt, shame, and fear about the state of the Earth, but rather with optimism, hope, imagination, and creativity.

Actions, therefore, will not be driven by a concern for reparation, that is, mending the broken for which we feel so guilty and ashamed. Rather, they will unfold in a spirit of regeneration, for instance, enabling life to push through and develop the conditions for more life11.

In some organisations, a different approach is possible, mainly because they have reached a new level of maturity, becoming what Frédéric Laloux (2014), in his groundbreaking book Reinventing Organizations, calls Teal organisations. According to Laloux, Teal organisations enact an emerging paradigm for the twenty-first century, and they thrive in terms of business, because of three pillars around which they function: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.

In this particular conceptual framework, wholeness means the capacity (and the freedom) to bring the whole of yourself to work—something Michael could not do in his pharmaceuticals company. This in turn links with the concept of evolutionary purpose, that is, the impact an organisation is here to generate in its ecosystem. According to Laloux, companies thrive when people, who can be fully themselves at work, self-manage, to sense and respond to the opportunities and threats in their context according to the evolutionary purpose of the organisation that they are employed to enact. In doing so, Laloux notes, people naturally develop an awareness of the impact of their activities on the world around them, and a motivation to reduce negative impact and foster positive impact.

These new models of organisations, along with the whole movement of “liberating leadership” (Carney & Getz, 2009), are gaining a lot of traction in the business world. One way to engage your organisation in transformation could therefore be to start a process of transforming into a Teal/liberated organisation.



Owning our part can be daunting, as it requires facing the guilt and shame of having contributed to co-creating a world that is not so healthy to live in. For those of us who are used to holding a space for those feelings to be named, and worked through, a new approach may be required, if we want to help people past the fear of entering such a space.

In this new approach, imagination, and creativity, together with a commitment to working with the data from the field, can help first create a safe container called “desirable future”, that then serves to help us access our competent selves and navigate this transitional space. Only then, and at their own pace, will these feelings find a voice to be spoken, and our owning them will fuel the drive for regeneration.


Il purpose come modo per superare la scissione

Owning our part: from denial-based business to a regenerative economy - Part 2

Purpose as a way of working through this splitting


Figure 1, adapted from the work of the Grubb Institute1, can help us understand what is at work in Michael’s experience.

In that framework, Michael (a Person) works in a pharmaceuticals organisation (a System) that has an impact in the world (the Context). Through his actions, Michael contributes to co-creating an organisation that, in turns, contributes to co-creating the world. As a Person, Michael lives in this world, and indeed dreams of a world in which he would like to live—a world that he would like to improve, in which one could find more health, more well-being, more happiness. Twelve years ago, he had in fact joined an organisation to fulfil its stated purpose (to improve world’s health) because it was coherent with his own intention for the world.

For all those years, however, the world he wanted to live in was the antithesis of the world his company was contributing to co-create. At a conscious level, Michael was not aware of this. Personal and societal defence mechanisms (such as filtering data, blocking out certain questions, refusing to venture into certain conversations, etc.) helped him stay disconnected from this “true world”, enabling him to operate in a “false world” in which the world he lived in was not the result, in part, of the outputs of his company.

In other words, in order to live in that reality and remain sane, Michael had to unconsciously operate a clear split, within himself, of these two worlds. Engaging with NGOs, with church groups and other solidarity initiatives in his private life; and applying his talents to branding new molecules for his company in his professional life.

Where he found true purpose in his private life, this was absent from his professional life. Worse, the formal purpose claimed by his company as a mission statement (solving the world’s greatest health challenges) proved highly disconnected from the enacted one2 (finding lucrative markets for molecules they developed).

In Figure 1, where the three circles meet is the place where one can lead with Purpose, for instance, mobilise the System to enact a purpose that has an impact in the world congruent with the kind of world one intends to live in. From his position, Michael felt it impossible to access such a leadership space, and chose to stop contributing to co-create a System whose enacted purpose ran against his own. So he left to launch a business (a new System) in which his personal and professional purposes could integrate into one. Just as Dubouloy describes the shift from “false self” to “true self”, we coin here the idea that Michael’s decision was an enactment of his intention to move out of a “false world” and into a “true world”.

From individual to collective denial: the role of organisational defence mechanisms

The denial, defence, and splitting dynamics explored above in detail are damaging for self, and, one could argue, damaging for the world too. For many, whether they work in the business world or simply comment on it, there is a perception though that, however regrettable this may be, this kind of consideration about the impact of our activities on the world doesn’t have its place in business, where, after all, all that should matter is “what is good for business”—the rest being just externalities. So as long as the business grows, all is good, or so they would like us to believe—thus laying the foundations for collective denial and disowning.

