Successful negotiation

Successful negotiation: It's not just about expanding the pie, it's about regeneration

A few weeks ago, I spent a very pleasant and interesting day in the company of a group of international relations students at John Hopkins University, guiding them to discover the topic of negotiation. The introduction to the topic took place through a game based on the famous 'prisoner's dilemma': as is often the case, many people are familiar with it from a theoretical point of view, e.g. because they have encountered it during their studies in economics or financial science, but in practice this rational knowledge is as if it became inaccessible, as I will tell you in the blogpost.

The prisoner's dilemma is a classic problem in game theory and explores rational decision-making when, between two or more individuals or groups, there is a possible open negotiation. For those unfamiliar with it, one starts by imagining that there are two criminals who have been arrested and detained in two separate cells, with no possibility of communicating with each other. Whoever is interrogating them offers each prisoner separately a plea bargain: if one confesses and the other does not, the former gets a reduced sentence, the latter a more severe one; if both confess, they get a moderate sentence, if they deny they both get the maximum sentence. The dilemma lies in the fact that the choices are interlinked and that if one of them confesses, the other risks a more severe penalty.

One of the games created to experience the dilemma first-hand, involves the formation of two groups and a point-counting mechanism that is illustrated in the box. The game is then repeated a certain number of times, to give players the opportunity to experience the consequences of their strategy and possibly play differently. Playing the game and then dealing with the underlying theory is fun and generates deep learning: the strong emotional experience that the game allows helps to fix the theoretical elements. The first time I happened to play it I was still at university, and although I had a good knowledge of game theory, I fell right into the trap of the 'fixed pie mindset', along with my team: an experience I have never forgotten.

The 'fixed pie mindset' is still repeated, rather punctually, with students or in the training rooms to which I propose the exercise. The 'fixed pie mindset' consists of the inability to 'enlarge the pie', exploring all possible negotiation factors and strategies, treating the other party as an enemy to be beaten.

Rationally, players know how they should behave, they often know, from a theoretical point of view, the different possible strategies of the game, but when they are involved in the actual experience, something very visceral seems to drive the choices. In the game, exactly as in the formulation of the two prisoners, there is an initial situation of isolation and impossibility of information exchange between the two or more parties involved working in separate rooms. Each group, at the beginning, has ten minutes to decide on its game strategy.

It is at this moment that fantasies about the other group's intentions begin and the certainty often arises in the group that, because the others have bad intentions, they must defend themselves. From this moment on, the win-win strategy is completely concealed.

Some observations during this phase in which groups deal with uncertainty and stress due to the pressure of time and the unknown situation:

  • Often groups discuss starting from a representation of the system that does not take into account the others, of how the scores are constructed, of the fact that the possibility of scoring positive points for one's own group is linked to how the other group will play: the difficulty of dealing with the complexity in the description of the system, of including the other in one's strategy, creates an illusion of simplicity and linearity of the game. This simplified perception then prevents one from seeing, in practice, that there is a collaborative strategy that allows one to achieve a sub-optimal result, of course - the best possible result for one group is when, systematically, one succeeds in making the other group play in a 'self-destructive' manner, but this, apart from pathological cases, is unrealistic - which is the one that allows both groups not to end the game with a negative score. Paradoxically, this strategy, lose-lose, is not rationally preferred, but in fact ends up being chosen.
  • When groups discuss what 'winning' means, 'scoring more points than others' is evoked: this is a perceptual phenomenon to which we will return later in the article.
  • It is difficult to perceive that, since oral communication is reduced, the communication system in the early stages of the game consists of the game moves and that in particular, the first move of the game will clearly communicate the players' intentions: the reduction of the possibility to communicate generates mistrust, this generates generally hostile first moves of the game, and the initial mistrust becomes a spiral from which it is then difficult to escape.
  • Sometimes one of the groups becomes aware of the race to ruin when playing with the competitive-only strategy and tries to change the game, but it is often too late and the climate of mutual distrust is now established.

