A conversation with Frederic Laloux

From the Leadermorphosis podcast

This is a transcript of my interview with Frederic Laloux, author of the book Reinventing Organisations. You can listen to the interview here: Web / Apple podcast / Spotify or watch it on YouTube.

L Gill: I was reflecting earlier about the fact that your book, Reinventing Organisations, came out in 2014. And six years later, for me the world feels like it’s changed a lot.

And I feel like the this new ways of working movement, I guess you could call it, feels like it’s evolving, maturing. And I feel like I have changed a lot since since I first read the book, asking different questions now…

So, the question we decided we’d like to dig into is this: Thinking about these three ideas that you wrote about in your book (self-management, wholeness and evolutionary purpose), are these intentions going to help us have the difficult conversations that we need to have about the fact that we are participating in an increasingly destructive, even suicidal economy?

What comes up for you hearing that question again? Where are you with that question?

F Laloux: The question is very present for me and has been now for the last two or three years. I feel more and more drawn to having a really difficult conversations and and not staying in a comfort zone. Like, you know, these ideas were pretty radical six years ago. And they’ve slowly, at least in a certain circle, become totally acceptable and they’re slowly seeping into into the mainstream.

And I guess, I’ve been pushing my own thinking. And just in my own life, just facing the fact that so much of what we do is deeply destructive. That the very basis of our economic system is an extractive system that does just irreparable damage to the planet. One way that I framed it at the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis was that the Covid virus seems to kill around 1% of the humans that it infects, the experts seem to say. And I’ve come to realise that we human beings kill 1% not only of the things that we touch, but really of every living thing on the planet every year on average. You know, apparently, we’ve killed 70% of all the insects in the last 30 years. So that’s more like 2% right, but we’ve killed 30% of all the birds in the last 30 years. We’ve killed 60% of all the large mammals in the last 50 years, we’ve killed more than 90% of all the large fish in the ocean, and you could do the same for corals and mangroves and forests and everything we touch, we keep killing 1% year after year, right. And this is just a truth that we’re not that we’re not willing to face.

And I think that what’s been important for me in my own life has been my children, you know, who are growing up — they’re now seven and 10. In the last few years, they’ve just kept asking me questions that made me incredibly uncomfortable and I just realised how I had accepted a number of things as “that’s just the way things are”. And it goes from really sort of seemingly benign things to very deep things. Just a trip to the supermarket with them, when my son asked me, “Dad, why does the Wegmans family (because the supermarkets where I live is called Wegmans), why do they put candy at all the cashiers when they know that that will create fights in all of the families? Especially when they’re rich already, why do they do that?” or, “Dad, why is everything wrapped in plastic if plastic will take thousands of years to decompose and it’s creating microplastic pollution everywhere?”. How do you answer these questions? And it’s just made me realise: I think of this as sort of wholeness on steroids.

“We are all dealing with forms of cognitive dissonance simply to be able to function in this world and to function in the kind of organisations that we live in. We have often learned not to see things that are deeply hurting our integrity. Because we don’t know what to do with these questions.”

So our companies participate in plastic everywhere or, depending on what is important to you… like almost all companies are minimising the taxes that they pay or paying zero taxes. Are you, are we okay with that? We have come to accept it, but are we okay with that deep down?

I remember a conversation I had with a group of CEOs in Brazil… I was asking them, “Where are you participating in a system where you’re actually acting out of integrity?” And it’s so interesting because one of them was honest enough to say, “Frederic, I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I don’t even understand your question.” I gave them examples. Like I knew that he was the CEO of a fashion brand and I had seen some of their advertising and it was horribly objectifying. There was basically this semi naked woman lying down with six or seven sinister looking men looking over her and I was telling him — I feel the same emotion coming up now as when I was telling him — I have, you know, a six year old daughter, and she has one in four chances of being sexually abused in her lifetime and your advertising is participating in this. And I know this is the norm of the industry, I know you’re not doing worse than anybody else. But deep down, are you okay with that?

Another person was doing dairy products. And if you know about the reality of dairy products, it’s animal suffering in a plastic container. And so there’s all these really hard questions and by the time we spoke about that, there was this deep silence. And suddenly, they could all see examples of where they were out of integrity. And they paired up and had a conversation and it was extraordinary for them to reflect on all of these things. I’m not meaning to be prescriptive, I’m just asking everybody, “Are there things that you’re participating in?” There’s no shame or blame in that. That’s the reality of our economic system. We haven’t chosen it. We haven’t designed it. But I think that if we want to be real on wholeness, and if we want to be real around serving a real evolutionary purpose, let’s look at these things. Let’s have the courage to, to look at them.

And I believe that while at first these might be hard conversations to have, I think they’re hugely liberating. I think there is a real cost that comes with us pushing these questions away all the time. Right? This cognitive dissonance of leaders and organisations whose children are marching for Fridays for Future but they’re continuing the stuff that they do and more and more I see now that their children, the friends of their children, look at these leaders and say, “I don’t understand.” Can we have open and honest conversations about this? And I think that the flip side of that conversation is a real right to live lives of integrity.

I think there’s an aliveness that comes when we finally dare to speak these things and not numb ourselves constantly, not push them them away. And I’ve certainly seen leaders who had the courage to be honest with themselves, I’ve really seen that in action. There’s an aliveness that comes, there’s something liberating about naming these things and saying, “I don’t know what the answer is but this feels important to me.”

L Gill: Yeah, it’s really powerful, that story you tell. I was thinking about, I don’t know if you’ve read the book ‘Wilful Blindness’ by Margaret Heffernan? I read that a few years ago. And that kind of shocked me. She shares all of these different reasons why we’re so wilfully blind a lot of the time and she gives examples of, you know, oil spills and, and even the Holocaust, and how because of the way our brains are wired, certain things help to keep us in that cognitive dissonance.

And power structures and hierarchies is one of the things that keeps that in place. So there’s an example of nurses in an experiment who are given instructions over the phone from a senior doctor that they haven’t met to deliver a lethal dose of an injection to a patient, and a large percentage of them do it. And afterwards, when they’re questioned about it, it’s only afterwards that they realise, “Yeah, why did I do that? I’m trained I should have known.” But we don’t question because of the power structure.

