Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Anti-Slavery Campaign Interview Series. David Brubaker

Overcoming Organizational Enslavement in a Chaotic World

David R. Brubaker, Associate Professor of Organizational Studies. David earned a BS in Business Administration from Messiah College, an MBA from Eastern University, and a PhD from the University of Arizona, where he specialized in the study of change and conflict in religious organizations. David has trained or consulted with over 100 organizations, including in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Since graduation from college in 1980 David served with several community development and conflict transformation organizations. These roles included Associate Director of Mennonite Conciliation Service and Assistant Director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Recife, Brazil program where he became fluent in Portuguese. David is the author of numerous articles on conflict transformation, both in organizations and internationally. He is also the author of “Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations,” published by The Alban Institute and co-author (with Ruth Hoover Zimmerman) of “The Little Book of Healthy Organizations,” published by Good Books.

Yago: David, you are very much welcome to this blog called “Breathing Forgiveness. Embracing the Giant Wound in the Naked Now.” As you know it aims at deconstructing the energies of enslavement that keeps paralyzing the discovery of our real identity and potential as humankind. In this interview I would like to look at it from the organizational perspective. The goal is to gain new awareness in understanding the role organizations play in the enslavement or liberation of people. But first of all David, could you share with us what brought you to be interested in organizational life? Could you share with us your curriculum on this regard?

David: Thank you, Yago, I’m honored to have my thoughts included with the other highly regarded individuals you’ve interviewed on this impressive blog. My interest in organizational life began with a fascination with congregational life. My father was a pastor, and I noted growing up that congregations could be the best of places (offering identity, belonging and meaning) and yet could also become the worst of places (spawning separation, alienation, and pain). An institution with that much promise and potential for pain intrigued me, and I realized once I entered the work world that virtually all organizations had the same capacity. Over the years I’ve developed four courses at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) relevant to organizations, including congregations. These are “Developing Healthy Organizations” and “Leadership for Healthy Organizations” (both for the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding), “A Systems Approach to Organizational Behavior” (for the MBA program), and “Managing Congregational Conflict” (co-taught with Mary Thiessen Nation for the Seminary).

Yago: In "The Little Book of Healthy Organizations" you say that organizations are best studied as living systems. The metaphor that you like most to use for an organization is a living tree. Could you elaborate more on this? Could you introduce briefly the main components of an organization related to the living tree?

David: Every organization is an “open system” (meaning it’s open to its environment) that goes through a normal lifecycle (meaning that it’s born, grows, matures, declines, and eventually dies). I use the tree metaphor to symbolize this organic (living) nature of every organization. The root system represents the structure of the organization, both its social structure and its physical structure (buildings). The trunk represents the leadership of the organization, both formal and informal. And the leaf and branch system represents the culture, which can only be fully understood by those willing to climb the tree (enter the organization) and see it from the inside. The organizational tree is nested in a complex set of environments that include the social environment, the political and legal environment, the geographic environment, and the organizational field (whether academic, medical, corporate, governmental, etc.) to which the organization belongs.

"The family is the first organization"

Yago: Could you tell us how our family experience (its organizational style) shapes our understanding/behavior within an organization?

David: Those of us who work with organizations often quip that “the family is the first organization” that every human being experiences. That’s part of the reason that family systems theory is so explanatory, helping us to understand why many (especially smaller) organizations behave the way they do. For example, many of our expectations of leadership are shaped by our parents or primary caregivers. If they have a collaborative relationship with open communication we will expect the same from leaders in organizations we work with. But if our primary leadership models were authoritarian and patriarchal, we will see such leadership as “normal” unless we’ve made deliberate efforts to shape differing leadership assumptions in our own mental models.

Margaret Wheatley
Yago: Margaret J. Wheatley in her book Leadership and the New Science, says that life uses information to organize matter into form, resulting in all the physical structures that we see. She keeps saying that for a system to remain alive, for the universe to keep growing, information must be continually generated. The source of life is new information, novelty, ordered into new structures. We need to have information coursing through our systems, disturbing the peace, imbuing everything it touches with the possibility of new life. It looks to me that mobilization of information and awakening to a new consciousness of information being everywhere are key for health within organizations. What can you say about this?

David: I was just reading “Leadership and the New Science” last evening in preparation for an SPI course in “Developing Healthy Organizations” where Joanne Lauterjung Kelly and I will use Wheatley’s classic as a primary text. In the traditional (mechanistic) model of organizational life, “communication” was a finite resource that had to be “managed” and “controlled.” But in the organic approach that more recent scholarship has embraced, information and communication are infinite resources that renew organizational life by infusing new ideas and possibilities. Communication is no longer something to be managed and restricted, but rather to the embraced and released. Organizational members intuitively know the difference, and tend to respond with greater trust and respect to leaders who are open with information and encourage its free flow through the system.

