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5 March 2022

The Four Facets of Making Work More Human

Written by
Naryan Wong

In my efforts to create more human workplaces, I am often inspired by applying the principles of personal development to organizational development.  In some ways, organizations are very similar to individuals – both can be said to think and act, and both can be understood as a complex adaptive system arising out of interrelated parts.

One of the frameworks of human development that I often return to is the ‘Four Facets’ framework, which has been popular in Integral circles as well as with my friends at the Monastic Academy and Bio-emotive framework.  I find it to offer a comprehensive view of development, and I’ve been using it to guide my own development.  As its name implies, this framework refers to four interrelated domains of development: Waking Up, Cleaning Up, Growing Up, and Showing Up.

What I share here is my understanding of the framework, and how we might use it within an organizational context to create more human work.

The four facets for individuals

Wake up

This refers to the path towards enlightenment.  Through meditation and mindfulness, we become increasingly aware of our inner worlds – the interplay between body sensations, our urges and feelings, our beliefs.  As we deconstruct the structures of ‘self’, we can understand the nature of reality less filtered than before.

Clean up

Events in our past often leave imprinted lessons on our subconscious – patterns of behaviours that served us at one point, and now appear as automatic reactions in our present.  Through therapy and emotional processing, we can reveal these submerged patterns and integrate them into more helpful ways of thinking and acting.

Grow up

Thinking can be viewed as ‘pattern recognition’.  As babies, we learn to recognize patterns of sounds as words, patterns of words as sentences, and later we might see patterns in research that tells us something about how humans develop.  In the field of adult development, researchers have noticed that humans grow in their ability to recognize more and more complex patterns, with the wisest of us able to notice beautiful patterns that weave across all of life.  For the average person, this often reveals itself with ‘the highest level of abstraction you can meaningfully make use of’.

Show up

There are various descriptions of what this facet entails, though most point towards ‘purpose’.  Showing up is the evolving ways with which we relate to our purpose – how our actions align with our values.  Do you feel like you spend much of your time bored with work?  Do you feel like the universe is calling forth something from you, and every action is in service to this?

These four facets each have their own developmental streams – practices and frameworks that describe a progression, with later stages building and expanding upon prior capacities.  Each facet supports the development of others in a myriad of ways.  A few examples:

  • Waking up to the ways in which our experience is constructed is really helpful in our ability to Clean up and notice our emotional landscape
  • The Cleaning up process can help us to unlearn some assumptions we were subject to, revealing new complexities that further our Growing up
  • Each facet contributes towards how we Show up in the world, and connecting more strongly with our purpose can fuel our desire to increase our capacities

I suspect similar underlying patterns of development could hold true for organizations as well, and through a more multifaceted approach, our organizations could grow to become forces for good in the world.

🧘 Waking up an organization

What would it mean for an organization to strive for ‘awakening’?  How might an organization practice mindfulness?

Let’s consider the ways in which organizations already strive for self-awareness: through employee surveys, focus groups, conversations, financial reports, process documents, etc.  These functions typically aggregate sensory data from across the organization, feeding it up to the ‘heads’ of departments.  In some organizations, this information flow is heavily shaped by a desire to ‘present the right story’: instead of getting an accurate sense of reality, the heads get a filtered version of what’s going on.  In other organizations, the data is kept in silos, and the overall organization feels fragmented.

To wake up might imply a more holistic understanding of the organization, felt not just in the head, but in the body.  Where employees across the business are ‘in tune’ with what’s going on, and where honest information flows freely.  Decision makers have non-naive trust that when they speak to an employee, they’ll hear an unfiltered perspective that can then be integrated with the other perspectives they are listening to.

I’ve seen organizations that win awards for being a top employer, with executives who genuinely believe the culture is healthy.  The experience of many employees however is quite different – carefully monitored lines of communication and a culture where colleagues occasionally disappear without warning have led to low psychological safety and a fear of speaking up.