F Laloux: It’s interesting because I almost take self-management for a given now. And so, I’m really curious, even in the absence of any power structure that makes us fearful, you know, how could we engage with these questions? And, and to me, these are really juicy questions. And I believe that beyond the power structures, some of the things that that hold us back are, for one, the sense that we need to have an answer.

When I engaged these these 15 CEOs, one of the first things was like, “It’s okay not to have an answer. By definition, these are big questions that are deeply woven into the fabric of our of our economic system. And so of course, we’re not going to have any an obvious answer.” But we’re so trained, certainly as leaders, right? And so the traditional paradigm is that if you’re a leader, you should have all the answers. Otherwise, you know, why are you a leader?

One of the most beautiful and inspiring examples for me is is a story of Ray Anderson from from Interface. Interface, you know, for those who don’t know, is this carpet manufacturer. They were started by this guy, Ray Anderson, just when people were inventing carpet tiles for your office carpets and he rode that wave, and was tremendous entrepreneur and created Interface that is now the world’s largest carpet manufacturing company.

One day in the mid 1990s, a client asked him about their environmental record and he had no idea. So he asked a few people to look into it and what they came back with absolutely shocked him. He realised that he was taking, I don’t remember the exact numbers, but something like 1.9 million or billion or whatever it was, kilos of raw material from the earth, basically mostly petrol, that he was turning into billions of kilometres of nylon yard that would end up becoming these carpets that people would use for a few years and then they would end up in the landfill. And what what I still love about him is that he said, “I should be in jail. I’m celebrated as this hero entrepreneur, but I’m actually plundering the earth.”

He was using very simple but very real harsh words, but that was okay. Because now that I know, we’re going to change, and he started engaging his management team. And at first, the management team was pretty uncomfortable, and they were making jokes and saying , “What are we gonna do? You’re gonna raise sheep now, are you?” And what I love is that he said, “I have no answer. But I know that this is not what I want to do.” And he set, extraordinary ambitious goals.

Like he said, “The only business that I feel that is worth pursuing is one that doesn’t take anything from the earth, that is not quickly renewed by the earth itself. And I don’t want to do anything that harms the biosphere.” It’s pretty crazy goals when you’re a carpet manufacturer, and it took them a little more than 20 years, but they’re about to get there.

And they stumbled on solution after solution, right. The first thing they did is to say, “Hey, we’re going to try not to sell to the corporate clients, but to basically rent it. So we still own it and at the end of its lifecycle, that way, we’re sure that we get it back. And then they invented a way to take the nylon threads off the backing and recycle both. And then, all the plants have solar panels, and so they’re not using any fossil fuels in the process of manufacturing this and I mean, it’s been an extraordinary journey. And they’re almost there now, 25 years later.

What I find so beautiful about him is that he could have buried that question, like pretty much everybody else because what am I to do? Like, this is too big. I have no answer. And he’s found it was sort of a joyful adventure. Like, “I don’t have the answers, let’s let’s find out.” So I think that’s a critical element — to stay with whatever questions we have.

[For example] “Okay, so I’m a fashion brand. For some reason, doing these incredibly sexist ads sells, and I might lose 10% or 20% of my revenue if I don’t do them. What do I do? I don’t know.”

Or, maybe it’s something else that is shocking. You know, maybe it’s the income inequality, like a CEO makes 20 or maybe 300 times the salary of the lowest paid person. Am I okay with that? I’m not no longer okay with it. But that’s our system. I don’t know what the answer is. But can we stay with that question long enough until we stumble on the answers. And I think that is that is a key component.

L Gill: Yeah, and I’m curious: what is your sense of what’s needed in order for us to be able to sit with that question? Because I agree with you that power structures is only one piece of it, but I think even in self-managing organisations… sometimes it seems almost like we need guardrails, you know, things like Nonviolent Communication and practices like this that help us to kind of grow in the direction that we want to be together. Because it seems like our brains are wired for shortcuts or habits that we’ve been conditioned into. So, what does it take to awaken people to the possibility of sitting with these questions and for that to feel safe? And it’s quite striking to me that you were able to have an audience with the CEOs and ask this question. You have a particular way of being, I think, which is not judgmental or threatening, but a fellow human being, a vulnerable fellow traveller in this journey together with people and that helps, I think. What will help us to sit with these questions, do you think?

F Laloux: I think you said it, I think we need to create spaces that are safe enough and that are spacious enough for us to explore these questions. And I think we need to be vulnerable enough, leading by example and sharing some of the things that shocked us in our lives. Like there’s so many things that I participate in, that I’m not okay with. And I’m just trying to be really gentle and compassionate with myself – there’s only so much I can do at a time.

And there’s some things I keep participating in, because I simply don’t have the bandwidth to examine that particular thing and to extricate myself from it, but I still want to be honest with myself. I think there’s a there’s a juiciness in that honesty.

So I think the part of no blame, no shame is super important, of saying, you know, we’ve inherited these systems. I’m disgusted by my trash, and I haven’t had the time, the bandwidth to go into the zero waste kind of lifestyle that other people might know about. And it’s been two years I’ve been disgusted by this now and I’ve just been other things that I’ve been working on in my life and I’m just being okay and compassionate with that, like, you know, maybe in six months or a year, I’ll be ready for this.

And so I think leading with examples and sharing the stuff that we’re struggling with… I remember when the book came out, and it became so successful, and people offered me speaking fees that were, for 15–20 minutes, more than probably half the population makes in Belgium. How fucked up is that? And should I accept it? Try not to accept it? Am I participating in a system that’s hugely extractive — that pays way too many people way too little, that extracts all of that wealth to the top? And then I as a speaker, I come sort of as a parasite and and take some of that. Am I okay with that or not? I’ve been struggling with this. And I’ve accepted one or two of these paying gigs simply to see, “How do I feel about this? Do I feel terrible about this?” And I think it’s this thing of being honest and engaging around some of these some of these questions and being okay that we don’t have the answer. I think, for me at least, it’s super important to not sit with these questions, but to talk with somebody about them, you know? If it’s my wife or if it’s a friend or some colleagues, but there’s something that’s just hugely liberating round talking about this and then realising we’re all sitting with these questions, of course we are. If we’re not then it means that we’re still sort of repressing them.

