The way in which organizations can be most effective in achieving their goals is to tap into the perfection and unbounded energy with which they are naturally endowed. It is important to understand that vitality, the naturally occurring energy within all human systems, is the essential force for organizational success. Clearing away the barriers that interfere with the free flow of this life force energy is the best way to restore organizational health. The basic technique is to unblock the interpersonal pathways along which vitality runs. The process for achieving this unblocking is "expression and release," speaking the truth from the heart. "Continuous processing" within work teams is the best method for clearing the barriers to the free flow of life force and the creation and maintenance of effective organizations.
VITALITY IS THE NATURALLY OCCURRING ENERGY WITHIN ALL LIVING SYSTEMS.
It is within us as human beings and within all social forms we
create. Nothing need be done to generate vitality. It is a natural
life force that is always already there.
Vitality as a form of energy has a flow like water or electricity.
It runs naturally in an unbroken chain to its destination and
returns to its origin, endlessly recycling without effort. If
the path is unencumbered, vitality will continue to flow and cycle
without interruption, and serve as a source of boundless power
for human use.
The Primacy of Process Over Structure
Organizational process is the way things are done. Organizational
structure is the form through which they are done. For instance,
the structure for making decisions vests authority in a particular
role or group. The way in which the decision is made is the process.
Both structures and processes are important for enabling the free
flow of vital energy. Process, however, is primary because it
is through interpersonal processes that vitality either runs freely
or is blocked. Ideally, structures are established to support
processes that keep the channels clear.
Yet in practice the primacy of structure over process is common
in our contemporary organizations. To create organizational structures
for their own sake, or their conceptual elegance or because they
are fashionable in management theory, is a recipe for failure.
Conversely, structures that support processes that keep the energy
channels open are recipes for success.
Unblocking Vital Energy
"The Key to organizational success is to allow vitality to do the work for us."
What does it mean to "unblock" the barriers, and release
the natural tendency toward organizational effectiveness? Some
direction can be found in the ancient Chinese wisdom system called
Taoism. Taoism assumes tat the universe is inherently perfect.
The heavens and the earth are perfect, as are the trees, the animals,
and people. If allowed to unfold naturally, this perfection will
manifest in all worldly behavior. It is the unwise actions of
people, however, that interfere with the essential perfection
and cause the struggle and suffering we experience as human life.
A spiritually sound philosophy of organizations is based on the
wisdom that the perfection of the universe is always already there,
and that vitality emanates from this source. It is the job of
today's leaders to reverse the common historical priorities of
management. Effective leadership focuses primarily on removing
blocks in organizations which inhibit the free flow of vitality
and secondarily on putting in systems of managerial control. The
key to organizational success is to allow vitality to do the work
for us. Thus, leading an organization is like tending the flow
of a stream. We do not make the water run. We simply remove the
obstructions when they arise.
Unblocking can also be understood in the context of cathartic
psychologies, or emotional release based therapeutic systems,
in particular, the Gestalt perspective of Fritz Perls. The emphasis
in Gestalt is on "clearing of business." The therapeutic
device is the expression and release of negative emotional material
generated by past experience. Through this process we become clear
vessels for operating in the present.
The Gestalt perspective holds that without the burden of old business
there is a natural tendency to appropriately and effectively handle
the new business which arises in the course of daily life. The
belief is that there is a natural mechanism within us that supports
healthy growth and functioning. When there are no barriers in
the field to interfere with the natural process, this tendency
toward wholeness will emerge.
At the personal level, remaining clear involves opening to all
experience, feeling fully the negative as well as the positive.
If, in the moment, we avoid fully experiencing our difficult feelings,
we create "old business." The negative energy attached
to the feeling goes "underground," remains lodged within,
unchanged, clogging the inner pathways and inhibiting our ability
to act skillfully and naturally in the present.
To heal the wounding caused by this repressed material, we can
courageously choose to re-experience the pain and release it.
The process involves bringing the past into the present, recalling
the feeling, fully experiencing it, and opening to any insights
which may arise in the process. The healing can proceed even further
if we engage in a dialogue with the feelings, or the images that
arise out of them, as if they were actual entities that can converse
with us. Through the "dialogue" we can come to understand
hidden dynamics about which we have not been conscious, and free
ourselves for more effective action in the present.
At the interpersonal level, the process involves clearing the
energetic pathways between people that have been clogged with
the old business of unresolved interpersonal conflict. This can
be done between one individual and another, between on individual
and many, as in a boss with subordinates, or between one group
and another, as in management with labor.
Clearing involves individuals or groups coming together, experiencing
the feelings connected with their conflict, speaking the truth
of their feelings, identifying the sources of the irritation between
them, and releasing the antagonism that has grown out of suppressed
"Common sources of blockage to the free flow of vitality are secrecy, hierarchy, and 'psuedo-professionalism'." Common Sources of Energy Blockage
A healthy organization is built upon the combined pillars of relationship
and communication. Organizations are a series of relationships
and work is accomplished through them. Without sound, trustworthy
relationships there can be no effective action. Communication
serves to input into the system the necessary and correct information
which it needs to operate. Without clear communication efficiency
is impossible. Three common sources of blockage to the free flow
of vitality are secrecy, hierarchy, and "pseudo-professionalism."
