Archive for Design

Dehumanization of Work

10/1/09  Hi Lisa,

Thank you so much for your gracious comments. It’s wonderful that our minds can interplay notwithstanding our constraints and commitments-you within an intellectual orchard, and me within a psychological sarcophagus.

 Lisa, you ask if I would like to see the discussion move up a little. I believe I would find it easier on the eye, if you don’t mind. I keep trying to post directly but the site simply won’t let me in. I will attempt again on the weekend. I also have a new e-mail address I’ll forward to you when time permits.

I’ve been doing a lot of demolition and re-construction on my Mythology of Organization. The wrecking ball has been my so-called ‘theory of thralldom.’

In closing, I thought you might enjoy a quote from Freire:

“People are fulfilled only to the extent they create their world, and create it with their transforming labor. If for a person to be in the world of work is to be totally dependent, insecure and totally threatened-if their work does not belong to them-the person cannot be fulfilled. Work that is not free ceases to be a fulfilling pursuit and becomes an effective means of dehumanization” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, p.126).

Bye for now,


Towards a Learning Organization (A presentation by Carman De Voer Mais)

Carman De Voer Mais has developed a fresh and insightful PowerPoint presentation on learning organizations. He makes the important point that becoming a learning organization isn’t something that “patched on” to the existing organizational paradigm, but rather a transformation of both the paradigm and the players.  I’m going to try to share that presentation with you here.  This is my first attempt to provide a file link in WordPress, so it may take a few tries …

Carman, I hope your cold has lifted!


Thinking Creatively, Building Effectively by Carman De Voer Mais

Towards the Re-Humanization of Work

Hi Lisa, Two elements that strike me about the Cave allegory are:

1) Dehumanization
2) Degradation

Interestingly, The Free Dictionary links dehumanization with mechanization:

1. To deprive of human qualities such as individuality, compassion, or civility: slaves who had been dehumanized by their abysmal condition.

2. To render mechanical and routine.

Given the resurgence of Scientific Management with its systematic reduction of the human being to the status of automaton I would agree with Morgan’s characterization of most organizations:

“it may seem more appropriate to talk about organizations as prisons rather than as psychic prisons, since the exploitation and domination of people is often grounded as much in control over the material basis of life as in control over ideas, thoughts, and feelings” (p.248)

I believe Morgan referring to a state of bondage or control from which people cannot easily escape—especially with families to feed. However, I would characterize most organizations as both psychic and literal prisons. We routinely hear about “minimum” wage, and union and legal “protection.”

It thereupon occurred to me that a pre-occupation of the Ideal Cave Leader would be human rights and freedom. Interestingly, The Fifth Discipline calls for “a new organization…that is more consistent with human nature” (p.351). The implication being most organizations are not “consistent with human nature.”

In Plato’s allegory the Leader strives to enlighten and emancipate those immured in the Cave. As the aegis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( I believe Eleanor Roosevelt exemplifies Plato’s Ideal Leader.

Article 23 (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

Article 26 (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Mrs. Roosevelt declared: Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world.

Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood s/he lives in; the school or college s/he attends; the factory, farm or office where s/he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. (pronominal changes mine)

How beautiful! However, it seems to me that many of the chained prisoners are more captivated by the shadows cast by puppeteers like Frederick Taylor (“You are not supposed to think. There are other people paid for thinking around here.”—Morgan p. 25) since they “are in the habit of conferring honors among themselves” (to quote Socrates) and derive material benefit within such self-sealing environments.

What do you see when you peer into the “Cave” Lisa?

Bye for now!


Morgan, G. (1997). Images of Organization. Second Edition. Sage Publications. London.

Senge, Peter. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: the art and practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday: New York.

From The Ideal Leader, 2009/02/15 at 5:58 AM

Transformative, holistic learning

Carman, Sorry for the long delay! My executive and career coaching practice includes working with people in career transition, and, unfortunately, many people are needing this kind of support right now.

Regarding transformation, you wrote:  “It changes ‘how’ we know. Change thus appears to involve the re-perception of reality. [It…] involves the ‘deconstruction of a given world-view and its replacement by a new world view.’ […] I believe it is superfluous to talk about collective (organizational) transformation without first clarifying individual transformation.”

Yes, I agree whole-heartedly. I suspect the reason many change efforts fail is that real transformation hasn’t taken at the individual level, and for change to hold, leadership must be transformed as well (hence, of course, the term “tranformative leadership”).

