The Design Principles Evolve “Naturally” in the Workplace and the Need for a Scientific Foundation

In his PROSOCIAL Magazine article titled “The Design Principles Evolve Naturally”, Alan Honick describes how a group of stakeholders who couldn’t agree on anything came together to manage a forest ecosystem in Oregon. Without anyone coaching them, they spontaneously adopted the Core Design Principles that are formally taught to groups by PROSOCIAL.

Another example of the Core Design Principles evolving “naturally” has been brought to my attention by Benjamin (“Benji”) Schoendorff, founder of the Contextual Psychology Institute and a leader in the use of the Matrix as a rapid form of Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT), which has been incorporated into PROSOCIAL as a way to increase a group’s psychological flexibility (go here and here for more).  In this case the setting is the workplace rather than the wilderness, but the story is much the same—a model of cooperation, productivity, and well-being emerging like the proverbial Phoenix from the ashes of the soul-sapping business environment that makes so many people want to take their job and shove it.

You can read all about it in a book titled “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness”, by a management consultant named Frederic Laloux. An enthusiastic foreword is provided by Ken Wilber, a name that is likely to carry a lot of weight with some readers but not others, a point to which I will return.  Laloux uses a case study approach to illustrate an advanced form of consciousness and social organization that he calls “Evolutionary”. He also calls it “Teal” in a color-coding scheme that is useful for contrasting with other stages of consciousness and social organization. If you are scientifically inclined and your Woo-Woo alarm bell is beginning to ring, bear with me.

The companies described by Laloux span diverse business sectors and range in size from 100 to 40,000 employees, so Teal businesses are not confined to a narrow niche market. Whatever one might think of Laloux’s theoretical and inspirational framing in the first part of his book, Teal businesses accord beautifully with the theory underlying PROSOCIAL, including the following:

  • The overarching metaphor is that a business organization is a type of organism.
  • Small groups are a fundamental social unit within the larger organization.
  • The small groups are provided with an exceptional degree of authority to govern their own affairs (CDP7) and implement CDP1-6 exceptionally well.
  • Relationships among groups within the larger organization reflect the same principles (CDP8).

I highly recommend this book to readers of PROSOCIAL Magazine and thank Benji for bringing it to my attention. I won’t spoil the fun of learning about the remarkable details in companies as diverse as Morning Star, which processes tomatoes in America, to Buurtzorg, which delivers health care to neighborhoods in the Netherlands. For the rest of this article, I want to reflect on what it means for the Core Design Principles to evolve “naturally”.

The first and most obvious point to make is that the Core Design Principles usually don’t evolve in the modern business world, naturally or any other way. That’s why the companies described by LaLoux are so unusual. Special conditions were required for them to evolve into Teal businesses.

A second point is that each company’s path to a Teal social organization was highly idiosyncratic. All of the founders were offended by the standard business model and bold enough to try something radically new, but their efforts were informed primarily by their personal experiences and what seemed like common sense to them. As far as I can tell by the information provided by LaLoux, none of the founders knew or cared about any formal theory of human nature and society. Neither did they think about adopting a scientific methodology to study and improve performance.

A third point is that despite their different paths, the founders did converge on a common worldview that differed radically from the standard business worldview. Here is how Dennis Bakke, co-founder of the energy production and distribution company AES, describes the difference.

Standard Business Worldview

  • Workers are lazy. If they aren’t watched, they will not work diligently.
  • Workers work primarily for money. Hey will do what it takes to make as much money as possible.
  • Workers put their own interest ahead of what is best for the organization. They are selfish.
  • Workers perform best and are most effective if they have one simple repeatable task to accomplish.
  • Workers are not capable of making good decisions about important matters that affect the economic performance of the company. Bosses are good at making these decisions.
  • Workers do not want to be responsible for their actions or for decisions that affect the performance of the organization.
  • Workers need care and protection, just as children need the care of their parents.
  • Workers should be compensated by the hour or by the number of “pieces” produced. Bosses should be paid a salary and possibly receive bonuses and stock.
  • Workers are interchangeable parts of machines. One “good” worker is pretty much the same as ay other “good” worker.
  • Workers need to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Bosses need to hold them accountable.

AES Worldview

  • People are creative, thoughtful, trustworthy adults, capable of making important decisions.
  • People are accountable and responsible for their decisions and actions.
  • People are fallible. We make mistakes, sometimes on purpose.
  • People are unique and want to use their talents and skills to make a positive contribution to the organization and the world.

LaLoux rightly emphasizes a connection between a given worldview, or form of consciousness, and the social organization(s) likely to arise from the worldview. A company guided by the AES worldview will not inevitably adopt a Teal organization, but this outcome is much more likely than a company guided by the standard business worldview. To summarize: The “naturalness” of any given practice depends upon one’s underlying worldview, but there is still plenty of variation in the practices that can result from any given worldview, which can be selected upon based on their consequences.

Where does one’s worldview come from? Can we be more systematic about establishing a given worldview, rather than each person following his or her own idiosyncratic path? Can the worldview underlying a Teal organization be justified scientifically? That is what LaLoux attempts to accomplish in the first part of his book, building upon the work of Ken Wilber and likeminded authors.