There are two important conditions that cause the cake to be perceived as fixed: the first concerns expectations, and in particular the simplification of reality that consists in describing the system as 'win-lose'. Why does this happen? Explanations can go back as far as our evolutionary history, in particular to habits linked to survival and the struggle for the appropriation of resources. Habits that are then reinforced culturally, for example for organisations, by the metaphors used, on leadership or group dynamics.

The heavy use made, for example, of sports metaphors favours the activation of 'win-lose' representations. The second condition, linked to the first, concerns the transparency of information. Numerous researches in fact show how, despite the fact that it is now known that a clear and honest exchange of information on preferences and negotiating factors between the different parties can open up more efficient results in negotiations, the interpretation of the setting as only competitive leads to information opacity, generating real comedies of errors with unsatisfactory results for all.

This is what happened in the classroom with my students. When the idea of 'doing more than the others' began to circulate, the other group went from a group of nice fellow students and friends, with whom one will be in relationship for at least another year, to the 'enemy to beat'. At times when the two groups were allowed to converse, the sent ambassadors did not hesitate to lie. Competitive expectations have generated competitive and unfair behaviour, the winner takes it all, the cake is only one and I try to grab as big a share of it as possible.

This way of perceiving negotiation is called 'distributive' (wealth can only be distributed more or less equally between the two sides and the goal becomes to appropriate as much of it as possible). The game ended with both teams unhappy as they realised the negative points they had accumulated. The emotions verbalised were of frustration, anger, regret for the decisions made.

There is an alternative to the 'fixed pie mindset' and distributive negotiation: this is the 'integrative' model, which starts from expectations that are open to the possibility of cooperation even in a competitive setting, leading to greater transparency in the exchange of information and thus to the possibility that different and/or common interests may emerge, widening the area of possible agreement of the parties. But this type of negotiation, which is the one promoted among others by the model of the Harvard researchers, Ficher and Ury, and popularised in the famous text "Getting to Yes", only occurs in 40% of cases, according to a meta-analysis conducted by another group of researchers.

This 40 per cent is particularly worrying when we think about important negotiations, such as peace negotiations - and what is happening right now in the Ukraine peace talks should give us pause for thought - and in another type of negotiation that is crucial for our future, climate negotiations.

To these, John Bazerman of Harvard University and Don Moore of the University of Berkeley have devoted an interesting article in which they analyse the causes of the failure of many climate-related negotiation processes. The fixed pie mindset, with results that are losers for all, is due, as described in the article "The Human Mind as a Barrier to Wiser Environmental Agreements", to a number of factors, some generalisable to all negotiations, such as the competitive and simplifying complexity mindset model, applied indiscriminately, as we have illustrated above, and, again, other cognitive biases, in particular incompatibility of interests bias, information availability bias, anchoring bias, memory effect, again, the endowement effect - which pushes one to attribute a higher value to what one possesses, and thus to make fewer concessions.

Finally, the authors speak of 'pseudo-sacredness', i.e. the fact that the value formed in the market is not recognised as being within the area of possible agreement, because the emotional value attributed to the object is very different. The authors cite an example of this phenomenon, which occurred during a negotiation between an organisation promoting ecotourism, which highlighted the inability of the indigenous people to take care of their land (from their point of view) and the Mexican Lacandon Maya group.

The value attributed to the land and trees by the indigenous people was very high: they believed that, for every tree felled, there would be a star that would be taken from the sky and therefore that the forest should absolutely be preserved. An unmeasurable and transcendent value. Yet this group reached a negotiated agreement that allowed partial deforestation in favour of the development of eco-responsible tourism. "When they (the natives) were asked how they could agree to have the trees cut down, the answer was that the agreement was the best alternative to keep as many stars in the sky as possible. “

Certainly, the example is apt to illustrate a movement from distributive to integrative bargaining and, hence, a move away from fixed pie bias. Going further, however, we could make some assumptions about the deep and systemic pattern that drives this arrangement. Even with all the good intentions (ecotourism, respect for the land, regeneration of the forest, etc.) in this example there is the idea of a paternalistic capitalist system that 'saves' the indigenous people from possible destruction due to their beliefs - accused of not managing the land according to 'eco-responsible' criteria decided by the buyers, particularly with regard to fishing and hunting.