Part of the tragedy, beyond the degrading impacts of those activities on our living ecosystems, is that, from even a business perspective, there could not be greater misconception. Any business (System), in order to thrive, has to continuously monitor the world in which it evolves (Context), and anticipate where it is heading in order to modulate its responses to that emerging world—rather than trying to filter out external reality in order to continue on its path of producing the kind of responses it has always had.

To frame it through psychodynamic language, building defences against anxiety can be functional up to a certain point, but never actually resolves the anxiety itself, nor its source. Psychological maturation is what will help work through the anxiety, by addressing the issues that generate it in the first place. But by leading us to believe that “all that should matter is what is good for business”, a societal denial can be sustained by a collective narrative that then makes it very hard to get to the reality of the world we are creating (the “true world”), constantly “selling” us a “false world” which, even if analysed within a business paradigm, would fail its own test.

An illustration of this can be found with the former businessman and now President of the USA, and the huge walls he is attempting to erect. Whilst the most publicised amongst those is the phantasmagorical erection of a wall between the USA and Mexico, another one, more subtle, is already at work: the psychic wall between what the evidence-based science says about climate change, and the policies he is driving through Congress. Whilst those may (or may not) yield temporary success for business, they will certainly increase the rise in sea levels along the coasts (Miami is already facing huge challenges), droughts and wildfires in California, and soil depletion and soil toxicity throughout the land, to name but a few. At this rate, America in fifteen to twenty years time will not be a place in which business can prosper because there won’t be any customers—so busy will they be at trying to survive the conditions they’ll be swamped in.

Denial of climate change is also coming at a high cost for those very industries we might have thought could gain the most out of this denial: the fossil fuel industry. Throughout the world, the first hit seems to be the coal companies, where several of the top players are facing bankruptcy. As the divesting movement has gained traction, and the COP 21 Paris agreement has prompted more and more countries and financial institutions to stop funding coal (an estimated six trillion dollars have been divested so far3), the industry was not able to react quickly enough. Their business model relied on the world using coal, and doing so at a growing rate.

As the evidence mounted of the impact of CO2 on the rise in temperatures, undoubtedly many of those working in the coal industry (unconsciously) experienced an inner split between securing an income for their family today and creating a perilous future in which to live for those very children they were happy to be able to feed today. This splitting necessitates psychic defences in order to last, meaning that at an individual level, rationalising, leaving out data, cutting out feelings, etc., are used to sustain this disconnection from an otherwise unbearable reality.

But beyond these individual splitting processes—and indeed, perhaps even driven by them—it is a true organisational defence system that was created in order to keep the business going4. At its core, it involves creating a culture that leaves out data that challenges the status quo, promotes those who reinforce the dominant story and excludes (through intimidation and/or sacking) those who speak up for alternatives. We see here similar dynamics to those analysed by Amy Fraher (2005) in the cockpit of planes involved in crashes—leading here, for this matter, to the crash of the organisation itself.

Next on the list, unless they react quickly, are the oil companies. Where coal has been used primarily for generating electricity, and can therefore be replaced more and more by nuclear or renewable energies, petrol has gained a reprieve, since it is still greatly needed for transport, food, and building, to name but a few. However, financial institutions are already evaluating the risk of “stranded assets”, that is, being left with assets invested in oil firms that have lost a lot of their value, and are likely to drive a similar turn in the market to the one that has prompted the fall of the coal industry. The risk thus is growing of financial institutions massively divesting from oil companies. What then is keeping oil companies entrenched in this deathly scenario?

Activities vs purpose: mistaking the “what & how” with the “why”

Denial and splitting in the fossil fuel industry are defence mechanisms probably engineered to protect from at least two sources of overwhelming affect: guilt and shame on the one hand (we will explore these later in this article), and an anxiety at the prospect of imminent death on the other, built on a phantasy that in a 2° world5, these companies are destined to die. As a defence against the overwhelming anxiety generated by the prospect of dying, a lot of work and energy is spent trying to continue to exist in the same form (business as usual), even at the cost of bringing the whole ship into a crash.

This, I believe, is because those companies have over-identified with their “what & how” (their outputs), rather than connected to their deep “why” (their outcomes) in order to continuously reinvent themselves. As Simon Sinek (2009) suggests in his theory of the golden circles, true leadership stems from organising around the “why”, not around the “how” and “what”. Yet oil companies are now suffering from having defined their existence around their product (oil), suggesting that they exist in order to bring oil to people and society—rather than clarifying what purpose this oil is meant to serve in society.

Let’s imagine though that oil companies had spelt out that their vision is a world where man can travel, work, produce food, and build cities in ways and speed that he never was able to achieve before, and that their purpose was to provide people and society with cheap energy to help achieve that vision.

For over a century, they used cheap oil to do this. But as evidence mounts that their actions contribute to pollution-induced illness and death, and to global warming (i.e., damaging the Context), they can now re-evaluate their activities (i.e., operations within the System, not the System itself) in order to find another cheap energy to fulfil their vision. Turning to renewables becomes a radical change in strategy, for instance, a spectacular change of product but also a return to the roots of the organisation’s purpose (the etymology of “radical” is the Latin for “root”).

