Madness and Magical Thinking – Everyday Life in Organisations

8850-munch-the-scream-e1336013995741I’ve given myself 90 minutes to write something worth saying. Why so little time? I’m caught up in the doing of organisational life… and life generally. I feel the pressure to keep moving, no time to pause. I have to get an enormous amount of stuff DONE… and yet also feel compelled to speak up and name some of what I am experiencing, even though this will be incomplete.

I am re-experiencing something that I felt strongly 15 years ago when working with one of the world’s largest consultancies: the dominant way of talking about and making sense of what is going on in organisations is woefully inadequate.

I feel caught by the same dilemma that I see my clients experience. How do you talk about the complexity, contradiction, doubts and dreams, hopes and hopelessness we privately experience when the public conversation in organisations seems so restricted? The bandwidth of our public conversations, what gets talked about on conference calls, in town hall meetings, in teams and formal meetings,  leaves out whole realms of experience. The public conversations seem magical – in the sense of magical as unreal – as we conveniently but disastrously leave out the untidy, difficult aspects of what is going on; the bits we have no idea how to influence or control. This is where madness creeps in, as a gap opens up between what we experience and know (cognitively, emotionally, intuitively, somatically) and what feels possible to say. We can feel like we are mad in the sense of something is wrong with us; we are left privately with the messy reality whilst publicly it all seems so straightforward.

As individuals we spend lots of mental and emotional energy making sense of, worrying about, or pretending this gap doesn’t exist. This is mostly a private activity, late night/early morning reflections or in our dreams, or over a drink with a friend/close colleague. The trouble is that whilst it remains in the informal, private space the magical, unreal conversations carry on in organisations.  And nothing changes. This path of collective ‘madness’ and magical thinking has unintended, unnecessary costs: to the individuals in terms of their well-being and motivation; to organisations as valuable data, about where they are and where they could be, is lost to the system.

So where do we start in breaking through the madness to sanity, and from magical thinking to a more grounded experience of reality? Here’s a list of some things I’m doing.  A starter to which I hope you will add:

  • Practise mindfulness – our capacity to pay attention in the present moment without judgement. I have an individual daily practice of ten minutes of pausing, breathing and becoming more present. This is supported by two longer practice sessions of an hour each week where I join a group of people in Brighton who practice mindfulness together and periodic longer retreats. I’m curious about how we create shared or collective mindfulness in organisations. There is an opportunity on 5 & 12 June in London to explore this further with three master teachers in this emerging field of collective mindfulness.
  • Take our freedom seriously. I have the possibility of being an Independent Middle. I am using ‘Middle’ in the way Barry Oshry describes the relational space where we are caught between the pulls of different realities, people and groups, each with their own needs, perspectives and priorities.  How do I retain my independence of thought, judgement and action in service of the larger whole?  We don’t just have to react and be subject to the pulls and tearing around us. I have a choice in how I respond. I have to recognise that the feelings of powerlessness, confusion and aloneness are mainly systemic and come from my disconnection from others and my own experience: the gap I spoke about earlier.  When I integrate with others, whilst honouring the difference between us, then both my feelings and my sense of power transform and grow. The feeling of madness dissipates as I realise that others have been suffering the same private dissonance. 
  • Speak up – how do I get a sense of what is needed and connect with others to explore concerns, dilemmas and possibilities? How do I find my voice and skilfully speak up about what matters? The skillful part is important; my favourite leadership book by Ron Heifetz is subtitled, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. I also need to remember that powerful speaking up (advocacy) is always connected and grounded in deep listening to myself and others (inquiry).

In making this shift of awareness and action Pablo Neruda, the poet, invites us to start with a moment of quiet.

“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”



13 Responses to Madness and Magical Thinking – Everyday Life in Organisations

  1. Nick Mayhew says:

    this feels rather relevant to us in all sorts of ways… i like it v much n x

    • John Watters says:

      It’s good to know it feels relevant. There’s always the risk that you are in fact mad – living in a universe of one whilst everyone else is in the other universe.