Yago: Wheatley thinks creatively when encouraging us to check what metaphor to we give to information. She says that another organization was able to change its approach to information by changing its metaphor. Instead of the limiting thought that “information is power,” they began to think of information as “nourishment.” What is the role of meaningful metaphors when we talk about information in organizations?

David: Metaphors are mental models that allow us to wrap our minds around difficult concepts. So when we see information as “nourishment” we are much more likely to drink at its wells and also to share it freely than when we see it as a finite source of “power.” Likewise, if we view organizations as mechanistic systems that have to be “managed” we will tend to develop control systems that reserve power and authority for those at the top. But if we see organizations as living systems whose members thrive when treated with care and respect then we will develop support systems that empower individuals and groups to experiment and create.

Open Systems
Yago: I would like to tackle the issue of intelligence within organizations. Wheatley says that organizations are open systems. If a system has the capacity to process information, to notice and respond, then that system possesses the quality of intelligence. Could you expand this insight? How does an organization become intelligent in practical terms?

David: Because an organization is a living system rooted in a particular set of environments it is dependent for its success and even its survival on three primary resources from those environments—people, resources, and information. No university, for example, could survive for more than a few years without a regular influx of students and financial resources. But an organization is equally dependent on a regular inflow of information from its environments. Universities must monitor developments in the financial, technological, and lifestyle worlds of potential students if they are to successfully attract and serve them. If only one person, say the university president, is doing all of the external monitoring then a very limited amount of information enters the system. But if all members of the university are attentive to these dynamic environments and are actively reporting on and discussing changes, then the entire system is alert and activated. It is, in Wheatley’s language, “intelligent.”

 Flow of Information

Yago: We live in a world where access to information is everywhere. In fact intelligence could be the way we are able to select what information is valid for the organization. It is never the volume of the information that matters. Wheatley says that it is only the meaning of information that makes it potent or not. When information is identified as meaningful, it is a force for change. What can you say about the importance of creating meaning from information in organizations?

David: This is where the “information revolution” becomes particularly challenging, if not overwhelming. Because the volume of information entering and circulating within every healthy organization is indeed overwhelming, it is a constant challenge to “make meaning” of all that data. This is why a classic management response is to try and constrict or “manage” all that information. But a far more productive response is to nurture the organizational strategy and culture (particularly its vision, values, and norms) so that there is a consistent screen for organizational members to process all that information. Rather than attempting to restrict the flow of information, we open the floodgates but provide several clear channels in which that information can flow and be processed. Within the torrent of ideas, which ones truly fit our mission and vision? As we work to implement them, how can we do so in ways consistent with our values and norms? A clear and shared strategy and culture thus becomes an information manager that is available to every member of the organization, not just a select few.


Yago: How are the new discoveries in the line of quantum physics and emergence theory are challenging the traditional way of understanding organizations?

David: Perhaps the greatest contribution of the “new science” that Wheatley writes about is its displacement of traditional leadership models of “command and control” with more relevant models based on connection and cooperation. Quantum physics encourages us to see the various ways in which energy (process) creates matter (structure), and the fluid nature of the relationship between energy and matter. When applied to organizational life, we begin to focus less on how things are structured and more on how things are processed. Relationships start to matter more than roles, and information becomes a free-flowing currency that energizes productivity. Organizations are viewed not as mechanistic structures but as living organisms. Structures need to be “managed,” but organisms need to be “nurtured.”

Yago: We live in an amazing changing world where organizations are being challenged constantly. Organizations live in multiple environments. You say in your book Healthy Organizations that in general, the power of an organization’s environment acts on the organization more than vice versa. Could you expand on this? How does the environment determine the running of an organization?

David: Because organizations are living systems nested in a particular set of environments, they will be regularly shaped by those environments. Much like natural selection processes in the biological world, organizations that refuse to adapt to a changing environment will eventually be selected out of those environments. For example, a religious congregation located in a particular neighborhood that refuses to adapt to the changing needs and demographics of that neighborhood will decline and eventually die if it doesn’t make adaptive changes. Of course, it should make those adaptive changes in ways consistent with its deepest values and beliefs, but if it refuses to many any changes it will eventually die.

Yago: You are currently the academic director and practicum director at CJP. Could you tell us what concrete steps CJP is taken so to update itself to the ever demanding and challenging times. What kind of methodologies are in use so to be more effective in today’s world? How is CJP dialoguing with the world and its needs? What is the sense of identity of CJP?