A more awakened organization would be less susceptible to bullshitting itself, and more likely to come into contact with reality.  On the inside, this might feel like the organization is actually listening to and caring for the individuals that work there.  The experiences of each employee matter to this organization.

🩹 Cleaning up an organization

Thomas Hübl, author of Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds suggests that patterns of trauma may emerge through collectively painful events, leaving scars in the culture.  In organizations, we may trace certain norms and behaviours back to major events in an organization’s history – lasting in institutional memory even after the original employees have departed.  I’m not speaking of big ‘T’ Trauma, but rather any impactful occurrence that creates feelings of fear and threatens employees’ sense of safety.

Examples might include:

  • A major layoff that was never explained to employees
  • An executive who regularly yelled at their staff
  • A large project that failed and brought down part of the business
  • Major lawsuits or a period of intense media criticism

These kinds of events may spark new norms designed to help employees avoid the perceived threat – like burying bad news, clinging tightly to simple stories, or distrusting other departments.  Sometimes it leads to the creation of new bureaucracies that reduce the freedom of employees.  In one firm that incurred a large data breach from a hacker, all cell phones and paper were banned at call center desks ‘to prevent private data from leaving the building’.  Call center agents who’d been with the company for decades were told they had to take down their pictures of family, remove their calendar, and of course – no more notepads to record customer follow-up details.  In one office, over half the agents took temporary leave shortly thereafter.

A more human organization might consider ways to heal these unhelpful patterns, and plan to notice and heal future wounds.  Just like with individuals, this work can be confusing, challenging, and hard to start.

I believe this facet has a lot of potential to explore, and a few things that I’ve found to be helpful:

  • Creating spaces where employees can explore these patterns safely and deeply.  An employee survey may not go deep enough, and a town hall may not have enough safety.  Perhaps smaller focus groups with anonymized reporting could help bring patterns & stories to light
  • Demonstrating ‘naming without blaming’.  These patterns must be ‘talk-about-able’, and in order for that to happen, we must let go of our usual pattern of assigning blame.  If blame is in the air, there will be incentive for some people to repress any awareness of the patterns we wish to change
  • Hold changes lightly – recognize the contextual nature of solutions and build in time to review the change in the future.  Perhaps after the present crisis is over, we may notice that some policies were an overreaction with unintended side effects

Crappy situations happen and we adapt to defend against them.  By learning how to relax again after, we can avoid living in stress, welcoming back our more creative and generative selves.

🌱 Growing up as an organization

There are many different theories of development, focusing on different paths of growth: ego, identity, ethical, complexity, and more.  One model that I’ve found to be helpful when thinking about organizations is the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, developed by Michael Commons and Francis Richards.

If we see an organization as a series of nested systems, we might notice that the number of layers that an organization manages may roughly correspond to the number of layers in their org hierarchy chart.  This would be referred to as ‘vertical complexity’.  There is also horizontal complexity, which could be thought of as how wide the org hierarchy chart goes – how many different systems exist at a given level of complexity.

Is ‘growing up’ for an organization simply adding layers of hierarchy or growing larger?  Not quite.  To grossly oversimplify, the stage of vertical complexity may be defined by three qualities:

  1. Higher-order actions are composed of their lower-order actions (E.g. a sales function is the sum of the actions of individual sales people)
  2. Higher-order actions organize actions at a lower-order, and lower-order actions are organized by higher-orders (E.g. The VP tells the director what to do, and the director does what the VP directs)

So far, this sounds very much like the hierarchy of an organization is related to the complexity, but it’s the third piece that makes all the difference:

  1. Higher-order actions organize lower-order actions in a non-arbitrary way – they must be somewhat explicitly aware of why they are organizing the lower-order components in this particular way (E.g. The CEO has a strategy that organizes each department to work in harmony towards a shared goal)

As we move up the organization’s hierarchy, the amount of complexity grows quickly – often outpacing the organization’s ability to make sense of the complexity.  Because the amount of information to be digested grows so quickly, it must be compressed through abstraction as it moves upwards.  The VP doesn’t need to read every customer complaint, but instead reads a scorecard of customer feedback.  The CEO doesn’t have time to read the scorecard, so receives a single Net Promoter Score number.