L Gill: I think that for me a question that I’ve been bringing up with peers and colleagues, and that also feels uncomfortable for me and kind of came to mind when you were talking about the speaking fee discomfort, is about privilege.

And just the other day actually, I was having a conversation with some friends of my parents and I was talking about this podcast I’d listened to about the value of having some kind of retreat space or some kind of initiation ritual. Something where you take yourself away from the world, and you reflect, and you go through some kind of transition, and then you come back.

And this friend of my parents are saying, “Well, that’s all well and good for you to say that, you know, you can take yourself off to a yoga retreat or whatever. But what about people who can’t afford to do that or can’t take the time off? Or for whom that’s just not even a consideration? That’s just reserved for people with complete privilege.”

And it was confronting and I have been thinking a lot lately that I deliver workshops or talks or trainings to predominantly white middle class audiences. And sometimes I wonder, you know, is this making a difference? Is this impactful, this work? Or are we all kind of kidding ourselves here and sitting around patting ourselves on the back? And, like you said, I don’t know what the answer is. And I also try not to beat myself up about it. But I try to stay with the question at the same time and not shy away from that too much.

F Laloux: Yeah, I mean, there’s this beautiful Rilke quote, that talks about staying with a question, sitting with a question long enough until until the answer emerges. And until you live yourself into into an answer, I think that’s the best we we can do.

I mean, we are in a system that is so much larger than ourselves. And how juicy is it to ask these questions? I don’t know how you reacted when that person told you this. But I generally get really excited, like now I see something that I didn’t see before, right? And so what people see as these uncomfortable questions, I think they’re really juicy questions.

One of the things that was so interesting that came up with these CEOs, once they had named these things, was that they felt incredibly powerless about them. And it was an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. So these were pretty traditional organisations, not self-managing organisations. These are some of the most powerful CEOs in Brazil. And they realised that they were powerful within a very limited domain of acceptable decisions. But all the questions that we were asking were questions that if they acted decisively upon them, would feel really risky to them. The system might eject them quite quickly.

And so it was really interesting because we realised that they see themselves as being very powerful and their identity is attached to being very powerful, and they suddenly realise that “Actually, we’re very powerful on stuff that doesn’t really matter. And on the stuff that really matters to my integrity, I feel really powerless.” And that was a really hard feeling for them.

And again, can we just sit with that? Can we be okay with that enough, not to make it go away? And it brought up a fascinating conversation, where I asked them about their plan B.

I’ve since had this conversation with quite a few people and leaders when we talk about stuff that really matters, but they don’t have an answer for you. And I think it’s such an important conversation, such a liberating conversation where I asked him, “So let’s imagine you are really passionate about changing this thing where you feel a lot of integrity. And you’re taking real risks. Right, and the risk might pay off and it might not pay off, you know, maybe the system will actually reject you. Maybe you’re ahead of your time and the system can’t deal with what you’re doing, maybe it will hurt your bottom line, it will hurt your top line. What is your plan B? What else would you do in your life that would be equally interesting and fulfilling?”

And the interesting thing is that none of the 15 had a good plan B. They just hadn’t thought about it. Maybe there’s another organisation that would be actually more fun to work for, or maybe you’ll start something up with your sister, or your brother in law, or maybe some of them have enough money anyway.

And what we realised is that all of the fears were ego fears. It was that they would be seen as a failure in their circles of CEOs, they wouldn’t be invited to whatever CEO retreats and think tanks… but there was no real danger to their lives in any way. It was just an ego fear, but it’s a real fear. And I wanted to honour that. And what we realised is if I don’t have a plan B, I am, by definition, powerless. By definition, I will not take big risks. I will play it safe.

But if I have a plan B, suddenly, I become powerful. Suddenly, I’m free. I’m free to do something that I’m really excited about. And I think that the fears that we have actually never come to pass.

I have a good friend in France, Nicolas Hennon, who was a young leader of a fashion brand [Kiabi] and he did amazing things. Like he pushed towards self-management, a huge push for wholeness, very deep listening…

And Kiabi, just went through the roof, like in an industry that’s pretty shattered, they were doing extraordinarily well. The employees were incredibly happy, they were talking about the hard stuff around how destructive this industry is. And they were eco designing products, it’s amazing.

But he went so far that the board got cold feet, even though the results were spectacular. And they basically asked him to leave. But the fascinating thing is, what happened then was that he got 1500 messages from his employees, from spouses, from children of his employees, that thanked him. I mean, just the most beautiful messages you could imagine. And before the end of the week, he had four job offers that were amazing and he could just he could pick. And his next stage is actually more aligned with what he really wants to do.

And so I think that our fears, you know, actually never come to pass.

If we really act on the things that are important, we create such a chamber of resonance with so many other people that even if the system ejects us, it most likely will eject us to something better.

But while we’re dealing with those fears, that that seems like a distant prospect. But I think this question of “What is your plan B?” is an important question, even though you might never need your plan B because something even better comes up.

L Gill: Yeah, it makes me think about how powerful choice is, that we often act out of habit or default… but when we act out of choice, we’re more powerful in relation to everything really.

F Laloux: And plus, it makes our purpose so much bigger and so much more interesting, right? So many organisations, let’s be honest, don’t have a super exciting purpose. Like you’re making this car component. Yeah, ultimately it’s a product that helps mobility and helps people to see their friends and families and loved ones or go to work. So it’s a good purpose. Certainly, if it’s hopefully not a polluting car. It’s an electric car. And it’s a car that can be recycled at the end of its lifecycle. But, ultimately, you’re making this one component, right? How exciting is that? But if there is is a quest, like the quest from that Ray Anderson had for the last 20 years of his life that transformed his life, his life became so much more interesting. You meet so many more interesting people through that, right?

