Cracking the Code of Holacracy
This article is the third part in a five-part series titled “Self-Management & Human Growth: Two Sides of a Coin.”
Part 1 — Beyond The Structured Holacracy Process
Part 2 — Change is Hard. It’s Not a Cliché, Just a Basic Law of Nature
Part 3 — Cracking the Code of Holacracy (this post)
Part 4 — Re-conceiving the Challenge of Change (coming soon)
Part 5 — Upgrading Your Personal OS & Unleashing the Organizational Soul (coming later)
“It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times.” — Mark Twain
Each time I come upon this quote from Mark Twain, a slight smile crosses my face. In fact, changing behaviors is one thing, but sticking with the new behavior in the long-term is often the real challenge. We all know from personal experience that deciding to do something doesn’t mean that we are actually going to do it. How many times have you started a new diet or implemented meditation in your routine, and ended up with your old habits after a few months, or even a couple of weeks?
Most leaders would agree that improvement and change are core organizational priorities. I’ll go even further by saying that human capability will soon — if not already — be a decisive success factor for companies. And yet…
I started to dive into these reflections around change shortly after my professional experience at HolacracyOne, the management consultancy that spearheads the development of Holacracy. Beyond the disruptive organizational framework that defines how a company is structured, how decisions are made, and how organizational power is distributed, I discovered at the core of Holacracy a powerful catalyst that drives not only structural change in the organization but also self-improvement and personal growth.
Holacracy: A Developmental Catalyst for Adaptive Change
When helping organizations implement Holacracy, the core of the work is to focus on implementing and building people’s new behaviors, and on reinforcing those new behaviors.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” — Socrates, a gas-station attendant character in a book published in the 1980s by Dan Millman
There’s no effort towards deliberately pressuring new Holacracy practitioners to suppress their old patterns or convince them to think differently upfront (at least of what I know of the Holacracyone’s implementation process). Paradoxically, I think approaching change through this lens creates less resistance to change, which means more room for maneuver to grow. In fact, we, humans, have a fundamental need for a sense of control. It means that when we are asked to think or do something in a particular way, it may well feel that our freedom is restricted, and that the requesting person is taking control over us. As a natural reaction, we are more likely to refuse, asserting our ability to sustain control. Look at kids! We call this phenomenon psychological reactance. From an evolutionary standpoint, this boomerang effect makes perfectly sense as when we are in control of our environment, we have a far better chance of survival.
Thus, the old behaviors can organically be detected as no longer useful, and ultimately acknowledged as irrelevant and ineffective in the new Holacracy paradigm — all that process with no need for preliminary persuasive work to behave differently. This approach seems to eventually generate a deeper and more sustainable change in people’s mindsets.
In order to successfully encourage ingrained habits and sustain a lasting Holacracy practice, this behavioral approach is facilitated by a series of ingredients.
First, Holacracy offers an environment that supports change. In fact, it is embedded into the DNA of the organization. In other words, it is not a tool stored in the closet that you activate when you’re inclined to or in the right mood. No. It is ingrained in the DNA of the organization, which psychologically amplifies the sense of commitment and consistency — ingredients that have be proven to be pivotal for lasting and sustainable change. One study reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2013 suggests that our environment including clothing influences behavior and attitudes because it carries a symbolic meaning. So, what we wear (literally and figuratively) is actually subconsciously changing how we act. Dr. Jonathan Fader, sports psychologist for the New York Mets, says these findings totally hold-up in real life: “When you put on new fitness gear, you begin to get into character like an actor putting on a costume for a performance. As a result, you expect to have a better performance, making you more mentally prepared for the task.”
From a very practical point, GlassFrog, the cloud-based Holacracy software tool, supports such a system of behavior reinforcement. The GlassFrog team recently launched a compelling Holacracy® Habits Support Program for building and deepening key Holacracy habits. As a next step, we could imagine extending the feature strictly from the behavioral lens to the belief system (mindset) by simply extracting decades of research in neuroscience and behavior science out of libraries to put it into people’s hands at the press of a button. Elementary examples that support lasting habits essential to a successful Holacracy practice could include features such as the ‘foot-in-the-door’ or endowed progress techniques, challenge features (like friendly duels helping users get more active and engaged), a gaming feature (you know, like me, that play is known for being a central ingredient in learning), a Smart Coach System by your side (a sort of intelligent system helping the user understand how s/he can do better next time.), and so on.
