Deepening Personal & Organisational Tension–Processing Capacity

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Deepening both Organisational & Personal Capacities for Processing Tensions 

As described at the end of the previous stage, now that more tensions are starting to surface more fully, such as: 

  • personal tensions: like my own relationship to the organisational purpose, or issues I have with feeling like the people/org relationship is not fully balanced or equitable
  • interpersonal tensions: in relationships between people
  • operational tensions: from my roles, often with other roles about what needs to happen to get the work done
  • governance tensions: where expectations are off and need to be clarified so that things can be clearer and work better

There are two things that need to happen. Firstly, the organisation needs to develop a variety of clearly defined pathways for people to process their personal and interpersonal tensions; which are different to the pathways they use to process their operational and governance tensions. This is because personal and interpersonal tensions cannot be processed using the same pathways as the operational and governance tensions, and need to use the social processes like in the Matrix Leadership Framework described in the last stage. You clearly can’t use the rules of the Holacracy Constitution to process an interpersonal tension; that’s not what it was designed for. It would be like using your car maintenance handbook to try and cook a meal. 

Another part of this is that this structural solution is necessary to create a true partnership between an organisation and the people working for it; where the needs of both the people and the organisation can be balanced. This means formally defining, in the organisational structure, the distinction that was informally created in stage 3 with the adoption of Tribe Space. This is the distinction between:

  • an Organisational Context, where roles do work according to a set of rules (i.e. the Holacracy Constitution); and 
  • a People Context, where people interact and process personal and interpersonal tensions according to a different set of rules (i.e. a Social Agreement).

Secondly, people need to invest in developing their own personal capacities to differentiate between different types or aspects of tensions, so they can then identify the appropriate pathways to process them; whether they be in the Organisational Context or People Contexts. This is a new capacity for many people, required by their organisation starting to self-organise. This gives rise to a new story with two parts in this stage. 

A New Story Part 1: The Organisation Needs a Structure with Differentiated Organisational and Personal Contexts; Each with their own Different Pathways for Processing Tensions. 

This video from Tom Thomison, a partner in co-creating Holacracy, helps demonstrate this distinction between the People and Organisation contexts in Holacracy. They can be seen in terms of four different spaces. These are defined by Thomison as role space and organisational space in the Organisational Context, and as tribe space and personal space in the People Context. 

The Symbiotic Enterprise, a structure being innovated by Evolution at Work, is one approach to formally embedding the differentiation of the People and Organisational contexts in the overall organisational structure. 

In a Symbiotic Enterprise, the People and Organisational contexts sit alongside each other in a broader circle called the Enterprise context. This context functions to balance the needs of People and Org contexts in relation to one another and to integrate or manage any conflicts between them. 


Part of the value of this innovation is that with the work of the organisation being done in the Organisation Context, according to the rules of the Holacracy Constitution, and the social/relational aspects which arise from this being clearly located in the People Context according to a Social Agreement; there’s clearly different pathways for people to process their personal/interpersonal/operational/ governance tensions as defined above. 

When I learnt about this way of structuring an organisation, I was so impressed that I joined those pioneering the work. From my experience as a member with Evolution at Work, I can report that there are at least two key ways in which this distinction deepens my sense of psychological safety and trust. 

Firstly, the formal differentiation of the People Context from the Organisation Context combined with the clarity of the Social Agreement provides a solid foundation from which I feel safe to have more difficult conversations about the imbalances in informal social power and their impact on me and my work. This is supported by a clearly defined process for giving input into or changing the Social Agreement as needed.

Secondly, the formal differentiation also means that structural authority for People/Org Relations is moved out of the Organisation Context into the Enterprise Context. Here, relevant decisions integrate the needs, purposes, and perspectives of both the organisation and the collective of people who are showing up to energise its roles. I feel safer knowing that the roles and processes which manage that relationship are serving a purpose related to people—a purpose which can’t get co-opted by the organisational purpose. With the integrative functions of the Enterprise Context present, I can trust that Personal and Organisational Contexts will work in concert without co-opting one another. 

A New Story Part 2: People Need to Develop the Capacity to Differentiate their Tensions and Process them in the Appropriate Context. 

Christiane Seuhs-Schoeller has further developed the original thinking of Tom Thomison into a personal development framework called the Language of Spaces, which supports people in developing their capacity to identify and process tensions in each of four spaces. In this framework, the spaces are identified as operational, governance, relational, and individual space. In her experience supporting over 100 Holacracy-users in processing tensions, she concludes that most tensions sensed by people in organisations include all four of these aspects, interwoven with one another. She suggests that we miss valuable information and opportunities if we don’t attend to each of the four distinct aspects of a tension.

So when Evolution at Work support an organisation to shift to self-organise, they always accompany any organisational changes with training in this Language of Spaces to build the personal capacities required for people to thrive in self-organising contexts. 

A New Obstacle: Privileged Power

I’m aware of a final obstacle on this journey—I call it Privileged Power. If holding company ownership, equity, or other assets conveys any special privileges, this can undermine the Power Shift and must be addressed before the transition to Teal can can be as deep and mature as possible. No matter how the organisation’s approach to ownership and distribution is structured, ownership represents a kind of power that must be addressed. 

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