  2. Rick Rocchetti says:

    John, as always, thanks for your thoughtfulness. A few thoughts:
    the skill and practice of improv. Saying yes and building on others thoughts. This leads to a level of shared experience, from which the things that you mention take some shape.
    The skills of improv are listening, being in the present moment, saying yes and building on it to create something meaningful.

    My disclaimer: saying yes is not always appropriate, and is always an option.

    • John Watters says:

      Using improvisation approaches to join with others and expand the realities we are experiencing is really helpful. And as you say being able to say no too is important.

  3. Mike Rynex says:

    John, thanks for this. It takes me directly to an experience I have been having lately when asked in the context of the organization development work I do, “how are things going?” Increasingly I am at a loss for words and your reflections start to give shape to this. I am in the UK this week and back with a team we worked with together some time ago. I am going to share some of this with them. – Mike

    • John Watters says:

      Mike. Good to hear from you. I’ve been struck by a number of client contexts recently where to my looking there are no easy, ready answers and yet the public conversation is full of prescricptions, ready diagnoses and actions. My dis-ease is that whilst some of these may be part of the solution(s) it also covers over a deeper level of knowing, filled with anxiety, contradictions and uncertainty. It’s this territory which is also important to explore.

    • John Watters says:

      Mike, In response to your comment I recalled Robert Kegan who underlines the importance of how we speak (to ourselves and others). “The forms of speaking we have available to us regulate the forms of thinking, feeling and meaning making to which we have access, which in turn constrain how we see the world and act in it.” (Seven Languages for Transformation, Robert Kegan, p.7)

  4. This rings a lot of bells. Mindfulness is a wonderful antidote to the pace generated by the ‘unrealness’ of public or corporate conversation – a different kind of magic.

    I’d add that creating spaces in which to have genuine conversations, away from the pub and early morning / late night thoughts, is a valuable practice in itself, and embodied by the blog here. So, thank you.

    • John Watters says:

      Thanks Charlie. I’m all for working at pace when it’s needed and possible but also for sensing what pace is required now in this situation and being ready to slow down (or pick up pace). I’m aware that anything done at a fast pace in situations of high anxiety and complexity where you need shared understanding and commitment is likely to produce more of the same problem. Mindfulness, if we can bring that presence of mind to the situation (not easy and in my experience it’s a quality which comes and goes) enables you to judge issues of timing and pace.

  5. larbas1 says:

    Thanks for our blog!
    Two things comes to mind John : My 14 year old son has right now conversations with his principal and teacher around his exeperiences as a “customer” in his school. They are making progress around issues that my son thinks is critical for him as a pupil and I stand in the back-ground, astonished and happy. They give an example of sharing “more grounded experiences of reality”; that I thought was not possible yet in the schoolsystem.

    The other thing that comes to my mind is about the role as a Consultant. To free up space for the client to speak about how it is to live in the organization in a deeper sense; that is often very meaningful to me and the client. At the same time I´ve detected that I initiate conversations with colleagues (and also customers actually) with the purpose to reach more “grounded experiences of reality” as a consultant as well. The system I live in as an independent Consultant is not giving me a space or free middleness. I have to free that space up; all the time.

    Warm regards
    Lars-Johan Bastås, Sweden

    • John Watters says:

      I love the example of your son Lars-Johan: we need such stories to encourage us. And in terms of your role as consultant I’m reminded of Barry Oshry and his view that we need to cultivate the skill and courage to be Independent Middles. I hear you say we maybe should not expect it to be easy. I agree. All the best, John

  6. Sometimes I just stop a group and ask ” what’s not being said here?” and wait till the tension rises. Paul Mitchell, Sydney. How are you young fella?

  7. Susan says:

    Thank you John, This is wonderful. Isn’t it funny how in our busyness and faced with the madness of complexity we create a to do list? May I add to your list? Learn and tell stories (like Lars-Johan did). I’m trying to be mindful of, internalize, and tell the stories where I see them happening. I get ideas and others do as well of how to be, move, become. I also try to listen as those I am engaging with try out some “what if” responses within their/our context. Susan

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