Let’s imagine that your thing is income inequality, like the fact that we outsource work and that some people have to work two jobs, three jobs to make ends meet, while I can take a yoga retreat. I don’t know how to solve that, but like, wow, this is juicy, right? This is interesting.

L Gill: I remember one of the first people I met where we really shared a passion, having just read your book, was a friend of mine Dunia, who I just had on a podcast actually, because she’s now working with K2K and their transformations. So she’s really excited. But she had this great frustration after reading your book that it seems for this to really work, you need to wait for the top leader to become enlightened, and to be open to these ideas. And she was really frustrated by that and felt like if we wait for that to happen, it’s gonna take forever!

F Laloux: People tell me this a lot.

L Gill: Yeah! And again, thinking about that group of CEOs – presumably they invited you there or there was a willingness to have an audience with you because of something in your book that felt okay for them. But there are so many people who don’t perhaps even dare go there. What do you say when people bring this question to you?

F Laloux: I mean, I think this question of the plan B is relevant at every level of the organisation, right? So in the middle management or somewhere, if I’m afraid that if I get fired, you know, it’s the end of my world, then by definition, I won’t take many risks. And some people are already in a situation where they’re happy to have that one particular job that they have, because they have no other options. And I understand that.

But for a lot of people, and certainly a lot of people who are listening to this podcast, that is actually not true. Lose this job and you’ll find something else. You won’t, you know, starve. So the fear is in our head, and I can completely understand it.

I mean, a number of years ago I was a consultant at McKinsey, and at the time, I had no plan B. I wasn’t really passionate about the corporate world. I knew that consulting wasn’t really the ultimate thing I wanted to do with my life. But I had no idea what else and so I felt really trapped. And it wasn’t until I figured out what else I wanted to in my life, what else could be interesting, or at least equally interesting, that suddenly I gained a lot of freedom. And so I think this question is just very, very relevant. Because then suddenly, you’re incredibly free. Now you can start to talk with colleagues about stuff that really matters to you. See: does it resonate with some colleagues so that you might start doing things?

And there’s some amazing examples. One of the companies I think is really interesting to watch right now, a really big one, is Decathlon, this sports goods company. They have a top management but it’s sympathetic to a lot of things, you know, self-management and so on. But there have been people at the bottom and the middle of the pyramid who have really been pushing the envelope without asking for permission. And I find that just hugely inspiring.

Like, an inspiring story for me was this young woman, 23 years old, sort of her first job and she worked in one of these sports stores. And she was at the customer service desk, getting a lot of the return products that people within, you know, seven to 14 days can return to products. And she realised how many of these products were directly thrown away, because it’s a sneaker and the white sole there was just a little grey or there was a mark that wouldn’t go away, or because the packaging wasn’t impeccable. And she was so shocked by that, like: how can we throw away perfectly good products?!

And she in her own store, without asking for permission from the hierarchy, got people to agree “let’s have returned items and sell them at a 20% discount.” And other people from other stores looked at this and she just had to sort of convince her store manager but no one beyond that. And that was that was it. So here’s this 23-year-old that was willing to say, you know, “I’m not okay with this”, like, “I’m not continuing to work here if I’m throwing away stuff.”

Or another person that was a product designer who I thought was just amazing. For her brand, the trekking brand of Decathlon, she decided when The Paris Agreement came out that “our brand is going to do The Paris Agreement.” Decathlon didn’t have a target and [she thought] “I’m not going to wait for them just for my brand… Let’s reduce by 40%, in so many years, you know, the CO2 footprint.” Like, how bold is that? To say “I’m not gonna wait for my top management, I’m just gonna set this target. And, you know, screw it if you don’t like it! Like, worst case fire me!” I mean, she played it a little bit more cleverly, but that was ultimately it.

I think degrees of freedom that we have are much, much larger than, than what we think.

L Gill: I think one of the things that that gives me hope is sharing stories. I mean, it’s a big reason why I started the podcast and I think why your book has resonated with people and your videos, the stories that you share, I think help to embolden people to realise, you know, those examples. That I don’t have to wait for permission. Or, you know, what am I prepared to risk in order to try something that feels more important or meaningful? Because I think sometimes I get a bit stuck in a rabbit hole of kind of adult development, like, you know, are we evolving as a species? Are we getting better? Or is there a critical mass coming, where there’s enough of us becoming, you know, more able to hold multiple perspectives and you know, all of this kind of stuff? Or is human nature just human nature? And have we always kind of fallen into this pattern? And are we seeing the beginning of the collapse of a civilisation? So I can go down that rabbit hole sometimes and sitting here now, perhaps I’m thinking, maybe that doesn’t matter too much…

F Laloux: I mean, in strange ways, I’m really hopeful. Amongst the very, very hard reality of how close we are to environmental and climate collapse, I feel that the soil is much more ready than we realise.

And, you know, I now live in the US and we’ve had this major sort of awakening after the murder of George Floyd. And it was interesting. I mean, there had been other things have been filmed before and almost equally horrific, but suddenly something was ready.

And I feel like for a lot of these questions of, you know, we could put them in a category of integrity, or inequality, or around the damage to the planet. And I think the soil is much more ready than we think. And things could suddenly erupt.

I’ll give you a fun fact that for me, just blew my mind. In France, you have this meditation app that you have in your iPhone or Android called Petit BamBou. It’s a subscription-based app. And I think it charges like five Euros a month. And this app has like five million subscribers when in Europe the French speaking population is something like 70 million. Five million paid subscribers for a meditation app out of 70 million, next to hundreds of meditation modalities. I mean, that just blew my mind.

So I think there’s a lot more ground that has been prepared as a lot more people are getting to the end of tolerating this cognitive dissonance, and they’re just waiting for the social permission to start talking about it. Just like we’ve had the social permission now around race in the United States.

And I think as soon as we have something, a fuse, a little detonator, people are going to want to talk about this. And people are going to want to say: “Yeah, I’ve never actually been really okay with this thing in my company and I really want to participate in in changing this.”