Unfortunately, without that vision, any attempt to switch from oil to renewable is experienced as a betrayal, as an attempt to kill the original business. This paranoid phantasy serves to reinforce the defences and, paradoxically, brings the organisation to a quicker death: whilst giving us a false sense of reprieve in the short term, denial ends up, in the long run, failing to save us from the death that the real problem (if left unaddressed) will inevitably bring. Refusing to explore the “why” and staying focused on the “what & how” comes at a high price.

Another case in point is the French electricity industry. Despite starting with a loose definition of its product (electricity), it gradually evolved towards being a single-product company, with nuclear energy representing about three quarters of its production. At the time, it enabled France to develop some level of independence in terms of energy sourcing, in particular at the time of the petrol crisis in the 1970s (a good example of a System adapting to threats coming from its Context).

Its internal organisation, however—its culture, its beliefs—became suffused with the dogma of nuclear energy. And what was once a strength, is now turning into a huge liability, both financial and environmental. As the cost of maintenance and dismantling is being re-evaluated, it is becoming clear that it has greatly underestimated the cost of its operations. But, as a prisoner of its own model, it is still, for example, trying to develop a nuclear plant in the UK, despite evidence that this will worsen its financial situation.

A recent government-sponsored study is even suggesting that France should continue to build nuclear reactors at the rate of six per decade6 if it wants to retain its knowledge and skills about nuclear technology, even though an increasing number of business analysts are confirming that “nuclear is dead”7.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, increased scrutiny is being applied to the safety of European nuclear plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and is bringing evidence that older plants are at greater risks of facility breakdown; in the words of a key player in the industry, “Europe is now at increased risk of a nuclear disaster”8.

Yet what is happening to mitigate these financial and environmental risks? Not much. As the industry has over identified with nuclear as its raison d’être (thus mistaking outputs for outcomes) and organised a rigid system to crystallise it9, it is now trapped in a super-egoistic story that fails to include evidences from the reality principle. In his article “Turning a blind eye, the psychoanalyst John Steiner (1985) explains how, in Sophocle’s Oedipus tragedy, the choir, from the onset, speaks the truth to the protagonists and to the spectators, but it is as if everyone is choosing to turn a blind eye—to pretend that they don’t know. Oedipus’ own blinding at the end of the tragedy is an acting-out of this process of continuing to not want to face the reality that we know we have contributed to co-create.

So why do we continue to turn a blind eye? What is the function of this dysfunctional behaviour? Undoubtedly it must help protect us from the overwhelming anxiety of having created a situation that we know will lead us to catastrophe, but that we’re not sure we know how to get out of. But more importantly perhaps, looking at what we contributed to co-create and owning our part would certainly unleash in us a great sense of guilt and shame, so powerful that we may fear being unable to survive them.

However, as Gordon Lawrence (2005) puts it in his paper “Totalitarian states of mind in institutions”, “the paradox is that this kind of social defence against psychotic anxiety and, of course, thinking, encourages the conditions for the very psychosis that is feared to erupt.”

Denial, splitting, and defending have had a useful developmental role—but now they are threats to our very survival, as they keep us locked into creating a world that we know, unconsciously but also consciously, is not conducive for more life.


Ownership sul nostro contributo: da un economia basata sulla negazione a un'economia rigenerativa

Owning our part: from denial-based business to a regenerative economy

Article published on “Organizational and Social Dynamics”


In this article, we explore a core set of organisational and social dynamics at work in the business world: the denial and disowning of the part we play in co-creating the world we live in; and the splitting needed to protect us from the guilt and shame that owning our part would unleash. We begin with exploring the Winnicottian splitting between the “false self” and the “true self”.

We then venture into new territories, by exploring the denial, disowning, and splitting that is needed in the “business as usual” economy to keep business going and avoid acknowledging its degrading impacts on social and ecosystems, creating, to paraphrase Winnicott, a split between a “false world” and a “true world”.

Mainstream organisations have tended to structure this splitting formally through organisational defences, but are now at risk of being flooded with their split off parts. We then ask ourselves what can be done to start addressing our impact truthfully, and contribute to a shift from a degrading economy to a regenerative economy. The importance of containing and working through the guilt and shame that this might generate is explored, as well as the notions of purpose and purposeful leadership.


Keywords: systems psychodynamics, social systems, organisational change, leadership, defences.


On a recent radio programme, a leading French environmentalist summed it all up: “I think it’s better to drive your old diesel car to work if you work on an organic farm than to feel proud of cycling to work when actually you work for Monsanto.” In saying that, he shone light on one of our long-held collective blind-spots: we co-create the world that we live in, not only by our actions as citizens and consumers, but also (and perhaps primarily) by our own contributions to the impacts that the organisation we work for has, directly or indirectly, on the world.