But in an interesting analysis of the case, by anthropologist Valentine Lousseau, (follow the link for more information ) it is specified that "the use made of the Lacandon area has always aroused the interest, if not the wonder, of foreign observers. Ethnologists, biologists and ecologists have praised the efficiency of a production and resource extraction system that is said to be perfectly adapted to the tropical forest ecosystem".

In this example, as in many negotiations on climate and the exploitation, expropriation and dispossession of land, there is a reference system, a fixed mental model, the market, which is never questioned and which guides the analysis (even of Harvard researchers) and the final decision, including the enlargement of the cake. We have seen, however, how this model contains within it a great shadow, an interpretative distortion that forces the actors within a competitive system, which in the climate negotiations leads to the results we are currently experiencing, one of which is the failure to agree on the limits of CO2 emissions that lead to the disastrous greenhouse effect, which will make this planet uninhabitable much sooner than was foreseeable. The pie metaphor carries within it something deeply related to a market and consumerist paradigm. The cake, whether fixed or variable, still refers to consumption, to the moment when it will be eaten and will no longer exist.

An alternative is perhaps in a different way of thinking, which is no longer how to enlarge the pie within the same system of rules and ways of reading and operating, which take us back to the same errors and routines of behaviour. We could ask ourselves if the 'fixed pie mindset' instead how to rethink, at a deeper level, the basic assumptions from which we start. A pie that is no longer, therefore, 'inside' the system, but the system itself and its unquestionability. The paradigm of regeneration (whose principles you can read about on the blog), linked to ecosystem functioning and naturally complex, would lead us, for example, to ask ourselves: rather than enlarging a cake that will be eaten anyway, what choices lead to regenerating life rather than just consuming it, in a system in which we, the other party, and the environment, are constantly in relation?

And you, dear readers of our blog, what do you think?

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.


Modèles mentaux, racisme subtil et chocolat : une révélation

Mental models, subtle racism and chocolate: a breakthrough

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.


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.






About Overview Effect, Bateson levels and learning for the future

As a child, one of my dreams was to go into space. I imagined myself inside a space capsule watching the Earth slowly recede through the porthole and the Moon and planets gradually become more visible. Reading 'Lucky Star and the Moons of Jupiter' helped to make this dream even more detailed. My dream has now become more and more realisable, the first 'tourist' trips into space are beginning (the appropriateness and popularity of these trips with respect to CO2 production could be debated) and for some time now, articles on the so-called 'Overview Effect' have been increasingly coming to my attention. What does Overview Effect mean? The name was invented by Frank White, who first used it in 1987, in his book entitled 'The Overview Effect'.

It is a collection of experiences described by astronauts who went into space, and who described themselves, not so much about the engineering part of their journey, but about the emotions they went through. The astronauts who have travelled after the release of the book were thus able to benefit from a concept to describe the strong and confusing emotions they felt during their journey, particularly when looking at planet Earth from a unique perspective.

A very special point of view, which provokes an experience that we can define as transcendent (a very tangible 'going beyond'), a deep and lasting inner movement as described by the astronauts who experienced it: a mixture of compassion, tenderness, vulnerability, awareness of belonging to a whole.

An unconditional and universal love felt for the Earth, seeing it so distant and fragile, which makes it possible to interpret oneself and the world through this lens after this type of experience. Embedded in the Overview Effect is the profound feeling of belonging, the end of separation from the Earth, the awareness of being producers of the contexts in which we live that Bateson talks about in 'Steps to an Ecology of Mind'.

If I mention it in this post, it is because the photographs that accompany the description of the Overview Effect are a first "madeleine" that reminds me of my childhood dreams; the second "madeleine" for me is the connection I made between the Overview Effect and my dissertation on creativity and learning, and it is this I would like to talk about in the blogpost after this somewhat lengthy introduction.

An important part of my thesis was in fact dedicated to defining what 'learning' means, a topic that fascinated me then and now, to the extent that I have made it the focus of my work. One of the milestones on the subject is undoubtedly Gregory Bateson's theory of 'levels of learning'. Basically, Bateson, building on Whitehead and Russel's Logical Types theories and cybernetic models, formulated a theory of learning that allows learning to be defined on 4 logical levels (very interesting in relation to learning in Bateson, the whole subject of paradoxes but not the subject of our blogpost).