Secrecy is so widespread in our organizations it almost appears
to be a fetish. Leaders ask for and expect secrecy in vast areas
of organizational life. Generally, whether there is a real need
for secrecy in any given area is not well thought out, buy is
the result of unexamined habit and fear.
Most efforts to restrict the free flow of information throughout
the organization are inappropriate and counterproductive. Modern
organizations are highly dependent on large quantities of accurate
information to perform well. When information is restricted, performance
is often adversely affected.
For example privately held businesses that are not required to
disclose financial information, limit such information to all
but a handful of senior managers. Many executives fear that if
others know their personal earnings or the exact extent of the
company's profit or loss there will be negative response on the
part of other member of the organization. But secrecy is the trouble.
It is counterproductive because it perpetuates mistrust.
In my experience with organizations that are secretive about financial
matters, those who remain uninformed almost always "fill
in" the knowledge gaps with their own personal bias. Two
typical patters are workers assuming the company is highly profitable
and has become so off the sweat of their brow, or business is
not going well and their jobs, security and life style are all
in jeopardy. In either case, the secrecy and its resultant feelings
are bad for individual performance and organizational productivity.
It inhibits motivation, creativity, cooperation and ultimately
Similarly, rigid hierarchy, a common organizational structure,
both in the public and private sectors, impedes the free flow
of vital energy throughout the organization. Often each level
of hierarchy acts as a barrier to the next, inhibiting the flow
of communication and relationships.
The flat or circular organizational form is superior to the vertical
pyramid form for facilitating the flow of vitality. Circular organizations
present the fewest blocks to open communication and cooperative
relationships. By circular I mean organizations that have a minimum
level of steps in the ladder of hierarchy and where all organizational
incumbents have equal status. That is, everyone is treated as
important, even if there are distinctions in authority and earnings.
Everyone is considered valuable and their input is sought in the
problem solving, planning, and direction of the company.
The third way in which organizations typically block the flow
of vitality is through a false sense of professionalism. The term
"professionalism," of the injunction "be professional,"
is most often used in our organizations to indicate that emotion
is not welcome in the work place. Leave your feelings at home
and come to work "all business."
"When leadership acknowledges the iportance of feelings, the work gets done more easily."
If one is burdened with anger or sadness arising out of events
at work, in our personal lives or from the mad state of the world,
it is considered "unprofessional" to express that at
work. As a response, not wanting to be unprofessional, we learn
to hide, suppress and ignore our true feelings in the work place.
Suppression of feelings is one of the major ways we lock the free
flow of life energy in ourselves and in our organizations.
When we create a dam against feelings, we build a dam that blocks
our energy. Physical and emotional depression is the result. When
we try to hide how we really feel - sad, mad or glad - getting
thins done becomes very difficult. We experience work as a great
burden. It begins to feel like walking through molasses or carrying
a boat on our shoulders along the riverbank.
Conversely, when we summon the courage to challenge this counterproductive
work norm, and express our feelings, we open the energy channels
and clear them. It's like taking the boat off our back and putting
it into the water. We experience great relief and the boat move
easily towards its destination.
When leadership acknowledges the importance of feelings and allows
and encourages their expression in the organization, the work
gets done more easily and well. One unusual and powerful example
of this occurred recently when my partner and I were called in
to address the organizational problems that followed soon after
the death of a central employee in a prestigious advertising firm.
People were stagnant, lethargic and confused. They didn't know
what to do or say, and thought it wasn't "OK" to express
the grief they were feeling while at work. The agency was at a
Though senior management initially requested that our intervention
be limited to making ourselves available for individual counseling,
we convinced them to allow us to hold a "circle" where
staff came together and expressed their feelings. Though for them
this was an unusual approach to organizational problem solving,
due to the gravity of the situation, they agreed.
As we sat in the plush offices of the large white waiting room,
all the employees gathered together. I began by asking that we
go around the circle and each person speak the "truth from
their heart" about what they were feeling. The sharing began
slowly, with some rather abbreviated and guarded comments. But
soon, as we proceeded around the circle, the quality of the expression
became profound. People spoke both of their joy and sadness at
having known and then lost their beloved colleague. The sense
of relief when we finished was palpable. It was obvious to all
that a great weight had been lifted, a major block removed, and
the rush of vital energy was again flowing freely and available
for creative work.
The senior managers who commissioned us, later reported that this
was the case. The lethargy and "deadness" in the atmosphere
had changed to dynamic movement through the inclusion, expression
and release of feelings in the work place.
"The basic technique for unblocking interpersonal pathways... is 'expression and release', speaking the truth from the heart."
Blocks and barriers to the free flow of energy will naturally
arise in organizations, just as drainage channels will naturally
fill with brush. Continuous processing is the ongoing maintenance
system to ensure that the channels through which vital energy
flow remain open, unencumbered and able to provide the natural
energetic power to fuel the organization's productivity.