In other words, we may have spent too many decades focusing on professional competencies and career trajectories (outputs), when perhaps a more fundamental question was left off the radar: what world are we helping our organisation to co-create (outcomes) thanks to these professional competencies and career that we invest in it?

In this article we will explore the conscious and unconscious dynamics at work when, through the roles we take up in organisations, we contribute to shaping the world we live in, and what leverage we have to align these actions with our intention.


Bursting the bubble

Michael is a man in his forties, who read at one of France’s best business schools, and was moving towards a promising career. Throughout his childhood he was told, as most of us were, how important successful studies were—the key to a fulfilling career, to achieving one’s full potential.

As he graduated from his prestigious business school, Michael got offered several tempting jobs. He opted for one of the big three pharmaceuticals companies, and did so for several reasons: first of all, the overall mission of the company caught his altruistic self; contributing to the world population’s health, and solving some of the greatest health challenges was a quest worth embarking on. The company’s huge resources also meant that much would be possible, and that boldness and creativity would not only be encouraged, but also met with the appropriate means for action. Finally, joining such a big, international company meant entering a field in which his own career could grow and blossom.

As the years went on, Michael became, quite naturally, identified as a “high potential” by the company’s talent management department, and was offered several career opportunities, including leadership posts abroad, where he was able, each time, to confirm his potential for becoming, one day, one of the top fifty executives in the company.

Twelve years after joining, however, Michael decided to quit. Not for a competitor, with higher salary and even greater career prospects. Not because he had enough of the health sector and wanted to explore another industry. No; Michael resigned and decided to launch a business that, despite being in the same field as his previous job, was the antithesis of what he had been doing: he left one of the Big 3 to launch a natural health products business.

Michael’s story illustrates many others at the beginning of this twenty-first century. At the heart of it, we find a recurrent pattern, in which brilliant graduates, full of potential, choose to resign from a promising career not for a better paid job or one that holds greater perspective, but for something altogether different. In other words, they quit not only their job, but the very paradigm in which career has been “sold” to them, in order to find something that could not be found in this current paradigm, and could only exist in a new one.


Career development and splitting

Most of us—and most certainly Michael—were asked throughout our childhood the eternal question: “what do you want to be/do when you’re older?”. Undoubtedly, this question was meant to be helpful, to enable us to draw from within us a vision of what our adult life might look like—thus helping us identify the type of studies that we might need to undertake in order to fulfil this vision.

Of course, this envisioning question also served as a container for our parents’ anxiety, providing reassurance that their offspring would indeed “do something with their life”, but also giving them the opportunity to reframe the vision in order to help their child “aim higher”.

In that context, children over the last few decades have been thinking in terms of professions and in terms of industries: being a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, working in a bank, in finance, being a consultant …. In their own unconscious, and that of their parents (and of society more broadly), those professions and those industries carried certain values, and served as markers of success, both in the eyes of those around them (external sources of gratification) but also in terms of financial achievement.

In her article Les ‘hauts potentiels’ et le ‘faux-self’”, Maryse Dubouloy (2006) explains the impact that such a construction of one’s possible future has on the individual once (s)he is confronted with the reality of the work environment. Anchoring her argument in the work of Winnicott, she suggests that very early on, in order to secure their parents’ love and positive regard, children will over develop those capacities, attitudes, and behaviours that they sense are more highly valued by their parents, at the risk of leaving other parts of themselves dormant, or at least under developed. In the process, they thus develop a “false self” that they present to the world, and hide in their own unconscious (through a splitting process) who they really are, their “true self”.

Having worked with dozens of those high potentials managers, Dubouloy started identifying a pattern, where after brilliant studies and excellent beginnings in their careers, those high potentials often go through a deep inner crisis when confronted with an event hitherto unusual for them: a big failure, such as a lost contract, a missed promotion, or being fired. For the first time, their over-adapted self can no longer “save” them; it can no longer provide the gratification they have constantly sought, leaving them with a huge sense of emptiness and of worthlessness. Unaware, they stumble across the chasm between their false and true self, between the false promises of narcissistic security on the one hand, and the unbounded possibilities of being who they truly are, which at this precise moment does not feel at all liberating but rather oppressive and persecutory.

Michael’s story finds many echoes in Dubouloy’s work, yet it offers a new dimension to, and a new perspective on, the chasm. The false promises and the development of a false self are indeed present here too. Undoubtedly, Michael did well at school, fought hard to enter one of the best and most prestigious business schools in France, and chose a big, internationally renowned multinational corporation to work in, because it matched the expectations his family had on him, and embodied what success looks like in society.

