Working From the Proper Energy Field
You may recall several earlier summer Sadhanas dealing with tools to employ when trying to foster new openings in your work setting—in effect, to observe, intuit, and positively disturb a work ecosystem toward something more. In June, I wrote a bit about tool #1, conversation flipping. Later that month, I introduced tool #2, using an ideation ladder. Last month I showed how tool #3 employs appreciative inquiry.
Never one for brevity, I may have saved the most important tool (requiring the longest post!) to this one – acting from the right energy field. As with all the other tools, each comes alive in the hands of the practitioner and the most impactful application of the tool results from a mindset shift—a new awareness—within you as the practitioner.
What follows is some unpacking of three key points:
- Your organization is a living being, not a production machine. Creating a positive disruption requires you to understand energy and how it manifests in your organization.
- Decide from which energy field(s) you will work more often.
- Foster the conditions for life to thrive – leadership is social acupuncture to release the flow of energy.
Bill O’Brien said the success of the intervention is based on the interior condition of the intervenor. That’s you. So much of our leadership training, modeling, and acculturation has prized the leader’s ability to “know” and “do.” Until comparatively recently, leaders weren’t encouraged to be introspective; to do their own inner work—and through greater mastery catalyze even more robust results in collective/organizational activity. By now, you know I’ve deeply embraced that concept.
So, once again, I invite you to start there when considering this tool.
The Living Organization
Part of your inner work is to become consciously aware of your mental models. Many of us have spent decades surrounded by references to being part of ‘the machine.’ We know that continuous exposure influences one’s socialization of world views.
One place to look for signals about your oft-unspoken beliefs and worldviews is to become intentionally aware of your habits of language. Here’s just a few hackneyed phrases from business settings that suggest a mindset—likely unintentional—of dehumanizing the organization by continuous mechanistic references.
- We don’t have the bandwidth (or capacity) for that right now
- Identify which levers to pull to drive impact
- That’s not on my radar screen
- Set the wheels in motion
- Our company is a well-oiled machine
- Make sure we’re firing on all cylinders
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
- Everyone is replaceable
“A single word is never a single word, but rather a
link to a worldview. Thus, altering the everyday
vocabulary in a social system has
potentially powerful consequences.”
(Barrett and Fry)
On the surface, this all seems quite common and harmless in the workplace. I slip sometimes and use these phrases too. Elevating my awareness is a lifelong practice, not a destination. At a deeper level, however, it makes it harder to adopt a holistic view of your organization as not a machine but a living entity and yourself as leader as not separate from that living system but part of it.
If you think about your organization as a living system then I believe the role of leaders is to foster the conditions for life to thrive—to bring about more life in and through the organization.
Many living systems thinkers and authors are inviting us to shift how we think about, and interact with, organizational life. One of the formative thinkers in this space is Norman Wolfe, who shared his powerful insights in The Living Organization (2011). Wolfe tells us that everything is energy and three “fields” of energy are ever present in each organization—the Activity field, the Relationship field, and the Context field.
From his detailed writing, I’ve developed this summary table to provide a quick thumbnail depiction of these fields and their differences.
The Activity field produces a constant beat and rhythm in every organization. When severely understaffed or unfocused, leaders tend to be drawn to this field. While necessary at times, attention to this field can be exhausting and does little to produce few of the reinvention and transformative openings that every organization requires to adapt and thrive today.
Because I believe so strongly that our macro operating environments are demanding shorter and shorter business model cycles, every organization is called to reinvent faster than ever before. I’m convinced that you can’t ‘project manage’ your way to reinvention. Where, then, will your leadership energy be focused? In many instances it should be the Relationship and Context fields. As I’ve said repeatedly, leadership is a relationship and every relationship a conversation.
Wolfe tells us that the Relationship field contains the energy produced from one person interacting with another. The dominant form of the energy is communication – what we say and how we say it. We process (make sense of) this verbal communication energy through our five senses and we process the non-verbal through our instincts and intuition (e.g., “I feel what you’re saying”). He encourages us to think about the pairing of lyrics and music. When joined, they evoke something more stirring in us than either can alone. This communication is alive; it is a living thing.
Relationship energy is non-linear; often with no discernible pattern. Therefore, leaders navigating (and contributing to/from) this field require right brain prowess—discerning patterns of behavior, underlying motivations, and experience empathy. This is the stuff of emotional intelligence, or EQ.
Relationship energy has the ability to multiply the sum of all the individual energy contributions. So, when we’re interested in creating a positive disturbance in our human systems—creating the transformative conditions for more life to flow naturally for greater impact—we’re looking for tools that bring leverage and lift. The Relationship field of energy does just that.
Well below the visible surface of our living organizations is the Context field—the energy of meaning and purpose. It is the energy that flows from the dominant mental models in use—core beliefs, world views, paradigms. This energy field is neither linear nor patterned; it is holistic. It is the source of our intuition, insights, and wisdom—true for individuals, teams, and whole organizations. Modern research (e.g., HeartMath Institute) and many indigenous cultures see Context field energy processed in the body brain—using our SQ, or spiritual intelligence. Hutchins and Storm attribute this to ‘systemic awareness.’
What Norman Wolfe calls the Context field, Michelle Holliday calls the Convergent Whole, the field where “divergent parts come together in relationship to form a convergent whole with new characteristics and capabilities.” To help us create a mental image for the concept of this energy field, Wolfe invites us to think of it as we would a container of water—the water takes the shape of the container; the container defines the shape of the water. It defines what is and is not possible in the other two fields (Activity and Relationship).
