Teal shadows – and how to deal with them

This year initiatives around Frederic Laloux’s notion of Teal organizations have emerged around Europe, most notably at the Integral European Conference in May that dedicated a significant space for Teal. But what is Teal, why is it relevant today and are there any blindspots? Which problems do Teal address and which new problems might arise as a consequence?

My background is that I’m a researcher in adult development where I study stages of psychological development, but I have a growing interest in cultural and organizational development, and leadership issues in relation to this. I’ve also participated to some small extent in starting up a Teal4teal salon in Malmö, Sweden, which have triggered some own thoughts and reflections. The aim of this article is to give a short introduction of Teal and to discuss some possible blind spots of it, or shadows, and how to address them.

What is Teal?
Teal is a colour representing a certain stage or level of consciousness according to philosopher Ken Wilber, which corresponds to the yellow level according to the Spiral dynamics model. Wilber also draw from insights from the Adult development field. See for instance this short introduction and this wiki, the original book or the newly released illustrated version.

Laloux investigated twelve organisations who he considered operated from a Teal level, and formulated three breakthroughs. I here consider these breakthroughs as defining principles according to which the companies at this level operate. The principles are: Self-management, Wholeness and Evolutionary purpose. Let us return to them, but first the most important question.

Why Teal?
Instead of just jumping on the hype we should review what Teal is and why it matters. What is the rationale of the Teal organisational paradigm, what problems does it address and what’s wrong with previous paradigms? In order to do so, we immediately see a central point of having this discussion. The notion of Teal presupposes that there are other forms or ways of organising, denoted by other colours, and that those forms might not be adequate in all situations and should not be taken for granted.

The colours represent different organisational paradigms that are based on different assumptions on how the organisation should be defined in terms of the nature of the hierarchy, non-hierarchy, holarchy or way that people organise within the organisation, and most importantly, the purpose of the organisation. They also come with different language and metaphors of the organisation such as “wolfpack”, “army” along with competition as “enemy” or as “competition”, organisation as “family” or “organism”, and a view on the how the employee works in a psychological sense and should be motivated. Laloux describes each paradigm according to a set of breakthroughs or conceptual inventions which solve some issues that previous paradigms have failed to address. And in turn, they may fail to address new problems, or even create new problem, that the next paradigm will have to deal with. The shifts from one paradigm to another is not a gradual and linear one, but rather transformative by nature.

So by having a conversation about what Teal is and what it isn’t, and if it’s a good thing, we can step out of the assumptions of other paradigms. Such discussions can give rise to questions such as “Do we need hierarchies or managers?”, “What is the organisation for and who decides that?”, which is great. The notion of Teal and the framework around organisational paradigms in turn offer metaphors and language with which we can have these kinds of valuable discussions. But let us move on and investigate what the Teal paradigm consists of, what problems it solves and the new problems it may give rise to. I do this by examining the core assumptions or breakthroughs that characterise the Teal level, starting with the notion of evolutionary purpose.

Evolutionary Purpose
I argue that an organisation exists essentially in order to address some problem or issue, thus it must have a purpose and this purpose is its raison d’être. For instance, organisations that operate from assumptions that are characterised as orange typically have as their purpose to maximise profit for the owner and shareholders and use employees and resources as means for this end. For organisations that are characterised as Green, a broader corporate social responsibility is acknowledged towards employees, communities, environment and so forth. The organisation is here typically considered to be a means to the end of serving the employees and other stakeholders. The stakeholders get to decide and define what the organisation should be and do.