At an unconscious level, Michael most probably operated a splitting of his self into a true and a false self, unconsciously ensuring that his public persona matched external expectations (thus providing him with external gratification) whilst suppressing his true self from his conscious experience. Michael’s resignation, therefore, may well be linked to a desire to let his true self come forth, although data do not entirely match what Dubouloy has indicated as the usual triggers for such an internal shake-up: Michael’s decision did not follow a failure-induced crisis; he didn’t lose out on a promotion, nor lost a contract, or anything of the sort. Could there be something else at work here?

Looking at the data again, we can see that Michael’s decision came about when he began to realise the impact the pharmaceuticals industry had on the world, and therefore his own contributions to that impact. As a marketing director, his job was to ensure that an increasing amount of customers would buy the company’s drugs. Increase in sales was therefore a key indicator of success. However, at the same time, research began to show that increasing use of antibiotics were actually one of the root causes of antibiotic resistant microbes.

In some ways, the more antibiotics he helped sell, the more antibiotic resistant microbes he would help develop. Another insight came when, at a conference for the pharmaceutical industry, he discovered that of all the drugs produced by all pharmaceuticals companies, probably about 15% were more effective than placebos—whilst the remaining 85%, of course, produced a lot more side effects than placebos.

Slowly but surely, Michael also came to realise that the business model of the pharmaceutical industry requires people to be ill in order to work; the mission statement that originally attracted him to the company (contributing to the world population’s health) actually relied on its shadow side: requiring people to be ill. Promoting health was therefore not expected, because it ran the risk of putting the company out of business.

So much so that, as a marketing director, he was once asked to contribute to finding a way of selling a molecule that the R&D department had discovered, but for which there was no known disease. They ended up finding broadly-linked non pathological behaviours that they could then package as a syndrome, in order, later on, to frame it as an illness. As he puts it, “we entered the meeting with a molecule, and we left with an illness.”

In other words, what really came through for Michael after twelve years in his job, was not just the splitting he had to operate in order to “be successful” in the eyes of others and of his false self, but, perhaps even deeper, the splitting he had to do of the impact he himself was having on the world through mobilising his skills and competencies at the service of his company. I use the expression “even deeper” because, in many ways, the splitting of the impact that our professional actions have on the world is not just an intra-psychic dynamic; it is also, and perhaps first of all, a societal dynamic.

It is induced by the very paradigm in which most of us are invited to imagine ourselves professionally, when asked “what do you want to do/be when you’re older?”, rather than “what do you want to contribute to when you’re older?”. A paradigm that values career progression intrinsically without inquiring into (and even less evaluating) the impact those increasing professional responsibilities end up having on the world. Perhaps shifting the frame in that way could yield huge transformations.





Embodying both the good and the bad object in Regeneration

The societal and organisational shift that is required of us is unprecedented; it can no longer be about improving the current capitalist paradigm based on endless economic growth (even if we were to call it green growth, or sustainable growth), and has to stem from an innovation of the very paradigm through which we can think, and then embody, that radical shift. For many aspects, Regeneration (THE 6 PRINCIPLES ARTICLE) seems to us to be best fitted as this new paradigm for the 21st century.


Rooted in the wisdom of those ecosystemic principles we can observe in Nature, Regeneration, as a paradigm, suggests that for a system to thrive, it needs to regulate the cycle of “death”, and the cycle of “life”. With regards to the “death” cycle, it means ensuring that:

  1. We divest our energies from those organisational or societal patterns that can no longer continue into the future (e.g. petrol-based transportation)
  2. We accompany the dying of what we collectively need to let go of (e.g. cross-continental tourism)
  3. But we protect promising initiatives from an early death from the current dynamics that would otherwise thwart them (just like brambles protect the oak seedling from hungry deers until the oak it strong enough to withstand their munching) (e.g. protecting local organic producers and retailers from the logics of large scale agribusiness)

And for the “life” cycle, it suggests that we:

  1. Encourage life where it is trying to thrive (e.g. lower tax or/and create specific legislative frameworks for regenerative products)
  2. Increase interactions that are life-giving (e.g. civic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies)
  3. And develop collaboration and partnerships (e.g. Danone and the Gramheen bank teaming up to foster health and social regeneration in rural Bangladesh)


A key concept here is that of regulation: the dying needs to be as present as the birthing (just as in the life-cycle of living cells, where a “failure to die” can lead to cancerous growth). We’ve probably all experienced how easier it is to start something new than it is to let go of something we’ve being doing for so long, yet unless we do let go, real transformation is unlikely to happen.


With our clients, this becomes an important part our work: enabling them, at the bottom of Otto Scharmer’s U process, to name what they need to let go of before Presencing, Cristalysing, and Prototyping the new. In a workshop, this may come in the form of a pledge, that the group crafts and then agrees to endorse – even though the hard work of actually letting go will come later, in the following few weeks or months, where they will need to translate that pledge operationally, and face “for real” the disruptive thrust of any process of transformation.