Below are Bateson's levels of learning described in extreme synthesis, with an example that will serve to clarify the link between Bateson's theory and the Overview Effect.


  • Level 0 - involves only a simple response to a stimulus (automatic learning, no reflexivity). This is, for example, the case when very strong stereotypes operate that generate rigid thinking routines that only allow obligatory responses to stimuli, with no possibility of alternatives. For example, take the case of a company that has produced waste and always throws it in the same spot in the sea. There is no other type of response available to them, throwing it in that spot is automatic, the routine of thought (or the mental scheme of the absolute priority of profit) does not allow them to see any alternatives.


  • Level 1 - involves choosing our response to the stimulus from among several alternatives in the same set. In this type of learning, it is therefore possible to change, in the specificity of the response, by correction of choice errors, within a given set of alternatives: the learned response remains appropriate only in that particular context, which must therefore occur the same again. Classical Pavlovian conditioning is an example of this type of learning. In our example of waste, one can decide to throw it in one place in the sea but also throw it in another place, because one realises, for example, that it is cheaper than the first. The different landings on the sea constitute the different alternatives in the set of choices.


  • Level 2 - In learning at this level, we are aware that alternatives may also be found in other sets: learning is thus about the change in learning process 1, a correction of the set of alternatives within which the choice is made. One is thus aware that choices occur within a given system of alternatives and is able to see and change sets of alternatives. So, to return to our production of waste, one can decide to throw it in the sea, but knows that there are other sets of alternatives, such as burning it, burying it, etc. Still it is only the profit principle that guides us.


  • Level 3 - This learning is very rare. It is the learning that occurs through the perception of the system of subsets of alternatives and in which the possibility of changing it is perceived. It occurs by being able to see sets of different contexts in which alternatives exist. In this type of learning 'the self becomes almost irrelevant and is no longer essential to the description of experience'. Insight occurs when we have an experience that puts us in deep contact with our interconnectedness with context, with the Cosmos, with Nature, with the realisation that we are not separate from it but integrated with it and that our choices change our future possibilities.


Learning 3 is rare because it occurs when the cognitive system is profoundly shaken (e.g. in a therapeutic situation or a mystical experience) and, Bateson says, almost bordering on pathological. One possible pathological pathway of learning 3 is precisely psychosis. If we return instead to the 'physiology of learning', and to our case of waste, type 3 learning could occur in a moment of profound awareness of the fact that by producing waste and dumping it in Nature we are actually intervening in our context and modifying it, thus threatening our chances of future survival.

The goal of personal profit is no longer a priority. This kind of learning starts from an important premise, which is to be able to perceive ourselves no longer as detached but in connection and communion with Nature. We can choose, for example,  to stop producing waste by rethinking our production process in a circular form, for example, so that waste becomes an input for another production process.

Two scientists, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, are the authors of a fascinating (but also controversial) theory, the famous 'Gaia hypothesis', according to which the Earth is a single living, breathing being composed of different living beings. According to this hypothesis, interconnectedness is not just a way of perceiving, of learning our contexts, but something more. Reducing complexity and feeling separated from it makes us impervious to empathy and suffering for how we treat Gaia, our planet-living being.

The Overview Effect is an interesting perspective to ask ourselves: how can we regenerate our view of the world? How can we generate the same personal movement that allows astronauts to never be the same again, once they have experienced this Effect? How do we access learning 3 about our human condition on this planet? How, collectively, to gain insight that leads us to radically rethink our production systems and our relationship with the Earth?

Learning 3 has a very strong spiritual component. The astronauts who were interviewed by Frank White spoke of spiritual alignment, of the transcendence of experience. Perhaps one way to feel this wave of love and tenderness towards our common home is to collectively and truly open ourselves to this dimension.

Que votre intention soit simple

Let your intention be simple

These days I have the enormous privilege of co-facilitating a group with a formidable Jesuit priest. We jokingly tell each other that I am in charge of the psychosocial part and he is in charge of spirituality, but we actually form an integrated pair!