A shift that Laloux describes for Teal organisations is the notion of an evolutionary purpose. The term “evolutionary” is typical at the Teal level, but here it doesn’t necessarily imply that the organisation should serve the evolution of mankind towards greater levels of development or complexity. Rather, it should reflect a deeper purpose of ‘greater good’ and that this purpose is not cut in stone but the result of a continual process of discovery. The key point of the evolutionary purpose is that no one gets to decide what the organisation is for. The organisation is treated as something that has a soul. The organisation itself decides its mission and raison d’être – its evolutionary purpose – and the participants or employees task is to listen and understand what it is. Thus, the employee serves the organisation, which in turn serves its purpose. This is distinct from previous levels where the organisation serves the shareholders or stakeholders. But it does have some similarities with amber organisations that serve something greater. For instance, the church ultimately serves God and the army serves its country. They have and are permeated with higher purposes, although these are seen as static and not evolutionary. The evolutionary aspect, as I interpret it, regards the organisation as a dynamic entity acting in a dynamic world. ‘More sense and respond’ than ‘predict and control’.

It may sound New Agey and it can always be discussed whether the organisation really have a soul in an ontological sense, but I really think it’s an interesting perspective to take in order to answer the question on what the organisation wants to do and why it should exist. For instance, a part of my work is about serving the field of research that I belong to. I don’t primarily serve the persons involved but rather the field as a whole that I see as something that is alive and organically changing and possibly evolving. Treating an organisation as something organic and alive can allow us to have a better understanding of the organisation’s purpose and how we can influence it. This breakthrough may address the core of the issue that many people feel disengaged and unmotivated at work. It may be that the work is not meaningful enough since they feel that it doesn’t contribute to making the world a better place. It may sound harsh, but if you don’t feel motivated at work, it might be because what you do is not that important.

I find this feature the most important and interesting to discuss in our current world where we either allow organisations to exploit their environment and employees, or see it as something primarily for satisfying our personal needs and wishes. However, one issue that I’d like to bring to the fore, which can be seen as a shadow of the higher purpose, is that people and employees may be seen as sole means for the greater good. This responsibility to the employee is something that the previous Green paradigm actually addresses in its feature ‘stakeholder value’ and should not only be transcended but also included at the Teal level or paradigm.

The notion of self-management addresses several issues of the Orange hierarchical structures. Firstly, hierarchies are often problematised from a conflict and power perspective. It is often argued from a Green perspective that hierarchies are bad per se and that getting rid of the managers is a way of achieving equality and equal influence between the employees and consensus in decision-making. A limitation with this, as often argued, is that the decision-making process gets very lengthy and not necessarily resulting in good decisions.

Secondly, a point with self-managing groups is that they can act as sensors to the outer environment and respond more quickly if they are more autonomous. Orange hierarchies presume a top-down chain of command where the needs and corresponding measures to be taken are defined by the manager and assigned to the lower level managers or employees along with means to complete the task. This modus of operation was primarily intended for large organisations acting in more stable environments but puts enormous demands on the top managers in terms of complex thinking. They need to be extremely mature and complex thinkers, but it’s not necessarily these post-conventional thinkers who make it to the top of the hierarchies. A central motivation to why the Dutch company Endenburg started experimenting with self-management was to quickly adapt to new circumstances, resulting in the governing system Sociocracy. It is often argued that Sociocracy, Holacracy and other Teal variants of organising are better at responding in more dynamic times and environments.

However, one should not idealise the manager-free and organic process too much. Often there is someone who calls the shots, formally or informally. There is always some person or persons who make the decision of going Teal in the first place, e.g. in the case of Zappos’ CEO making a top-down decision. Also, even if there are no formal managers there is a need for someone to facilitate the decision-making processes, which also is a sort of leadership. Sociocracy and Holacracy have formal roles of facilitators and practices around that. I will return to the role of leadership.

This is the item where I have least own experience and I see this as mostly an empirical question. How do the companies that try this manage? Does it really work? In which contexts? What problems arise and which practices are developed to address them? How formalised do the practices and procedures need to be? How does accountability work if no one formally owns a question?

The final breakthrough is wholeness which essentially refers to the psychological aspect. One reason that we are not fully engaged in our work, Laloux argues, is that we don’t show up at work fully. We come with a mask, persona or ego which is only a very limited aspect of ourselves. It is the aspect that we show, perhaps because we want to shine or because we are afraid of showing our own vulnerability. The shift to Teal is often characterised with a striving for integration of many aspects. Integration of mind, body, soul and spirit, of masculine and feminine, rational and emotional, extrovert and introvert and so forth. Instead of our limited egos, wholeness means that we should bring our bigger, deeper and more authentic selves to the organisation. To be ourselves.

