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    Vitality and Organizational Health
    Howard Schechter
    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 resentment.

    "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 profitability.

    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 standstill.

    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.

    Continuous Processing

    "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 conflict.

    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 allowed).

    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.

    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 executed.

    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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