Wilber is the author of “A Brief History of Everything” and many other books. He is described as the most widely read and translated author on consciousness studies in the world—yet he operates almost entirely outside the Ivory Tower. Few of my academic colleagues take him seriously or know about him at all. Something else about Wilber is that he wants to create a spiritual system in addition to a synthesis of knowledge. In other words, his writing is intended to inspire people to act, which earns him a large following outside the Ivory Tower but makes my academic colleagues squirm. They prefer to study knowledge purely for knowledge’s sake.

The upshot is that the first part of LaLoux’s book is likely to be embraced by some readers but dismissed by many others as New Age nonsense. Is there any real scientific justification for the worldview underlying a Teal organization? As it turns out, I have a lot to say on that subject, including an ongoing dialogue with Ken Wilber himself.

First, some background: If anything qualifies as a theory of everything, or at least a theory of every living thing, it is evolutionary theory. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky declared in 1973, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.  This boldness was confined to the study of nonhuman species for most of the 20th century, but now it is expanding rapidly to include all aspects of humanity, fulfilling Darwin’s original vision. Thus, evolutionary science as a whole is converging upon Wilber’s individual quest to derive a theory of everything, which required him to drop out of college altogether in the 1970’s.

Second, there is nothing wrong with wanting to inspire people and move them to action! Even the pursuit of pure knowledge is justified on the basis of the need for pure knowledge to make wise decisions. It is naïve to expect a strict division of labor between knowledge producers and knowledge appliers. Anyone who holds such a view does not occupy the moral high ground.  The science underlying PROSOCIAL is based on a position called Functional Contextualism and for this reason is called Contextual Behavioral Science (CBS). It is derived from a philosophical tradition called Pragmatism that was developed by thinkers such as William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Pierce, and John Dewey, who were directly inspired by Darwin’s theory. In short, a contextual behavioral scientist would not (or at least should not) be embarrassed or dismissive of Wilber’s attempt to move people to act on the basis of a synthesis of scientific knowledge.

It therefore remains to evaluate the synthetic efforts of Wilber and likeminded thinkers from a modern scientific (and especially evolutionary) perspective. Based on my own examination, I’m pleased to report that while Wilber can be accused of being an extreme generalist, he is committed to methodological naturalism and stays away from the Woo-Woo (by which I mean flagrant departures from factual reality) that is often associated with New Age thought. His four-quadrant Kosmos (not to be confused with the four-quadrant Matrix, although it is interesting to compare them) is very helpful for distinguishing the individual (top half) from the collective (bottom half) and the life of the mind (left half), which can accommodate multiple truths, from the physical world (right half), which can admit only one truth (e.g., mountains existed before people). I find the Kosmos easy to translate into modern evolutionary terms.

Other aspects of Wilber’s thought are more problematic, including a typology of stages of human history that is conflated with stages of individual human development. For example, I cringed when LaLoux, following Wilber and others, compared small-scale hunter-gatherer societies (a supposed early stage in human history) with the psychology of babies: “There are only a few remaining bands of people operating from this paradigm in the world today. However, child psychologists study what amounts to the same stage in newborn babies, who engage with the world via a comparable form of consciousness, where the concept of self isn’t yet fully separate from the mother and the environment.” This is a whopper that would cause most of my academic colleagues to stop reading further.

Apart from obvious stages of individual development (e.g., the transformation from a tadpole to a frog or tooth development and puberty in mammals) historical and psychological stage theories tend to be problematic from a modern evolutionary perspective. However, it is not my purpose to attack Wilber or LaLoux for the occasional whopper. I would rather join them in an effort to create a scientific worldview that leads to human thriving, tossing out the whoppers as we proceed.  My dialogue with Ken Wilber and like-minded thinkers began a year ago and continues.

What does all of this mean for readers of PROSOCIAL Magazine? First, it means that we have some detailed case studies of prosociality evolving “naturally” in a workplace environment to learn from, similar to the forest management example provided by Alan Honick. Reinventing Organizations is well worth reading for the case studies, regardless of what you might think about the Wilberian framing.

Second, we have shown that what evolves “naturally” depends critically on the underlying worldview, a point also stressed by LeLoux.

Third, the science behind PROSOCIAL provides an even stronger foundation for  Teal organizations than LaLoux’s Wilberian framework. Even better, PROSOCIAL is designed to engage groups in ongoing scientific inquiry.

Finally, PROSOCIAL provides an opportunity to engage in deeply philosophical issues while improving the performance of groups in a practical sense. I find this combination doubly intoxicating.

Spread the word. Share this post!

mm

David Sloan Wilson is President of the Evolution Institute and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. His most recent book is Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others.

1 Comments

  1. There is for sure important and relevant information in that book, and I’m really curious about it. Nonetheless, that quote comparing hunter-gatherers and the state of consciousness of a baby is really really really painful to read and, to me, really offensive. Actually, all that social organization / state of consciousness thing is really offensive in my perspective and unnecessary. I thought we were over that after 19th century’s eurocentrism in Anthropology. I think it’s very important to keep that part of Wilber’s theory out of this and to make sure people know we’re not supporting it.

Leave Comment