And, yes, I would also agree that personal transformation involves a re-perception of reality, such that the desired changes can be seen as a natural and normal part of being in the world (or organizations).

For example, most people would agree that the value of charity — lending a hand to those who need it — is a good one. However, behaving charitably does not come naturally to everyone — otherwise, there would be less want in the world. If our perspective is that the world is a collection of separate beings in competition for scarce resources, and we feel fearful, we might publically endorse the concept of charity, but not live by it. Rather, this world view leads to a different value, which contradicts the espoused value. This creates a culture in which it is understood that we say one thing and do another.

Similarly, in organizations, it’s not uncommon for people to espouse one value and then act in a way that is contrary to the value.

So, it’s interesting to consider the dynamics of that transformation… how does it happen?

Another consideration is the system itself. In this blog, I’ve primarily emphasized change from the inside out. There is also change from the outside in. In a nutshell, every worldview generates values and a structure of living in accordance with that view. If we are able to create a change in the structure, we may find that experience, perspective and attitudes change as well. 

For example, when I entered the field of software engineering years ago, women engineers were still a rarity, and I experienced some pretty blatant discrimination. In retrospect, I’m sure I was an affirmative action hire. Still, I did an exceptional job, and so did many other women. Over the years, affirmative action created a climate where the presence of women was considered more normal, and discrimination dwindled. 

Another example is compensation or performance management systems. We may prefer to behave in one way, but the system may shape our behavior in another…

Usually, the problem with this outside-in approach is that the structure is not strong enough for the new behavior to hold long enough to cause a change in perception.  It comes back to the perspective of human beings.  

That said, ultimately, for change to be sustained, the entire system, inclusive of psychology, sociology, organizational structure, processes, performance management system, culture, etc. must shift to be in sync with that change. This is, of course, the broader topic of organizational learning. It’s the systemic nature of this transformative learning, which I attempt to capture in my transformational-holistic-learning model.

It’s another full week for me, but hope to connect again, soon.

Vision and Limits: Creating a Space for Learning and Innovation

Carman writes: Hi Lisa,  I’ll try to paraphrase your questions:

1. Is emergent (bottom-up) organization compatible with goals and direction (top-down)?

2. When is the imposition of limits appropriate?

Morgan explains that “the intelligence of the human brain is not predetermined, predesigned, or  preplanned. Indeed, it is not centrally driven in any way. It is a decentralized emergent phenomenon. Intelligence evolves.” (p.94)

Morgan calls vision, norms, values or limits “cybernetic reference points.” Though they guide behavior and prevent complete randomness they also create a valuable space “in which learning and innovation can occur.”

To return to the example of the trainees:

Managers seem to have slain the goose to get the golden egg (forgive the worn-out analogy). Conversely, by referring to the philosophy (vision and values) of the organization they might have avoided short-term thinking (and the tyranny of targets!) and encouraged the emergence of new behaviours.

For example, might trainees eventually have fostered more effective ways of serving clients (and accomplishing goals)? Might such behaviour have enabled new insights and learning for managers? In short, could managers have learned from learners?

Tomorrow we can discuss single-loop versus double-loop learning if you like Lisa. Once we have beggared the brain metaphor perhaps you would like to select the Morgan metaphor that especially interests you.

Well, I’m off to the Stanley Park seawall, which I love to walk each weekend. Sometimes I see seals and sometimes they see me. Heavy fog in Vancouver today. Reminds me of a Conan Doyle novel. Sweet symphony from KUWY (on computer) without and Starbucks coffee within–the Lark is ascending!

Bye for now!

Carman,  It’s such a treat to read your posts!  Yes, I look forward to your thoughts on single-loop and double-loop learning.  Are you familiar with Robert Hargrove’s triple-loop learning model?  It heavily inspired my (current) transformative-holistic learning model:

Your day sounds very pleasant! We’ve had a taste of summer-like weather here the past few days in Southern California, and it makes me look forward to the long, warm days, again.

Talk soon, Lisa

Defining the space of managerial freedom to avoid noxicants

More from Carman de voer:

Great questions Lisa, Perhaps I could begin to address them through a practical illustration:

I recently heard about a professional bureaucracy that is experiencing high turnover of its trainees—which, in such an organization, is surprising given the time, money and personnel allocated to training.  Furthermore, neophytes exhibit enormous enthusiasm and commitment.