The word intention comes from the Latin in tendere, to tend towards, to turn towards. Among the various meanings of the word 'intention' that you can find in any dictionary, there is one that is particularly interesting: in medicine, intention is in fact the act of bringing the edges of a wound closer together to allow healing to take place. This meaning refers to the regeneration of the skin, to the possibility of healing by bringing together what was separated because it had been wounded.

During our work together with the Jesuit father, at a certain point it became necessary for the group to have difficult conversations between some of the members in order to truly act as a collective around a common purpose. And this is where we came to the topic of intention and its clarification.

When I decide, for example, to start a difficult conversation, what is my intention? Is it an intention that really wants to regenerate? And it is this point that the Jesuit father's (and Ignatius of Loyola's) contribution was illuminating.  Before we face these difficult conversations, in fact, a question that can help us explore intention deeply is "Is my intention in having this conversation straight?" and straight means simple, not mixed with others.

Sometimes intentions can be confused, folded (just the opposite of simple, simplex, sem-plectere, folded once). If our intention is really to heal, to mend a wound, it is therefore important to remove what is mixed up with it (narcissistic, manipulative, unfriendly desires towards the other...) and to remain with the 'straight', healthy, pure intention, to which other intentions are not mixed up, which make it strategic, Machiavellian and which feed mistrust and suspicion, making us obtain, instead of the result of healing, mending the wound, exactly the opposite result: wounds that no longer regenerate.

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 !


Feedback fallacy

Feedback? No thanks!

Antonio, marketing director of a multinational company, is a firm believer in the practice of 'continuous feedback' that has recently been introduced in the performance management cycle. Antonio thinks that, precisely through feedback, it is possible to develop the soft skills of his employees, not only their technical skills. That is why he never misses an opportunity to have individual interviews to give feedback on their assertiveness, on the empathy shown in relationships, on their ability to read the needs of internal and external customers. These weekly interviews begin with a series of so-called 'improvement' feedback, given on the parts of performance that did not satisfy Antonio, and end with a series of reinforcement feedback, on the parts of performance that were effective. Antonio is certainly a capable and exemplary manager, and the practice of feedback should certainly be encouraged - I think of how many people I have come across in organizations who have no idea what their managers see of their performance. In light of an interesting article, appearing in HBR 2019, by researchers Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall of ADP we can ask ourselves whether this ongoing practice is really beneficial for people's learning.

This blogpost will explore some questions, starting with observed practices and literature on the topic and in particular: does continuous feedback always increase our awareness? Does it always make us grow? Is it always a generator of learning? Providing, in the final part, some practical management ideas.

These questions recall certain beliefs and habits of thought with respect to feedback, derived largely from models inherited from a past in which the level of scientific knowledge had not yet allowed for the interdisciplinary understanding of its effects that we are beginning to have today, thanks also to IRM. I am thinking, for example, of a model I love very much, the famous Jo-Hari Window, created by Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham, named after the initials of its creators. And how much I have always enjoyed sharing with students and course participants an almost magical story about the fact that 'johari' in Sanskrit means 'he who possesses treasures and jewels' (I think read in a note in Enzo Spaltro's essay 'Subjectivity'). This hidden and mysterious meaning has always seemed to me a magical metaphor for how valuable the activity of giving and receiving feedback is in adding precious pieces to our identity, which we would otherwise have no way of integrating.

But some recent findings, particularly on negative feedback, show us how thinking that we will always achieve a goal of personal and professional growth through feedback can prove deceptive. This is the 'feedback fallacy' explored through different research by Buckingam and Goodall. For example, according to research by their ADP institute on the needs of the Millenial generation, the demand for more attention is confused with the demand for 'more feedback'. In reality, the underlying need would rather be for an audience to be attentive to them, as happens in social networks when people receive stars, hearts, likes.  Thus, when we adopt processes of 'radical transparency' or 'hard feedback' that consist of putting people at the centre of a continuous stream of feedback, negative or positive, we are questionably responding to a current need. In fact, while 'procedural' negative feedback, that of correcting operational errors, helps us to correct ourselves and is always useful, total feedback that describes performance through strengths and weaknesses even on behavioural areas such as assertiveness, risk-taking, overview, empathy, etc. presents the risk of being even harmful and we shall see how.