Holacracy also frames change through its own language mindset. Holacracy has a very specific verbiage focused towards creative entrepreneurship. Using such an empowering language mindset has a direct and positive effect on the energy in the environment. Scientific studies have shown that the smallest shift towards actions-oriented and/or positive affirmations can have immediate effects on one’s energy, outlook, and sense of control.
Holacracy offers no other options than a radical change. Holacracy has often been criticized for being highly disruptive. Paradoxically, I believe that radical, sweeping, comprehensive change are source of greater growth and are easier for people than small, incremental change, when well supported. How do I explain this counterintuitive fact?
“According to Newton’s Third Law, all forces come in pairs. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — the law of opposites […] The more potent the difficulty, the more powerful the growth. Good timber does not grow with ease. ”— Benjamin P. Hardy
Let’s take the example of a dietary experiment that has been run as part of a medical study. The results of that study showed that people who made moderate changes in their diets got the worst of both worlds: they felt deprived and hungry because they weren’t eating everything they wanted, but they weren’t making big enough changes to quickly see an improvement in how they felt, or in measurements such as weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol.
In addition to these characteristics that aim to support lasting Holacracy behaviors, there’s an uncanny phenomenon that surfaces from practicing Holacracy, which I would call the “mirror effect” — the one feature that would be highly interesting to integrate into GlassFrog.
Holacracy as a Psychological Mirror to the Otherness of Self
Have you ever experienced what happens when one brings personal (vs. organizational) tensions in a Holacracy meeting? Any memories of what happens when the Holacracy process catches you in your victim stance? Not pleasant things, right? While this resulting process may feel ruthless at first sight — some may say inhuman; the term impersonal would be more appropriate, in my opinion— there’s a potent psychological dynamic that emerges from such events.
Not only are you seeing yourself as others sees you, you are also seeing yourself as if you were an other. You’re capable of witnessing yourself from a different lens that your usual one. You see this “other self” by adopting an alienating perspective on yourself. It is you that you see in the mirror, but the you you see has not quite the same familiarity and immediacy as the you you know from inner experience. The you you see in the mirror is distant and yet close. It is felt as an other, and yet as yourself. This experience is as much exhilarating as destabilizing. Said differently, Holacracy offers you to see a more objective and true reflection of yourself including aspects of your reality that might have been invisible to you until now. It forces you to see all that’s unpleasant within yourself that was not directly accessible to your eyes until now.
In that sense, “the Holacracy process holds up a bittersweet mirror for you.” — Brian Robertson, Holacracy pioneer and HolacracyOne partner
While the “mirror effect” might feel truly uncomfortable and intrusive — after all you haven’t asked anything to anyone! — this is a great opportunity to go deep into self-examination and self-discovery work, until eventually uncovering the nature of your fears, attachments, resistance to let go, belief system, and eventual change. When you feel ready to receive all of the portions of the layout the mirror offers to you — the sweet as well as the raw — that mirror can turn out to be a powerful weapon to engage in a thoughtful self-reflection — “holding up the mirror,” so to speak. I have painfully been there, in front of that mirror, seeing the reflected image of my self. It left me stunned and hurt, with absolutely no capacity to associate any words with what was happening to me at that time. And, instead of falling so easily into the victim attitude and pointing fingers at someone, I chose — somewhat miraculously — to look closely and objectively at my patterns, at what they were reflecting, at what they were telling me. And I worked on them. Painfully and eagerly.
It is a euphemism to say that initiating such inner work on its own, without support, is delicate. Holacracy won’t offer that support: it is deliberately silent on people’s needs (and again, with good reason in the first place!). I like to say that Holacracy pushes you to jump to the second floor, that said, it won’t help you walk up the staircase. Most of the time, the “mirror effect” I am describing remains at an unconscious state and doesn’t really absorb the full value of what such reflections have to offer whether there is inner adjustment needed, wanted, or not. And without conscious reflection, it seems quite hard to me to receive the full benefit of such a learning experience. Most of my field observations showed me that people who don’t receive the appropriate support when needed get stuck at the last sub-phase of their catalytic journey. This state is called cognitive dissonance in psychology. It can challenge people’s sense of identity and self-worth in a deep way. In the end, not everyone is comfortable with the degree of freedom and responsibility that Holacracy affords…
This cognitive dissonance phenomenon and the complexity behind the psychology of change piqued my curiosity to the max. It intrigued me so significantly that I dove deep into behavior science, neuroscience, and cognitive linguistics, and enrolled in a developmental psychology coaching program offered by two professor researchers at Harvard University, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. In a next blog post, I’ll share a foretaste of what I found out after reconciling the data I absorbed from these different fields.