One of the things that I found so inspiring, like Nicolas Hennon and this sort of wholesale environmental reinvention, or the way Decathlon is doing it is that it’s not a top-down sustainability programme. But they were just encouraging everyone in the organisation to go and do an experiment. And so we’re really bold and really honest with [the face that] we’re part of the problem. And let’s just everybody, do whatever you can and experiment and play and change. And suddenly there’s a vibrancy and empowerment of like, “Wow, these people are doing that, and we’re copying this and this story is doing this. And you know, I’ve had this amazing eco-design training and now I want everybody in the organisation to have it…” and just amazing things that start to happen.

I think a lot of it starts with truth telling. I mean, a few months ago, I spoke with a CEO of the home care division of cleaning products of Unilever. And he is brutally honest about his business — both internally and externally, he’s talking this way to investors, but internally he’s saying: “Our business, the home care products within Unilever, has the same CO2 footprint as Hungary. We have the same water consumption as the UK. Every year the plastic that we use is the weight of the Eiffel Tower.” Right? And I think that’s the level of honesty and truth telling we need. And then saying: “And this cannot continue and we will invent our way out of this.” Right? And then throw that like red meat, like as a challenge to the organisation. Like: help us solve this because, we at the top in traditional organisations can’t solve this.

L Gill: Yeah, I think this is the shift that is so exciting to me. And it’s liberating, I imagine, for leaders, as you say, that you don’t have to have the answers to these questions. That actually, you’ll be so amazed and surprised if you’re really transparent with people. If you say: “Look, this is the deal. This is what’s going on. I have no idea what to do about this, but I don’t feel good about it. I need your help.”

F Laloux: People love you for that. Like, Nicolas Hennon’s experience was 1,500 messages when he left.

L Gill: I’m wondering if you’d like to share something with people listening to podcasts about your latest passion project, about The Week?

F Laloux: Yeah, I mean, it’s a bit too early to talk in-depth about it. But yeah, for some reason, I like hard conversations and a year ago, there was a Belgian couple that we didn’t know but there were some friends of friends who came to visit us. And they had read a book around the looming environmental climate collapse, and they were so shocked by that book that they decided: “Yeah, we want to change our lives… Making money in Silicon Valley is no longer interesting to us.” And so they came to spend some time with us in our eco village. And so fellow Belgians, you know, who are trying to invent a bit of a different life and we had fascinating conversations and I realised that they had the courage that I hadn’t had yet.

That there was still part of me that didn’t want to know. There was still part of me that was protecting myself from this reality, even though I moved from Belgium to a freaking eco village! And so I do all of the good things that you can do if you have a certain amount of privilege, like I recycle and compost and most of my vegetables come from the farm here and I drive an electric car. But still, every time there was a hard article, I would read the headline, and maybe the first few lines, and think: I can’t deal with this. Like, too much.

But they had the courage and they just wanted to know. And I was so impressed by their courage that my wife and I decided: “Okay, let’s do the same thing. And let’s see, this is almost sort of a spiritual experience and accept whatever emotional journey that comes with it.” And sure enough, you know, there was a lot of sadness, a lot of despair, real grief, of powerlessness.

But the interesting thing is you don’t get stuck there. And you come out of it, and at least we came out of it. And this is the story we heard from so many people who’ve been through this before, with actually much more clarity around what is important in your life.

It’s like, you know, when you have a loved one, a dear friend that is just really sick. Suddenly a number of things become much more important. A lot of things become much less important. You know, your life feels much freer in some ways because all of this little shit that you used to worry and complain about, now you’re focusing on what matters. And that’s what it felt like for us. And there’s a sense of aliveness and of meaning that came with that for us. And we’ve realised a lot of people go through the same sort of emotional journey.

And that’s where this idea for this project came up. For now, we call it The Week, and it’s based on a lot of readings I’ve done years ago that talked about the fact that the way we tend to address crises doesn’t work. The typical model is: give people the facts and they will wake up and they will act. The trouble is, it doesn’t work. It’s never really worked. You know, it hasn’t worked against smoking, it hasn’t worked against AIDS, it hasn’t worked against teen pregnancy, and it just doesn’t work. And yet that is the dominant model. It has been used in the climate movement forever. It has been used by Al Gore and by the IPCC, that UN body, that’s releasing these amazing reports.

And so I’ve been really interested in what works then, and what is a better playbook? Looking at what works and past movements like: how did the suffragettes or the civil rights movements or the colour revolutions get through fear and apathy there? I mean, the fear was very real, right? You go out on the streets and you can be beaten up and you can die, and yet they’ve managed to break through that fear and apathy. And their playbook was very different. It wasn’t give people the facts so that they wake up to act… And so if you cook it all together, and you say like — okay, now let’s apply this to climate change. That’s sort of the grand project that we’re trying to do. Will it work? I don’t know. But it feels like this is worth a shot. And so I think this is going to keep busy for the next two or three years.

L Gill: Yeah, that’s certainly exciting. It’s it kind of circles back in a way to what we started talking about the top of the conversation about different kinds of dialogues and conversations and sitting with the discomfort and being okay with not having an answer. And trusting that some some kind of clarity will come out, some aliveness, some purpose, some integrity on the other side.

F Laloux: Yeah, totally. How does this all resonate with you? And I’m curious, is there a place for this in your life right now? These kinds of questions?

L Gill: Yeah, definitely. When we first started our email exchange and we were talking about what we could discuss on the podcast, you know, I shared with you that this question about integrity started me thinking about — and the pandemic has made this clear for me — how much I was flying, for example. So immediately I felt this knot of guilt, like, how am I participating? I’ve been flying around the world a lot.

And so that definitely resonated with me. And also, your point before about when my parents’ friend confronted me — I, like you, get excited by that. So I do like to lean into difficult questions and and when something challenges my worldview, I get excited about that. And I think I’m realising that I’m more and more interested in the kinds of things that we’re talking about now, like what are the human things we need to do?

Because I think I’ve been experiencing that, you know, just talking about self-management and implementing some kind of structure or some kind of process or some kind of framework is less interesting. It actually seems to me that what makes the difference, to really shift something, is different kinds of conversations and sitting in this, you know, sitting in the fire.