One could be tempted to think that, when it comes to accepting to let go in order to let come, Christian organisations may find it easier; indeed, at the heart of their Faith, the Paschal Mystery (Jesus’ death and resurrection) provides a wonderful framework to find meaning in what is required of us: to accept to let go, to let die, before we let come, and let live, and do so in trust – indeed in faith – that even if we don’t know what ‘the new’ will be, it is in the letting go of that which can no longer continue into the future that we create the space for that ‘new’ to be birthed.


In our experience of working with religious congregations, it is true that the Paschal Mystery is, undeniably, of great help for them in entering that territory of “naming” what needs to die, and in making the necessary pledge to let go of it. Yet we’ve also noticed that the translation of such a pledge into an operational reality is often rather difficult – much like most of us, as mentioned above.


How could that be? Well, perhaps the psychodynamics of the Paschal Mystery can help us make better sense of it.


The core aspect of the Paschal Mystery is quite simple: trusting God’s will, Jesus accepts to die on the cross, and rises on the 3rd day, thus bearing witness that after death comes new life. For every Christian across the globe, this dynamic is the very heart of their Faith. Put another way: this dynamic had to happen, as it is in its unfolding that God’s mystery is being revealed.

Yet as human beings across centuries, we’ve often been tempted to look at some of the characters in that dynamics as ‘the enemy’, as ‘evil’ – as if without their interference, Jesus would have been able to continue to live, and perform his miracles on Earth.


But the Christian Faith itself points to the contrary: it is through dying when he did, and the way he did, that Jesus revealed God’s mystery to humanity. In other words, he did need to be betrayed, judged, sentenced to death and crucified, for without that the Mystery of Resurrection (of life after death) could not have been revealed.


The implications of this is that all characters in that drama are essential, and hold their part for the Paschal Mystery to be able to unfold. Judas the traitor; the high priests who want to get rid of a rival; Ponce Pilatus the roman governor who “washes his hands” of the matter, thus effectively sentencing Jesus; Jesus himself, of course, who embodies the good that will nevertheless die; and also those witnesses, starting with Mary Magdalena and then the apostles who may doubt but ultimately rally to the evidence of life having made it through death. The Paschal Mystery is therefore a dynamic story, the result of all these characters interacting –not the story of just one person.


What does this all have to do with organisational and societal regeneration, you might (rightfully!) ask? Well, regardless of your Faith, and even if you are an atheist, this remains a foundational story for many civilisations, and it may help shine some light on what can sometimes hold us back from engaging in successful organisational or societal regeneration, primarily by highlighting the various roles that need to be taken up, played, acted out in what must essentially be a set of dynamic interactions between those roles.


Take petrol-based transportation for example. It will not end by us pledging the end of it – whether we are users who currently enjoy it, car manufacturers who want to align to climate goals, petrol companies offering to switch to renewables, or government sensing a wind change (forgive the pun).


It will require people taking up the role of bad object, of those seen as the high priests conspiring to kill that which is good (called the Amish by the French president a while back); it will require a traitor, a Judas – perhaps a car company or a petrol company breaking ranks from expected behaviour; a government agreeing to sentence to death petrol-based transportation as we know it; and also witnesses of the new life that is possible beyond petrol-based transportation.


From a psycho-dynamic perspective, what this means is that for successful regeneration to take place, several roles of bad objects need taking up, therefore several people need to accept to put themselves forward to take them up – even if that means being denigrated and insulted for weeks, months, or years.


Put another way: what the Paschal Mystery suggests is that regeneration does not happen ‘nicely’, with everybody agreeing it’s a good idea; or that it may be painful but we’ll bear the pain of it in an adult, harmonious way. Regeneration requires some people to take up the role of “baddies” and be seen as those who sentence to an unfair death – that is the price to pay for the so necessary unfolding of new life.


Of course the intention here is not to condone violent or abusive behaviour, under the guise that it would be in the service of regeneration. Elon Musk’s current reckless and perhaps sociopathic behaviour in his handling of his new toy “Twitter” has nothing to do with regeneration, and looks rather like the results of an untamed megalomaniac drive.


The intention, rather, is to encourage those whose role it is to take the decisions, to follow through with where the collective discernment is pointing to and to actually act on it with decisions followed up by thorough implementation. Regeneration demands it – and we can’t all be Jesus the good guy!


Theory U

Fast-track U process

Otto Scharmer’s U process will soon be celebrating its 20th Birthday, and needless to say what an amazing, transformational impact it has had on so many people and organisations.


Here at Nexus we have been using it as the background to our work for the last 15 years; often to design 1-day, or 3-day workshops, but also a whole intervention with a client, spanning over several months, where we can position the most pertinent moment for the Presencing phase, and, on that basis, build the Sensing phase as a process to get there.