Lynn Roth
David: I would give significant credit to Lynn Roth, our executive director, who led a strategic planning process last year along with a “strategic planning task force” that I was part of. We did a significant “environmental scan” and then looked very carefully at our core mission and vision. We also sent surveys to all of our alums and to as many SPI and STAR participants as we could reach, along with scores of other colleagues and friends around the world. As a result of the feedback and analysis, we decided to build on our greatest strengths—our diverse and experienced students, our commitment to practice, and our rootedness in a faith community—and to work to more fully integrate practice into our core mission (education and training for peacebuilding). This clear identity and purpose conveys  greater clarity about what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to in the midst of the many requests we receive and opportunities that we face.

Yago: Let us talk about unhealthy organizations. How do they behave? How do they enslave people? What kind of subtle mechanisms are used for that? How lack of self-criticism is empowered?

David: It’s not like there are only “healthy” or “unhealthy” organizations. Rather, there is a continuum of organizational health where you’ll find organizations all along that range. But those organizations that cluster at the most unhealthy end of that continuum tend to share three traits in common. First, they feature leaders who are either highly controlling or emotionally absent (either one is destructive to organizational life). Second, they are structured in ways that are either rigidly hierarchical or completely fuzzy and confusing. Third, they possess organizational cultures that are either exclusive or lacking boundaries altogether. In other words, highly dysfunctional organizations are either controlling, rigid, and exclusive OR fuzzy, confusing, and boundary-free. Either extreme leads to organizational dysfunction and enslave people in different ways.

Yago: You say that an organization’s culture generally serves to bind its members together and provide shared meaning and identity, but it can become exclusive and dysfunctional. It can become a malignant presence when it hinders the organization from pursuing its mission. Could you expand on the meaning of culture within organizations? What are the determinants of culture? How does this apply specifically to the Catholic Church being the largest and oldest organization currently existing?

David: Every organization develops a culture, which is simply an accumulation of what the organization has learned over time about the best ways to deal with its challenges of external adaptation and internal integration (Schein). What determines culture is a combination of the personalities and values of the organization’s founders and its experience over time in its unique set of environments. What makes culture visible are its values, rituals, artifacts, and narratives. The older and larger an organization, the more embedded its culture tends to become. As one of the oldest and largest organizations in the world, we can safely predict that the Roman Catholic Church has a supremely well-established culture and structure. Neither will be easy to change….

Pope Francis
Yago: Pope Francis, in his Pentecost homily, invited us to be aware of transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness. He said: "Are we open to 'God’s surprises'? Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new? We would do well to ask ourselves these questions."
David, putting yourself in Pope Francis shoes, what kind of organizational steps/measures would you take so to make the Church a more lively Institution faithful to the original style of Jesus?

David: It seems that millions of people around the world have been deeply impressed with Pope Francis’ visible commitment to the poor and to viewing the Church as an instrument of God’s peace and justice in the world, rather than as a self-serving institution. I pray for Pope Francis’ success at transforming the institutional structures to truly serve the poor and others on the margins of society. At the same time, there is overwhelming empirical evidence that “the system trumps the individual,” even if that individual is at the very top of the institutional structures. If Pope Francis wishes to be an instrument of sustained transformation he will have to do three things. First, he will have to adopt a time frame that is at least two or three decades long—which means that the transformation period may outlast his own tenure as Pope. Second, he will have to build a “guiding coalition”—a critical mass of change agents that will partner with him to work for change. Third, he will have to anticipate significant resistance from those who have a strong interest in maintaining the current institutional structures and culture—and find effective ways to neutralize their efforts to forestall change.

Yago: The Second Vatican Council defined the Church as ecclesia semper reformanda”, holy and sinful, slowly growing towards maturity. During the last years the Church has been challenged by sexual abuse scandals and hierarchical power issues. The Church more than ever is in need of reforms. These reforms must be taken from within. To my understanding, it is very important to become aware of ways that dysfunctional dimensions of an organization can affect our capacity for change and creativity.  David, how does a dysfunctional organization promote/create dysfunctional behaviour on its members? Could you give some examples?

David: The primary way in which a dysfunctional organization protects its own dysfunction is by establishing “no talk rules.” A no talk rule generally exits to protect the status quo, and thus those who currently hold power within the organization. For example, some religious organizations insist that they will not ordain women, and they then quickly squelch any attempt to question or even discuss the issue. Thus, the no talk rule essentially protects the male monopoly on formal authority within the organization. It’s a brilliant, if tragically disempowering, method to insure that power relationships never shift. Thus, if we want to change embedded relationships within an organization we often have to first challenge no talk rules. (And expect significant blowback when we break the rules.)