F Laloux: I think probably the second video in my video series, Insights for the Journey, was specifically about that. Like when people come to me and say, “I want to turn my company into a teal organisation.” And I go, “No, you don’t want to, please!” I don’t get excited about this. Who wants to become a concept? Right?

But what is really exciting for me is to have that conversation around: what is actually behind that yearning, like what is it that that you’re no longer okay with? And what is it that you really longing for yearning for? And bringing that out into the light and often it’s juicy, but also a conversation that takes time. Often, we’re not very clear about our motivations. Right? And then we say, “Yeah, I just want people to self-manage” and I’ll be like, “Okay, that sounds like a noble goal, but why do you want that?” And then really understanding–you know, often it goes back to something very deep and very personal to sometimes their own childhood or just, you know, moments in their own life that have been the pivot point, stuff that they’ve experienced, moments where they felt powerless and that they’ve hated it, or they’ve seen their father or their mother being deeply unhappy at work or crushed by hierarchy and just never want this to happen again, or, you know, just some of these very personal motivations.

And then I go, “Okay, now we’re talking, now we know, and this is real energy.” So I couldn’t agree more with you. I mean, I am a bit of a systems geek, right? And I love to think about these systems like, you know, how could self-managing systems work… but ultimately, this is all just in service to some deep yearning that we have, or some clarity around like, “I will no longer do this.” But it’s a juicy conversation I’m having with leaders. It’s like:

“What are you no longer okay with and what are you really yearning for?”

L Gill: Yeah, I think those are two rich questions. And I think I’m getting better at it. But when I first started on this journey, I think I could have been much more provocative and challenging with people about their motivations. And I’m realising, you know, in terms of my integrity, that I’m no longer interested in working with people who are doing this for superficial reasons, are not really invested in it, because I also know what it takes for it to actually happen and to be meaningful and for people to really be touched by it. It’s hard. Like that’s another thing that I hear constantly and have experienced myself – it’s tough! You know, what you call in one of your videos “growth pain”. And for us to create spaces where that’s okay.

F Laloux: Yeah and I realise I’m in this easy position because of the success of the book. The people who come talk to me allow me to go to places where they might otherwise say, “ Shut up! I didn’t allow you to ask me these deep questions!” But for some reason they allow me to do it. But I think that being said, these are really the real conversations we need to have.

And I heard you say this, I listened to your podcast, the 50th episode, I enjoyed it. And you talk quite a bit about how hard this journey is and I’m curious like, I don’t know if you listened to this particular video where I talked about two ways of holding this journey. And one way is like, “Wow, this is gonna be hard. This is unprecedented, you know, we’re going against 5,000 years of human conditioning in terms of self-management, real growth pains…”

And another way to hold it is, “This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime. And this is going to be fun and deep down, we all want this.” Right? And one day I was really struck because you just mentioned K2K in the Basque Country. So for people who don’t know K2K in the Basque Country is this group of people who have helped 60 companies, maybe it might be 80 or 100 companies, move to self-management and they have an amazing track record of making that happen.

And the founding father, the leading figure, is Koldo [Saratxaga] who years ago transformed a much larger company towards self-management — hugely successful. And it was just so interesting talking to him and then talking to his colleagues who were all saying, “Yeah, this is so incredibly hard…people aren’t ready for this and it’s a slog…” And then I talked to Koldo about the same thing and he says, “No, this is fun! This is easy!”… And I realised that a lot of it was in the eye of [the beholder], you know? Koldo was just accepting that this was hard and he was enjoying these conversations…

And some of his colleagues, I think, were holding it as “now we need to lift these people up again and this is hard and they were taking this weight on their own shoulders.” So I’m curious, does that resonate with you? Or is it cold or numb?

L Gill: Yeah, it does resonate with me… My colleagues and I at Tuff we call it a productive or un-productive mindset in relation to what you want. And I also think about this amazing company in Sweden, Björn Lundén, this publishing company and the founder is this amazing character. He didn’t read any books about self-management or anything but has designed the company as it is because he knows no other way to be. Why wouldn’t he involve people decisions and so on. And so to him, similarly to Koldo, it’s easy. It’s obvious. It’s fun. It’s exciting. And I think often those sort of visionaries don’t have no a sense of how they do what they do or why they’re special. So that’s one thing that comes to mind.

And the second, I think, is that it’s kind of a paradox to me. On the one hand, I think people, myself included, go on this journey because it is exciting, and it does feel energising and the further you go in this direction, the more wrong or intolerable the previous state of affairs feels. And at the same time, I notice that a lot of people feel like, you know, as part of this author’s discussion the other week, where there was Aaron Dignan and Susan Basterfield and a few people who have written books about new ways of working and someone shared with me afterwards, “It was really reassuring to hear you all say that this is challenging, and that you struggle and that you don’t have all the answers…”

So I also notice that, somehow, it gives people permission when I say that, and I often talk about your video about growth pain, for example, where you say it’s natural to experience some kind of loss, in a way, like to let go of, for example, especially if you’re a manager, those status symbols and that’s okay.

L Gill: I know people always want to know something practical. We’ve talked about some examples of conversations you can hold or questions you can ask. But is there anything that you feel called to share with with people listening to this podcast now in terms of something that might help them on their journey? A step they could take, some wisdom that you’ve learned?

F Laloux: There’s two different questions in one, I think. You know, in terms of the practical things, I think people could go in very different directions. I mean, for one, there is so much practical stuff out there now. So people can look at some of the stuff in my book, they can look at a lot of things in your book, and in Susan [Basterfield]’s book and Liberating Structures. There’s actually lots of stuff that you can start with, and there is no right or wrong.

And the other thing is, you can also just simply trust yourself and go with, “What is bothering me? And what is it that I want to change?” and not actually look at any of those things, at least for a while. A lot of the founders that we’ve met hadn’t read any books, right? [So you can] just point out, like, hey, this budget process isn’t working for me. How do I do a budget process differently? Let me think about it, and maybe I look how other people did it, and so on.