Sticking with the notion of a living system, Holliday describes the Convergent Whole (aka, Context field) as the level not of your cells, but of you and your body. It is the level not of the individuals, but of the organization or community they create together. Here, she says, we find the phenomenon of emergence, in which new capabilities and characteristics are created, in the same way the properties of water (wetness, fluidity) emerge from the convergence of hydrogen and oxygen.
“This is the great promise of living systems – that
new things become possible and new forms
take shape. You can think, feel and move –
capabilities not found at the level of your cells.
Similarly, an organization or community
is able to complete complex tasks and
maintain order, even when those functions lie
beyond the abilities of the people who comprise it.”
In her book, The Age of Thrivability, Holliday believes “…the more consistency and convergence there is at the level of the whole, the more resilient, adaptive and creative the living system is likely to be. Within our human groups, this means the shared purpose that brings us together must be both clear and compelling, and it must continuously guide our individual and collective actions.”
As you might guess, the Context field of energy is not easily observable. Often, it is the invisible byproduct of power structures and tradition. It is living corporate culture…and then some. It is the sum of all our shared stories of “who we are together” and “why we are together” as a human system. It is the web that connects us all. That’s why, Holliday says, despite people coming and going, an organization can remain focused on shared purpose and why a community retains its character across generations.
To my way of thinking, this all makes a powerful case for embracing the mindset of our organizations as living beings and using this tool for much of our leadership work.
From Which Energy Fields Will You Work?
To what extent are you (or could you be) placing your leadership attention on interpreting the cultural Context field of energy? In what ways is that sense-making inspirational to your people? How are you helping people see that the things they're working on are, in fact, interconnected, whether they consciously recognize that or not?
The more of this that you do in your leadership service, the more you expose to fresh air outdated, damaging mental models. The more of this that you do, the more you are creating the conditions for energy to flow in alignment and in abundance. In addition to making these organizational contributions yourself, you’d do well to adopt an appreciative ‘spotting and fanning’ approach. Spotting means you’re continuously looking for and observing displays of organizational behavior consistent with the most cascading life-giving energy. Fanning is simply helping those good embers glow brightly.
As you think about adopting this tool of positive disruption, you’ll need to become more observant about which of these three energy fields you are deploying your time and attention, and from which you derive your greatest energy. It's going to vary from period to period, but I want you to be mindful of it. In your organization, if you’re repeatedly experiencing problems with the policies, the procedures, and processes in place (aka, Activity field energy; technical details) it may be an indication that these things are issues needing resolution from these other two energy fields. Heed Einstein’s great advice, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Finally, know that this meaning-making and clear, repeated interpretation of organizational purpose is a lot more than mission language on banners and websites. It’s found in the stories around the water cooler and the onboarding gatherings. It’s evident in how you use stories in your regular meetings to illustrate and celebrate openings to the future that is trying to emerge.
Practice Organizational (Social) Acupuncture
Remember, too, that your organization is part of an even larger system—an ecosystem—which means the energy fields discussed above don’t stop at the physical and virtual walls of your organization. We are all part of something bigger. This is especially important as you consider the focus of your leadership attention, influence, and contribution.
Reperceiving your organization as a living being—a human system—and learning to observe and interact with the natural flows of energy within is a wise way of learning and leading in complex and uncertain times. Leicester and O’Hara caution us against assuming every big problem needs a big solution. They invite us to recall the story of Muhammad Yunus walking into a small Bangladesh village 40 years ago with a little money. Against the advice of banks, governments, and economists he offered villagers microloans, which sparked the growth of their entrepreneurial response, more family financial independence, and a boost to whole economies. This one small, disruptive action generated global systemic impact. They remind us, “You cannot control complex systems, only disturb them. And even a small disturbance, artfully designed, can have large systemic effects. We call this ‘social acupuncture.’”
I want to leave you with a reminder of what is possible for you, a single person, acting with love and intention to positively disrupt a human system that knowingly wants to adapt and thrive but who often acts as her own worst enemy, repeating patterns of behavior that lock in familiar results.
“…we have within us a far deeper capacity for shared life
than we are using…and…we are suffering from an attempt
to know our way into the future instead of live our way.
When you commit to making a moment of music or to
a relationship with another person you speak to the future
through that commitment. You bring the infinity of the
possible within the range of your own creative potential
(emphasis added). The way we have built our modern society
has privileged the patterns of collective knowing over
collective living and in doing so is overwhelming us with the
impossibility of knowing what to do about it.
By strengthening our inherent capacity for creative living
we might find better ways to handle
what we know and don’t know.”
(Bill Sharpe, Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope)
 Of course, this level of dehumanizing is far from the worst occurrences. Much more devastating is the use of nonhuman, animalistic, and other objectification. I’ve chosen to focus my commentary on tools within the business setting. Common sense and decency invite us all to eschew all the toxic forms of othering.
 Just a few of my favorites ‘mind-stretchers’ on this topic are: Hutchins and Storm’s Regenerative Leadership: The DNA of Life-Affirming 21st Century Organizations (2019); O’Hara and Leicester’s Dancing at the Edge: Competence, Culture, and Organization in the 21st Century 2nd Edition (2019) and their Ten Things To Do In A Conceptual Emergency (2009); Holliday’s The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World (2016); Hodgson’s Systems Thinking for a Turbulent World (2020); Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers’ Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society (2004); Laloux’ Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organization Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (2014); Scharmer’s Theory U: The Social Technology of Presencing (2009) and his Leading From the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies (2013); Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (1992, 2006) and her collaboration with Kellner-Rogers, A Simpler Way (1999).