Continuous processing as a component of organizational culture,
process and structure ensures that the pathways between people
and groups are continually cleared. The cultural component is
the organizational norm, engendered mainly by leadership, that
in this organization we expect people and groups to engage in
an ongoing clearing process, both one on one, and in group meetings.
When conflicts arise which generate hurt, wounding, resentment,
blame or defensiveness, it is understood that the leadership expects
people to confront these matters and rewards such behavior.
The process and structural components of continuous processing
involve the organization dedicating time and space for work groups
to meet regularly and do interpersonal clearing. It further requires
the organization provides resources for a skilled facilitator
and ensures that any such sharing will not result in recriminations.
It is critical that leaders weave into the fabric of their organizations
structures dedicated to clearing group and interpersonal blocks
for the sake of organizational effectiveness. Unaddressed interpersonal
blocks become group blocks. When two or more individuals in a
work group are carrying resentment, the rest of the group is affected
by it, and wider blockage results. Under these conditions people
do not feel free in the group atmosphere, they sense restriction
and "dance around it" at the expense of work efficiency.
If such blocks are unattended for long enough, the group will
experience a significant reduction in vitality. The constriction
becomes part of group life. Pathways are semi-permanently closed,
and it feels as if great effort is need to accomplish the most
simple tasks. People feel lazy, tired and uncooperative. All the
while the origin of this strange malaise lies in unresolved interpersonal
Leaders can help staff conquer the fear of confrontation. We tend
to "make nice" in order to keep things calm on the surface.
We avoid the difficult task of expressing our hurt and displeasure
because it is easier not to face the short run difficulty which
it may produce. We try not to offend others by confronting them
with our feelings because we are afraid it will be too unpleasant.
What needs to be understood is that despite the short run difficulty
that confrontation can produce, the long run benefit for the individuals
involved and the organization are enormous. Leaders must encourage
their staff to speak the difficult truth to others and discourage
hiding behind the thin veneer of "everything is OK."
The group process meeting or "circle" needs to be made
a safe place where the interpersonal clearing that has not been
done in a one to one format can be done in context of the group.
The purpose of the group is to provide such support and the facilitator
must be skillful enough to ensure that this is the case. The circle
is meant to be a safe place to "express" the wounding,
release the feeling so that it does not fester, turn into resentment
and adversely affect the functioning of the organization.
Participants literally sit in a circle whenever physically possible,
without any obstructions in the middle such as tables or chairs.
In the proper alignment everyone can see each other's face and
each person is equidistant from the next. (No hiding in the corners
Though it is best for everyone in the work groups to participate,
making it mandatory is not appropriate. Compulsion is not helpful
to the healing process. More importantly, to demand that someone
who does not believe in the process participate gives some the
perception that they have no other choice but to sabotage it.
Participation must be voluntary or it diminishes the spirit of
The circle is an extraordinary form. In many cultures it is sacred
and used in ways similar to what we have described here for both
physical and emotional healing. The physical circle itself facilitates
the process of sharing truth. It supports clearing and reconnecting
between people who have become disengaged. Because of its unique
form everyone is included and everyone is in relationship to others
in the circle. Each person can see the other clearly and address
them directly. Emile Durkheim, the classical French sociologist,
speaking of the sacredness of the form believed that humanity
first found religion when individuals stood in a circle and saw
their fellow humans in that way.
When blocks are removed through clearing in the circle people
experience a lightness, a natural high that motivated full commitment
to work. At the same time creative energy is freed, driving the
organization toward excellence. The energy that has been used
to hold the negative feelings below the surface is released and
available for effective action.
When an organization engages in continuous processing often processing
often problems that had previously appeared insoluble simply "go
away." They disappear because the energy holding them in
place is released. Or, cooperatively and easily generated and
In my consulting practice I have repeatedly seen problems that
leaders considered the most difficult and intractable simply dissolve.
They have been replaced by effective action very quickly after
process circles have become a regular part of organizational structure.
Most organizations do not and will not do continuous processing.
They will say it is too "touchy freely" or not business
oriented. The fact of the matter is continuous process has nothing
to do with touching, a lot to do with feeling, and everything
to do with business.
And yet, the vast majority of organizations in America get bogged
down, mired and stuck in chronic problems they seem never able
to overcome. Organizational life feels sticky, hazardous and not
very rewarding. Organizational effectiveness is limited, few fully
accomplish their purpose, and almost none realize their vast potential.
The way in which organizations can be most effective in achieving
their goals is to tap into the perfection and unbounded energy
with which they are naturally endowed. One side of this equation
for success is to understand that vitality is real and central
to organizational success. The other side is to recognize the
supreme importance of clearing way barriers that interfere with
the free flow of this life force energy.
The basic technique for unblocking the interpersonal pathways
along which vitality runs is "expression and release,"
speaking the truth from the heart. "Continuous processing"
is the method of clearing the barriers to the free flow of life
force and the creation and maintenance of effective organizations.
This article is a reprint of the article as it appeared in VISION/ACTION, The Journal of the Bay Area OD Network, Volume 12, Number 1, Spring, 1993.
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