There’s part of it that is just go out and do it. Have you always wanted to try something? I think there’s something weird in our culture around the level of permission seeking that has to do with the fact that from the youngest age, you know, we’ve had to ask permission to leave the dinner table. And then for twelve years in school we’ve had to ask for permission to to go to the bathroom. I mean, seriously, like, for 12 years… and I think it’s just so deeply ingrained in us that there is a part of like, okay, so I want to start in practice, but I’m still sort of waiting for permission. And maybe if I read it in a book, that is a form of permission and now I can do it right. So if that’s helpful, by any means do it. But maybe the most important thing is: nobody’s giving you permission. Take the permission. Like you can, you know, press pause on the podcast and you can repeat after me: I give myself permission now. I’m done ask you for permission to go to the bathroom.

L Gill: Yeah, I notice that even though people are given permission so to speak, you know, when someone declares: “Hey, I’m interested in moving in this direction and working in this kind of way and I want everyone now to be involved in making decisions” and so on…That even then a common complaint I hear from leaders is: “I gave them permission! Why is no one stepping in? Why is no one taking initiative or making decisions — do people just need to be told what to do?” So it’s fascinating to me how we have to constantly give ourselves permission and get permission. There’s so much conditioning that it takes more than just once for it to be undone, you know?

F Laloux: Yeah. You know, the kind of example that you just gave is an example where I often turn to Ken Wilber and his model of the four quadrants. People might be familiar with it. I actually mentioned at some point in my book.

It’s really powerful. So it’s a two-by-two matrix that says every problem you have, you can look at it from four different sides. And all of them are there, all of them are relevant, all of them are part of reality. And if you’re only looking at it from one side, then you’re missing the other three.

Basically everything has an inner and an outer component, like the inner component is just our thoughts and feelings. And what happens within the outer component is actually tangible, measurable things. And everything has an individual and the collective component. One way of saying it is everything has an internal individual component, my beliefs, my mindsets… And everything has an individual external component — my actions, my behaviours — that you can actually see and measure. An inner collective component culture, right, this thing that we all share in our heads and an external collective component, which is all structures and systems.

And so when you tell me you had this conversation with the leader, like, “I told people now, go into it, advice process, just do it, and then nothing happens!” And so maybe people just aren’t ready. Like maybe people aren’t mature enough. And that might be a reason, right? But it’s just one quadrant. It’s like this inner [quadrant], what is in their heads.

But maybe there’s something else holding you back. And so for instance, one of the projects I would look at is the systems quadrants, and say, “Yeah, but most likely, there is still a manager there. Somebody who will fall back. And so people are clever. They know this.” So, yeah, I’ve been given permission. But I still know that the manager is there anyway. So if things get bad he or she will deal with it.

So something shifts when we suddenly shift that system and the team is on its own and there is no more manager to fall back on. They immediately see if they do a good or bad job, you know, because their client is happy or unhappy. Trust me, they will start making decisions. But if the system isn’t set up that way, if they’re still having a manager and if they don’t see whether what they do makes other people happy or unhappy because they’re shielded from that reality, then yeah, most likely they won’t make any make any decisions.

So it’s interesting. You can talk about the corporate culture and train people for skills, but often I do look at some of the structures where people tend to default to “Oh, yeah, but you know, we should retrain people or we should sort of have a deep programme to change people’s mindsets.”

Maybe another example that comes up often is: people shy away from difficult conversations. So self-managing is working, but people don’t give each other hard feedback that is needed for self-management to work. So the default answer there is often: “Okay, we train everybody in giving feedback.” And so with Wilber’s quadrants, it’s sort of a behavioural thing. Let’s just train people behaviourally, right? That’s the upper right quadrant. And that might be a good way to do it. But I’ve heard from quite a few organisations that you can train people a lot in giving feedback but people often still shy away from it, right? Because we all are, to some degree, conflict avoiders.

But if you set up the system in a way where the team is directly exposed to whether they do a good or bad job, if the team’s directly in touch with the clients who are happy or unhappy, or with your internal client, the person in inside the company for whom you’re doing the job… And if there’s no fallback, like people hate that the job I do is bad, people hate an unsatisfied client. Trust me, if that happens, people will start giving each other feedback. And if they haven’t been given any training, it might be really clumsy feedback, it might be sometimes hurtful feedback. So by any means let’s train people. But training is not enough. And so I think that looking at these different quadrants is really interesting.

L Gill: Yeah, I think that’s really useful. And I’m reminded of one of your other videos as well with the leader of a hospital, who was noticing one team, having a lot of extra capacity and other team being overworked. And I think our tendency is often especially for leaders to notice, okay, this isn’t happening, or here’s a problem and to try to fix it to try to help. It’s well intentioned, but often, there’s a totally different root cause. So I think also just to be curious, like, okay, people aren’t stepping in, what’s that about? What’s going on? Let’s go find out what’s really in the way.

F Laloux: Yeah, exactly. And indeed not stepping in to fix the problem.

So one of the big differences for leaders in self-managing systems is, when people come to you with a problem, rather than fix it, you try to see: what is the actual tension here? And how could the system resolve it by itself? What is the intervention needed? What is the conversation that needs to happen? You know, for that system to self-correct.

And this example of you were giving: there was a team of nurses that was obviously overstaffed and their activity had come down, so they had too many nurses and other teams were crying out for support, they needed more nurses.

And when this leader asked the team that was overstaffed and said to them: “You’re obviously overstaffed, so, you know, please come up with a plan” and and then after a while, they came back and said: “No, we’re not over staffed” and she was furious. And she said, “Yeah, maybe people aren’t mature enough for self-management. This is not working.”

And we just looked at it like, yeah, but you are still trying to solve that problem. For them, you are still having a role in this. But let’s actually look: the tension wasn’t with you, the CEO, the tension was between the teams that are overstaffed and understaffed. So a possible intervention is to get representatives from these teams to talk with each other. Because, yeah, the overstaffed team can bullshit you as a leader, but they can’t bullshit the other teams, right? Like the other teams will say: “You are understaffed, and we’re in pain. We need help!” And so in this case, that was all that was needed.