What is, I believe, lesser known, is that the U process is a “fractal” tool, which you can apply to any size event or intervention: from an 18-month assignment to a 1-hour meeting, or even a 5 min phone-call. The process is always the same, and follows the same sequence:

  1. Sensing
  2. Letting go
  3. Presencing
  4. Letting come
  5. Realising


So next time somebody rings you, all panicking, to tell you that a key piece in your delivery system has broken down, rather than push for your initial plan to be maintained (“I don’t care, this is what we had agreed, sort it out!”), begin with adjusting your assessment of reality to include the up-to-date situation (Sensing), let go of your previous plan, but also of your fantasy or wish that all can be under control, listen to what the situation is pushing forward as the most evident way to still enact your Purpose (Presencing), let come practical solutions to start moving forward, and start implementing it in a test-learn-adjust approach (Realising).


One of my favourite stories about how the U Process can be applied to solve complex situations in a short space of time, took place in sunny Southern France, where I was leading a team of 10 consultants in facilitating a 1-day team-building event with a 100 senior executives from a European investment company.

Our client had given us the usual assignment of ensuring that those senior execs would “produce” some tangible and useful outputs (“it’s all very good to play, but we’re here to work too!”) AND at the same time have fun (“it’s meant to be a team-building, people are here to relax and enjoy themselves!”). No particular contradiction that we hadn’t experienced before…


So we set out to design a fun process, albeit with some clear objectives and deliverables. By lunchtime, whilst the morning World Café had gone really well and the energy in the room was as upbeat as one could hope, it had become clear that the programme we had designed for the afternoon had to be reworked, because the group was in a different space and would have refused to engage with it. We had 1 hour to have lunch AND reinvent the afternoon programme.


In a great spirit of inclusion of my team’s opinion, I suggested that we had 3 options and asked them which one they favoured:

  1. Working through lunch on the redesign
  2. Working on the redesign and then have lunch
  3. Have lunch first and then redesign


Surprise, surprise, there was a unanimous vote for the 3rd option… so by the time we had finished lunch, our work-time had shrunk to ½ hour!


Aware of the challenge we were facing (getting 10 very skilled, yet diverse facilitators to agree on how to redesign a programme in 30 min so that we could go back and face a crowd of a 100 senior execs in their post-lunch dip), I nevertheless decided to play it by the “U” book, and invited my team to go round sharing how they felt the morning had gone and what they thought the state of the group was (feelings, dynamics, expectations, etc.) – in other words I invited them to start with a Sensing phase. After all, our team was very seasoned in the U process, and I just assumed that they would, just like me, find this the best way to proceed.


Well, that was counting without their high levels of anxiety… in a few minutes, 2 or 3 of them had started sharing their bright ideas of what we should do – bright, indeed, but very different one from the other, and not always compatible.


I stepped in to remind everyone that we were supposed to engage in a Sensing phase – not “jump the U”. And so repeated my request that we go round painting a picture of the group as we had left it at the end of the morning.

That only increased everyone’s anxieties: “Matthieu, don’t be silly, we don’t have time, we need to find a solution!”.

“Of course we do, I replied, and that’s why I’m asking you to stay disciplined, and follow the process that we all know can help. Now we have wasted 10 of our precious 30 minutes, so I want you to stop “jumping the U” and get down to “Sensing”! Please!”.


The silence that followed was probably a mix of anxiety, anger, disbelief – but also recognition that we had a process that could help and a leader that was not getting overwhelmed by the group’s anxiety. So people finally engaged in sharing their take on where the group was, and 10 min into that Sensing, a clear, shared, and collective picture of the reality had emerged.


Just exactly what we had to let go off became self-evident, and a sense of what the situation required was palpable in the room, even though it had not yet been verbalised. This is the typical territory in which Presencing unfolds, I just had to figure out how to help that unfolding.


As if time had stopped in that territory, we spent half a minute of deep, reflective, anxiety-free silence, where everyone was aware that we were onto something, but that trying to catch it too quickly might just frighten it.

The breakthrough came from perhaps the most unexpected amongst the team: a young scandinavian woman, who’d only joined the team recently and was rather introvert. In that thick silence, she went: “what if we invited them to create solutions for the issues they identified this morning in small, theme-based groups, and asked them to present them in the form of cooking recipes, or poems, or songs, or theatre plays?”.

We all looked at her, then at each other, and smiled: “yes, that’s great, let’s do that!”. 8 mins left before resuming the workshop.


“Ok, what do we need to make that happen, and who does what? Me, I’ll write up the instructions on the flipchart! And me, I’ll get the material ready for the groups! Ok, and the 3 of us, we’ll go rearrange the chairs!”.


Back in the room, all rearranged, 1 minute and a half to spare. Thank U !



We don't avoid conflicts - we avoid working through them!

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.


Easter and regeneration

Easter and Regeneration

In the Christian tradition, Easter is the most important of all feasts – more important than Christmas itself. Why? Because it is then that the resurrection is being revealed; it is then that we discover that death is not the end, but only a passage towards renewed life.