In terms of the brain metaphor (cybernetics) the organization could pursue the following:

Ask questions:

1) What is it about our culture that contributes to high turnover? What do trainees tell us (via exit interviews)? How might the workload exceed the limitations of trainees? What kind of treatment do trainees receive once on the job? Is it civil or uncivil? In other words, surface noxiants.

Avoid noxiants: (set limits on undesirable behavior):

2)  Don’t browbeat. Don’t overload (with information). Don’t exceed the capabilities of trainees. Don’t impose unreasonable deadlines. Don’t proscribe social [professional] interaction with co-workers.

Morgan says: “Cybernetics shows us that effective management depends as much on the selection of the limits that are to be placed on behaviour as on the active pursuit of desired goals” (p.99)

I would like to further delve into your questions tomorrow Lisa (I’m off to work now).

Bye for now!

Working with interruptions? Not smart!

As a brief departure from our current discussion, I recently heard that when we are regularly interrupted by ringing telephones, email announcements, and visitors, that our IQ drops by about 10% – the same level of impairment found in people who are under the influence of marijuana. The colleague who shared this information with me joked, “All of the impairment, none of the benefits.”   

Most of us who have worked in an environment with frequent interruptions know that it materially affects our productivity, as well as our stress levels. It is the oppositive of the flow state, in which we tend to be extraordinarily effective. 

In our current age, which has been called the information or innovation age, the success of our organizations depends on the intelligence, creativity and effectiveness of people, who are many times also the biggest investment of the firm.  How can we make sure that our organizational members are as creative and effective as possible?

Some time and activity management experts recommend that we cultivate the habit of setting aside uninterrupted work time on a regular basis, to make progress on our most important projects — that we schedule appointments with ourselves in the same way that we schedule them with others.  The key is to let people know when you will be responding to email and phone calls.

Yet, some corporate cultures do not support this practice, prefering that its members always be available for questions at any time.  (It would be interesting to compare their results with organizations that manage this issue more strategically!) 

What is your experience?  What practices work well for you?

The Power of Situation – The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo in 1971 at Stanford University to explore the question of the power of situation to shape the moral behavior of participants. The role play involved simulating a prison in the basement of one of the buildings at Stanford. The study recruited male college students in good mental health and no history of violence as volunteers and randomly assigned them roles as guards and prisoners. The simulation was made as realistic as possible: “prisoners” were arrested by actual police officers, the guards were given uniforms and the prisoners were made to wear prison attire. The professor assumed the role of prison superintendent.

The situation quickly deteriorated: When the prisoners rebelled on the morning of the second day, the guards asserted their dominance through increasingly sadistic punishments that prefigured the abuses later seen in Abu Garib. By the fifth day of the experiment, five of the students needed to be released due to extreme stress; the others collapsed into numbed and docile obedience.

Professor Zimbardo observes that his own perception also seems to have been distorted. It was only when a colleague, Assistant Professor Christina Maslach visited the “prison” and pointed out to him the awfulness of his actions in allowing the experiment to continue, that Zimbardo was fully able to appreciate its human cost. He had to pull the plug on the experiment after only six days.

As Zimbardo writes, “We had created a dominating behavioral context whose power insidously frayed the seemingly impervious values of compassion, fair play, and belief in a just world” (3).

This experiment demonstrates the enormous power of situation. We might notice that this situation included well-defined roles, characterized by a semi-permanent absolute power differential, established by a clear authority figure and reinforced with identifying uniforms. We can also notice how the setting itself also reflected and supported the roles and rules, and thus behavior.

Finally, we might notice how the setting, roles and uniforms helped to shape the perspectives that led to the behavior of both the guards and prisoners. 

So, at this point, we might observe that while it is true that perceptions shape roles, rules and settings, and it is also true that settings, roles and rules shape perception.  Together, they function as a self-reinforcing system or we can use the word paradigm. Because paradigms are “self-sealing” to borrow the term from Steve March’s blog, they seem obvious, commonsensical and “God-given.”

Our takeaway here is to notice another point of power that we have to shift off our wheel of fear and onto the wheel of freedom — to create a shift in paradigm — and that is to shift the settings, roles, and rules that shape behavior. 

Zimbardo, Philip G. “Revisiting the Stanford Prison Experiment: A Lesson in the Power of Situation.” The Chronicle Review, 53, no. 30, p. B6.