Buckingam and Goodall in their research identified three mental models, three biases, that guide our use of feedback without being questioned:

  1. The 'source of truth' model according to which the other who observes us, has the more or less objective truth about our performance. In reality, the other has only a partial, fallacious and subjective perception far from absolute truth. If we take, for example, a typical behavioural competence, 'Overview', even if it is declined and described by related behaviours, it is evident that arriving at a precise and measurable perception is practically impossible. This fallacy becomes evident in 360° feedback systems, which, by putting together numerous perceptions, give us the illusion of arriving at a good average approximation. The basic fallacy, however, remains that of thinking that by averaging together perceptions distorted by a set of biases, we can arrive at something precise.
  2. The 'bridging gaps through learning' model. According to this model, there are target competencies for each role and those not possessed must be learned. It has, however, been discovered more recently that neuronal connections are mainly generated where other connections are already present, whereas it becomes more difficult to create new ones. When the brain receives positive feedback, the signal received is that someone appreciates what we are doing and this creates the possibility of generating new connections and learning. Negative feedback, on the other hand, produces the activation of the 'fight or flight' survival mode and the stress generated not only does not produce learning but reduces it. This result is counterintuitive to so many slogans about the need to 'leave one's comfort zone': on the contrary, learning, creativity, productivity are generated within it or with careful accompaniment to cross the 'survival mode' zone, not just by leaving the person with negative feedback.
  3. The third mental model is the 'excellence theory' according to which there is an excellent way to achieve goals. And this assumption is also easily disassembled. There is an excellent way when tasks are repetitive and mechanical, but in complex contexts it becomes difficult to select a single way to excellence. It is even more futile, according to the researchers, to think of arriving at excellence through the correction of failures, which leads, perhaps, to the development of adequate performance, since excellence for different people takes different forms. Removing subjectivity from performance therefore does not lead to an alleged 'objective excellence'.

What to do with the results of these studies? Stop giving corrective feedback?

The answer, supported by research on the effects of 'informational' feedback that is given to correct performance, is definitely 'no': since it is feedback that is given to correct concrete actions, immediately comprehensible to the receiver, we can continue to give it - with all the necessary precautions. A circumstantial feedback, focused on the specific action, as close as possible to the moment when the error was perceived. This type of feedback is perceived as non-threatening, shifting the focus from the negative emotions due to the error made, to the task and the need to perform it correctly. It is therefore useful to provide information that allows the error to be corrected.

Feedback, on the other hand, which aims to correct more complex behaviour, such as relational skills, must be handled more carefully.

In particular, thinking about the three mental models highlighted by research, which produce the 'feedback fallacy' feedback givers can:

- Adopt an attitude of 'humility' and openness to a different story emerging: it is a perception, not the truth, we may not have grasped the full complexity of the action;

- Emphasise strengths. This helps to consolidate learnings within people's comfort zone and reinforce what they do well, particularly if done at a time when we see people's talents being expressed. "Yes that's exactly it!!!" said at the moment when excellence happens works much better than an objective and impersonal description of what should be;

- Starting from the self and not from the other or the other. What we are seeing makes us think about, how we receive it, what emotions and interpretations we give with respect to what is happening and also what we would have done differently; on this the matrix of the generative speaking, which you will find within this blog, can provide useful practical insights for this conversation;

- Helping the person connect the past, the present, the future. Theory U, which is based precisely on this ability, from the present, to be in connection and in continuity with the past and future, may prove to be a really useful frame to avoid "downloading" and instead direct feedback to the future we wish to build together.

- Finally, one possibility, more in the order of diversity management and beyond, of organisational citizenship, is to compose teams with people who bring difference: people who are different in terms of skills, cognitive styles, origin, gender, age, etc., so that we can reinforce the strengths of each and every one and leverage the complementarity of skills rather than making immense efforts to create them where it is most difficult.