Whether we choose to have faith in this Christian tradition or not, Easter is a particularly enlightening phenomenon, for organisational life and transformation, but also for the societal challenges that we face in this 21st century. Two aspects of this phenomenon are especially important, I believe: the “Paschal Mystery”, and “Kenosis” as a process. Let’s look at them both.


The “Paschal Mystery” (another way of saying “the mystery of Easter”) is precisely what it says: a mystery that has been witnessed, where Jesus dies, and, after three days, resurrects: i.e. is alive in a new/renewed way. Again, the purpose here is not to convert the reader to a particular faith tradition, but rather to help him/her enter the deep symbolism of the paschal phenomenon. Firstly, the sequence of event: first death, then renewed life. Put another way, for new life to come through, some things need to die first. In organisational transformation terms, this means that before we find new ideas, new ways of doing things – new solutions – we must first let go of what can no longer continue into the future. It is in that order that the process ought to unfold (just like it does, in fact, in Otto Scharmer’s U Theory): first we let go, then we let come.


Think a minute about how this applies to some of the key issues around ecological transition, and biodiversity preservation: first we set an objective, a deadline for the end of fossil fuels (based on what the planet can withstand, eg “keep all current reserves of oil in the ground”), and then we develop the processes (and the technology if needed), to transition towards that aim. First we say we stop glyphosate because it’s destroying our ecosystems (and our health), and then we mobilise the collective intelligence to make it happen.

IT IS NOT THE OTHER WAY ROUND !! We can’t say “wait, let’s just develop the technology, let’s just wean ourselves off, etc.” – because if we do it that way, it will never work, given how addicted we’ve become to these ways of operating.


Secondly, beyond reminding us of the sequence of things (death then life), the paschal mystery reminds us that it is a mystery: we don’t know exactly how it works, we can’t analyse it, break down every step in a reductionist way – we just have to trust that this is how life unfolds, through cycles of death, and rebirth. But for new life to come through, we need to let go of the old first; we need to make room for it to invite itself to the table. If there is no dying first, if no space is cleared, how can the new unfold?


The second aspect of Easter that is very interesting to dive into in order to think about organisational and societal transformation – or, indeed, regeneration – is a spiritual process called “kenosis”, which means “self-emptying”. This is what Jesus does, literally, on the cross, through his pierced heart – and it is that pierced heart that becomes a groundswell of love, and of generativity, for the world.

But in a way, this self-emptying starts much earlier in Jesus’ life, as he opens up more and more to accepting the will of God, for which death, leading to resurrection, is such a central focus. Kenosis, to quote Cynthia Bourgeault, is more than renunciation to something dear; it is rather the willingness to let things come and go without grabbing on to them.


What does this all have to do with organisational and societal transformation, you might ask? Well, everything! Because it is our clinging on to things (assets, roles, power, etc.) which keeps us stuck in patterns that are fast becoming destructive for us. And so this is the paradox of our modern society that the paschal mystery, and kenosis, reveal: when we invest money, time, energy to sustain ways of operating and ways of relating that are actually toxic for us, we are sure to end up with a painful, desolating death. But when we empty ourselves of all the things that we have clung to, but are now known to be harmful to us, when we let go and let die those things that can no longer continue into the future, when we choose, therefore, to engage with a type of death that is life-giving, then we will find new ways of working, operating, relating, that are much more life-giving; that will bring regeneration to ourselves, our teams and our organisations.


So, whether we are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, or something else, let us receive the symbolism of Easter with an open heart: for our organisations, and our societies, to engage in the regeneration that it is crying for, let us engage in the necessary kenosis, the “subtracting” that Leidy Klotz talks about, letting go of what can no longer continue into the future, in order to make space for the “new that is trying to be born”. This is what we, at Nexus, help our clients do.


Generative Dialogue: the 4 fields of conversation

Better known for his “U Theory”, Otto Scharmer has also worked extensively on Dialogue, together with his MIT colleague Bill Isaacs. In his pre “U Theory” days, he developed a very useful matrix to map out the various conversational fields that we could find ourselves in.

For him, there are 4 such fields:

  • Field #1: Talking Nice. Here we maintain harmony in the group, but at the expense of diving into the real issues
  • Field #2: Talking Tough: where we fall into debate and fail to work through the issues, mainly trying to prove we’re right and the other wrong
  • Field #3: Reflective Dialogue: where listening takes over, and individuals can start conveying their perspectives, without feeling judged nor trying to convince others
  • Field #4: Generative Dialogue: this is where meaning truly flows, where dialogue moves beyond interpersonal conversations, to enter a truly collective experience of meaning-making, discovery, and transformation

In this short video, Matthieu Daum presents in more details those 4 fields of dialogue, highlighting which ones are more likely to repeat patterns of the past, which ones hold most transformative potential – and how to avoid the former and foster the latter.