How perspective draws out or diminishes human potential

One famous experiment that really illustrates how perspective can draw out or diminish human potential is the experiment first conducted in the 1960s by American teacher Jane Elliott, who went on to become an anti-racism activist.  In this exercise, she praised brown-eyed children as “hardworking” and “intelligent,” and dismissed blue-eyed children as being innately less hardworking and intelligent. In light of that premise, she institutionalized a set of privileges for the “superior” and “more deserving” brown-eyed children, such as extra food at lunch, restricted access to a new jungle gym, and extra time at recess.  In contrast, brown-eyed children were not allowed to drink from the same water fountains and were made to wear a paper armband.

At first, the children resisted the new order. However, after Ms. Elliott provided the pseudo-scientific explanation that the greater intelligence and better work ethic of the brown-children was related to their higher levels of melanin, the children came to accept this view, with dramatic results. The “superior” brown-eyed children became arrogant and bossy and treated blue-eyed students with disrespect.

Even more dramatic was the effect on the self concept and performance of each group: The brown-eyed children began to perform better academically, even doing well in areas that had been difficult for them in the past. In contrast, the blue-eyed children performed more poorly, even in areas where they had previously done very well. They also became more timid and submissive.  

When Elliot reversed roles the following week, she received similar results, in reverse, although the discrimination was noticeably less acute: those who had experienced the pain of being deemed “inferior” seemed less inclined to inflict that experience on others. Eventually, of course, she concluded the experiment and the students experienced a rather emotional reconciliation…

It’s not difficult to see how a similar dynamic can be found with the whole range of “isms” (racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc.).

This is not to say that we all have identical interests and aptitudes; but a key take away might be the extent to which perception, expectations and the structures we create actually invoke or suppress human potential.  This is also illustrated by the example in which a “low-performing” student was accidentally noted as being “gifted” in the transfer to a new grade. The new teacher, believing child was gifted, gave him/her attention, encouragement, challenge; the child excelled academically.

As leaders, the “halo” effect is a reality for us, isn’t it? And, in contrast, some people seem to do worse and worse.  How much is the person and how much is due to our own leadership style (or the culture or organizational environment)? 

Some questions that might be interesting to explore around this topic are:

* What is your perpective/perception regarding others in your organization (especially those over whom you have some power and influence)?

* Is anyone going “up” or “down”? What are the dynamics surrounding that?

* What beliefs do you have/does your organization have regarding superiority and inferiority of different people?

* How are these beliefs reflected in your organization structure?

In upcoming posts, we’ll explore some successful applications of this principle, going into greater depth on the dynamics. We’ll also explore how organizational structures and roles shape our personalities and experience, with an eye towards the practical implications for leaders and organizations…

Innovation & the Machine

 The juxtaposition of these two words sounds unlikely doesn’t it?  We really don’t think of machines as being innovative — they do pre-programmed things (one hopes well).  For certain, the operator of the machine can innovate, but not the machine itself.  Similarly, traditional bureaucratic organizations, specialization and organizational lines of communication and control usually substantially limit innovation from within.  

As we discussed earlier, the bureaucratic organization structure is based on the principle of rational control, which enables a small number of people to exercise control over a large number of people. Because security, privileges and economic rewards tend to be commensurate with the scope of authority and power, managers tend to guard and seek to enlarge their scope of conrol.  This and other factors tend to lead both to internal competition and a resistance to changes that may decrease a manager’s scope of control, or put him/her in a less advantageous position.  

Although this blog promotes a Partnership paradigm of leadership and organization, which is distinctly un-Machiavellian, there are few as insightful or eloquent with respect to the dynamics of authoritarian leadership than Machiavelli, who confirms one reason that innovation and change tends to be so difficult for modern organizations:  

“It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes. The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order and receives only lukewarm support from those would prosper under the new.” (Niccolo Machiavelli 1512)

This tendency to pursue one’s own self interest can be counterbalanced by an inspiring vision — which is one of the key functions of good leadership. However, it is interesting and potentially instructive to observe that the burueaucratic organization form we take for granted today was not designed or intended to be innovative. This is not to say that such organizations cannot be innovative, but in order to do so, they have to overcome some problems of their own making.

In upcoming posts, we will continue to explore the dynamics of traditional organizations, and also begin to explore emerging paradigms of organization and leadership, and how coaching is both a means and an end to more empowered, collaborative and innovative organizations ….