It’s a it’s a big shift for leaders, I think, to go from me solving a problem to me orchestrating the architecture for the problem to solve itself.

L Gill: Yeah, I think it was Margaret Wheatley who used the analogy of a spiderweb and connecting the system to more of itself. And that’s the way to solve the problem, rather than trying to add something.

F Laloux: Maybe I should just use this for a shameless plug for these videos. I’ve been really bad at marketing these videos because I’m just generally bad at marketing. A lot of people who love the book and have been inspired by it don’t know that this video series exists.

So there’s a video series of 130 videos that I created after the book came out. The question in the book was: Is it possible to run organisations based on a whole different worldview? And to me, obviously, the answer to that is yes.

And so the next question that came up was: So as a large or medium or small, traditional organisation who wants to go in that direction –what does that journey look like and what what are some insights that I’ve gained since the book came out? These episodes, 130 videos, they’re freely accessible on the website. So I think there’s good stuff in there. Tonight we actually talked about two or three of those already.

L Gill: Yeah, so often people ask me questions that you’ve answered exactly. So I say, well, have a look at this video and then come back and let’s talk about it!

F Laloux: That was one of the reasons I did it as a video series rather than a book because I felt like it would be so much more immediate, like if people have a question or they get stuck in one particular thing, you can actually just watch a 10 minute video, rather than you know, buying a book and and finding the paragraph. And you can just share it with colleagues rather than, you know, photocopying or scanning the pages of a book.

L Gill: I mean, you published the original book, then there was then the illustrated introduction and now this video series and now, having these conversations with CEOs about integrity… What is your hope for this word of mouth phenomenon that you’ve created? Where do you hope it might go next, in terms of the impact that it has or how it touches people around the world?

F Laloux: I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never known! You know, this thing is having its own life and I’ve been actually really okay with letting it have its own life and letting go. And I mean, the big change that I see since the book came out for me is that when the book came out, I think there was a real sense with a lot of people that our current system is broken. It wasn’t working. But then there wasn’t necessarily a lot of conversation about what else is possible. I think what has really shifted is for people who are interested in this, who feel that the system is broken, it doesn’t take them long to stumble upon that something entirely different is possible. Whether it’s my book or your book or other books, I mean, there’s there’s just like this whole conversation of, you know, there’s something else that is possible. I think that is a huge shift that has happened.

I think that I’m just looking forward to the day where there’s a tipping point. And people rather than looking at these things as outliers and pretty radical go: Oh, you still have managers and management, you still do that? Where that suddenly that becomes outdated. And we never know how these norms flip. But we know that that social norms slip, that narratives slip.

I’m fascinated with how quickly the narrative around smoking flipped, right? Like, within two years, at least in Belguim where I used to live at the time, we went from me feeling really bad in a restaurant to go ask a neighbour to please try to get the smoke in a different direction because it’s bothering me, and I would feel shy about doing this. It would be uncool to people apologising for smoking and stepping out on your balcony when they come to your place. And it’s a trivial example, but it just shows how quickly deep social norms can can flip. And I’m looking forward to the day where that happens with management.

And I feel that COVID is an interesting accelerator in a way. Who knows how it’s gonna play out, but I think on all of the three breakthroughs right now that we talked about, it’s been an accelerator, like on self-management. Right? We suddenly realise: people can work from home and we don’t know how many hours they work, and we can sort of trust them. We have no choice but to trust them. And productivity seems to be there or even higher.

And then I think the next question that a lot of organisations aren’t asking yet, but it’s gonna come is then: But what are we paying the managers to do? And they might come at it from the wrong angle, which is cost cutting, and we’re paying all these managers… but this question is going to come up. So I think this is going to be a big accelerator where people are just going to wonder, like, what is the role of a manager in this distributed, socially distanced world?

I think the piece on wholeness is quite fascinating where people see each other’s interiors and homes and people talk about the Zoom shirt, where they have this this one blue shirt, and they quickly put it on before a Zoom meeting and you know, up to here, it’s okay if people don’t see what you have below when you take that shirt off, and you feel really silly doing it. It’s sort of a break in transparency, like when you went to a different place, and you don’t say you dressed up for work. But here suddenly, it’s even more jarring that you have to put on this thing. And people increasingly feel like they shouldn’t.

L Gill: And seeing people’s children too.

F Laloux: Yeah, yeah, totally. And the purpose side… one of the things that I find interesting is hearing stories of, you know, often you’re not in a space in this area by yourself and you have a spouse or a roommate, or somebody who’s overhearing some of your conversations. And suddenly you hear about these boring meetings, like the senseless stuff that you’re involved in for a good part of the day. And you can no longer hide it from your spouse and from your roommates. What difference does that make when suddenly we see in the eyes of our spouse or our roommates, that so much of the stuff we do is isn’t that productive? Isn’t that meaningful? So I think we have only scratched the surface of what COVID really means in terms of the acceleration of some of these trends.

I’ve had a lot of journalists reach out who wanted to know what the impact is going to be and and when I shared some of these insights, they were like, “Oh, we’d never thought about this!” It goes much further than what we typically talk about, like getting people to come back to the office and when people miss the office and those kind of things.

L Gill: Yeah, people have asked me that question too. And I hadn’t thought about it in terms of those three breakthroughs, but I recognise all of those shifts, having sat on a lot of Zoom calls and meetings and online trainings and stuff myself.

Well, maybe that’s a good place to draw the conversation to a close. I’m just so grateful that we got the chance to have this conversation. It’s been really challenging for me in a good way and I really enjoyed sitting with some of these tricky questions. Thank you so much for your contribution, in general, you’ve been a huge inspiration to me, and many of the people who listen to this podcast, so thank you.

About the Leadermorphosis podcast

Leadermorphosis is a podcast exploring the emerging world of self-managing organisations and radical ways of working. Hosted by Lisa Gill, each episode features a guest thought leader or practitioner offering a unique perspective on new and innovative ways of working.

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Founder of Reimaginaire, trainer and coach with Tuff Leadership Training, host of Leadermorphosis podcast.

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