Of the three breakthroughs, if treated as principles for designing an organisation, I find this the most idealistic and also most problematic. I can sympathise with the notion of vulnerability and not being afraid of backstabbing, but there are limits on how personal I want to get in an organisation. Even though the organisation may have a kick-ass purpose. A useful distinction is between professional, personal and private. I am professional if I only see myself as part of the role I’m filling and I can meet a colleague professionally and see her/him only from the role and value s/he brings to the organisation. This may be seen as cold and impersonal. If I am personal I can meet you as a human being and care for you beyond what is required from me in my professional role. Being private means having no boundary between my work life and my most intimate private life. I don’t get private with my colleagues and my students. That’s a boundary that we should be careful not to cross. Potentially, wholeness can threaten the integrity of the employee. On the topic of vulnerability, my discussion on Kegan’s and Lahey’s notion of DDO, Deliberately Developmental Organisations, is also valid here. Again, I sympathise with getting more whole at the organisation, but not too whole. The key question here is: can this principle be misused for exploiting the employee?

Further, and here I return to the leadership issue, the psychological description of wholeness is particularly problematic in my view. As stated, we have this shallow ego or mask that we remove in order for our deep authentic selves to reveal themselves. This is a pretty simplified and polarised view on our psychological functioning. I sympathise with creating a holding space where everyone gets treated respectfully, but there is something that I find disturbing with the notion of “taming the ego”. It can easily become a way of dismissing valid critique or solving conflicts to blame people for not “taming their egos”. If wholeness means bringing the whole self to the workplace, it would mean that I brought my ego, all my previous levels, perspectives and shadows. Teal (roughly corresponding to Strategist in Torbert’s term) doesn’t mean no ego, it doesn’t mean no conflicts, it means more of everything. Was Integral Institute free of conflicts and from big egos? As I see it, the notion of wholeness invites all kinds of problem on a deep psychological level. What type of leadership would it take to hold such a space?

One way of addressing this, instead of wholeness, is Holacracy’s notion of roles. You don’t bring your entire being to the workplaces, only what is required to fill the role. Sometimes I see critique of this being a cold and instrumental part of Holacracy. But I understand it primarily as a way of protecting the employee of getting exploited and leaving their egos outside. Holacracy is limited to the structural aspect while Laloux’s notion of Teal spans from the structural to the cultural and psychological – wholeness. This is not necessarily a deficiency in any of them, just a description of what they imply.

Conclusions and future work
I have discussed the development and movement around Teal and I do welcome the pioneering work and approach of Laloux, Holacracy, Sociocracy and all companies. Mostly since it offers a language around the organisational aspect of development. But also since it can create new solutions and better working organisations. With Wilber’s notion of Teal follows also insights on shadow aspects and the aim of this article is to identify some possible drawbacks of the new breakthroughs that may cause problems if this new way of organising is treated with too much idealism or is misused. I have also proposed ways to address them. Hopefully this can give rise to some further discussions and, who knows, maybe there is a Turquoise way of organising that can address these issues which in turn gives rise to new ones?!

Some questions that I particularly would like to explore further are those relating to the mental demands on the employee to initiate or participate in a Teal organisation. What level of maturity in terms of adult development does it require to be a leader and hold the space of wholeness? These are questions that I think deserve attention both from the AD community as well as from the Teal community. Presumably it is more demanding to work in a dynamic Teal organisation than for instance in a more static Orange one. The Teal paradigm has more degrees of freedom and have also access to the previous breakthroughs. Thus, it probably requires more from the employee in terms of complex thinking, adaptability, dealing with uncertainty, perspective-taking and so forth. Those are aspects that are very hard to promote top-down and to demand of the employee. This is not only a matter of pragmatism but also of ethics.

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