The number of org layers actually starts to hinder the ability for higher layers to design meaningful strategy, which raises the question – are many organizations held back developmentally, regardless of size?  Are the higher layers still using the same kinds of thinking to manage 500k employees as they were when they had 500?

Maturation along the ‘Grow up’ path might look like leaders developing new capacities to work with complexity:

  • Directors who deeply understand how to work with an incentive landscape beyond bonus payouts
  • VPs who can intentionally shift the culture of the department to improve results
  • CEOs who can leverage paradigm shifts to help the company to evolve in harmony with global trends

In an organization that is really harnessing the power of vertical complexity, I’d expect to see language used differently at each level, reflecting the layer of abstraction that is being organized.  As an organization develops across multiple facets, it wouldn’t simply be the executives that are thinking more complexly, but this thinking would permeate every layer.  The front-line sales person would understand why their actions contribute to the paradigm shift that the CEO is stewarding.

I suspect much of what feels ‘inhuman’ about work is a sense of chaos, of feeling out of control: when tasks are assigned from above that make no sense to the employee, when major organizational shifts cause earthquakes in the business, seemingly out of the blue and for no reason.  Organizations where strategy is actually understood more broadly may afford greater senses of meaning and belonging.

🧭 Showing up as an organization

A lot has been said about purpose in organizations, especially in creating meaning and motivation for workers.  Is there a ‘developmental pathway’ for organizations and purpose?  In individuals, the path towards purpose is usually a journey of self inquiry and discovery.  Unlike organizations, we aren’t born with a purpose written into our DNA, and this allows a continuous exploration of meaning.

Organizations however, are typically formed with a purpose or mission written into their legal entity.  How might they discover freedom in their expression of this purpose?

About 10% of workers in the US work in the nonprofit sector, and about 15% work in the public sector (government).  That leaves about 75% of workers working for for-profit entities, where the primary purpose is to earn profit for owners.

Is it fair to assume that while the organization’s main goal is perpetually growing profit, employees value things other than contributing to owner wealth?  Workers are more likely to value:

  • Making the world a better place
  • Connection with others
  • Earning enough money to survive
  • Challenge, growth and creativity

This mismatch in purpose isn’t necessarily at odds with each other, but these purposes do compete.  Anecdotally, in a head to head trade-off between purpose and profit, I haven’t seen profit lose.  Developing in the other facets brings a greater awareness to the role of purpose, and may in some cases threaten an organization that cannot shift purpose.

Even as I write this, I wonder if this perspective is too threatening, too radical.  As an organization wakes up to it’s deeper purpose as embodied by its employees, how will it reconcile its own raison d’etre?  As an organization grows up to understand the role it plays in economic and ecological systems, will it be capable of evolving to live in harmony with a healthy global system?

The four facets framework suggests that even one under-developed facet can hold back development of the other facets.  If my speculation is directionally accurate, I’d predict that purpose-driven organizations may have an easier time waking up, cleaning up and growing up;  that further development in those facets may increase the sense of meaning and connection to purpose experienced by their employees.

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I’m currently partnering with colleagues to write a book on how to make work more human.  There are so many ways to tell this story, and I offer this framework here in case it resonates with you, or unlocks some new ideas for your own mental maps.

The team of authors is aligned in our belief that more human organizations will play a major role in humanity’s future.  Workplaces can become more conscious of their impacts on their people and the world.  With increasing awareness, capacity and desire, organizations will be able to bring out the best in people, coordinating their actions to create a better world.

If you are working in this space, don’t hesitate to reach out!  I’m sensing an emerging movement and believe that more is possible together.

Naryan

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