Yago: As you just have shared one of the determinants of organizational culture is the historic experience of an organization. In order to grow healthily an organization is invited to deconstruct and embrace its past, with its goodness and successes, but also with the failures and disasters. How important and healthy is to name reality, to do “shadowboxing,” at organizational level?

David: As I mentioned earlier, organizational culture is constructed not just by its lived history but even more by the stories that organizational members tell themselves. Thus, we narratively construct our historical memories. But since we construct them, we also have the possibility of deconstructing and reconstructing them. When some members of an organization decide to start speaking truth about the organization’s past the first response will be denial and repression, as no talk rules apply to chosen histories as well. But over time organizational narratives can shift, just as they do for entire societies. I was raised with a version of American history that stressed how brave settlers fought savage Indians in their quest to spread civilization across the continent. My boys were exposed to a much more accurate (and tragic) version of the decimation of native peoples and cultures as the colonists moved west. Narratives change…despite resistance.

Yago: You say that the Churches do tend to be effective at transmitting belief, but they do not always shape the leadership style in ways that reflect the leadership of Jesus? Could you elaborate more on this insight?

Servant Leadership
David: Up until the last two generations we could have predicted with nearly complete accuracy what religious tradition an adult would adhere to simply by asking what religious tradition s/he was raised in. But passing on beliefs is a far cry from shaping behavior. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus describes himself as being among his disciples “as one who serves.” This modelling led to the rise of the “servant leadership” school of leadership thought, which frankly has been embraced more frequently by secular organizations than by religious ones. I’m pleased that all of the graduate programs at EMU are now exploring how to prepare our graduates to practice “leadership for the common good,” a leadership model that prioritizes the good of employees, customers, communities, and the world—not just the enrichment of CEOs and stakeholders.

Yago:  You say that every organization and every human being eventually faces the same three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness. Could you expand on this? How does this affect the Churches core values, especially compassion and love for the enemy and for the underprivileged?

The Temptation of Jesus
David: While in the wilderness Jesus faced the same three temptations that every human being faces—to prioritize our own needs, to seek fame, and to accumulate personal power. While meeting one’s own needs, receiving recognition, and possessing power are all normal and appropriate human responses, when we do so at the expense of others they can become destructive. Jesus refused to use his great power just to meet his own needs and instead used it to heal and feed others. He also deflected the celebrity status that people wanted to grant him after performing such deeds, crediting instead the power that comes only from God. Finally, Jesus used his power not to overthrow the king in the palace but to throw out the money changers in the temple, insisting both that the poor should not be cheated and that Gentiles had a right to worship.

Peter Block
Yago: Peter Block talks about community as a structure of belonging. The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions, and our communities. How structure and belonging marry together? Can an organization aim to be a community?

David: I’ve consulted with or mediated in over 100 organizations (30 of which were congregations) since I first accepted this calling (to help develop healthy organizations) in 1987. While these organizations included for-profit corporations, government institutions, and non-for-profit organizations, every one of them functioned as a community of people as well as a formal organization. Thus, I tell my clients that by definition their organization is also a community—the only question is how healthy of a community it will be. Most of us will spend at least half our waking lives (8 hours per day) in the context of a variety of organizational communities (including schools, workplaces, religious congregations, and other formal associations), and therefore they will affect us at least as much as do our families. Every human being needs a sense of identity, belonging, and meaning—and a healthy organization (just like a healthy family) will contribute to fulfilling all three needs. An unhealthy organization, tragically, will demean and diminish all three needs.

Yago: You say that organizations take on lives on their own. They are born, they grow and mature, and most eventually decline and die. Human organizations are thus much like the life cycle of other organism that inhabit this world. Organizations are dynamic and interdependent systems. In this regard, in my theological thesis at Tangaza College (Nairobi) I proposed four ecclesiological (organizational) models/metaphors that the African Church is invited to integrate and live simultaneously in order to navigate efficiently in the extremely difficult and complex conditions of today’s Africa. These models are: the “Pilgrim Family of the Paschal God” (“ecclesia semper reformanda”, holy and sinful, slowly growing towards maturity); the “Compassionate One” (embracing the pain, ender care that nothing be lost); the “Suffering Servant of Yahweh” (immersing herself in the pain of history, disfigured… ); and the One “Bringing Voice to the Voiceless” (the revolutionary one).
You say that evolutionary change is more successful that revolutionary change. Could you expand on this in the context of these models?

David: I would need to spend considerably more time reflecting on the four models you propose, but the concepts of a “pilgrim family,” “compassionate one,” “suffering servant,” and “revolutionary one” strike me as four conceptual models that would fit a religious congregation or institution in almost any society. The Apostle Paul wrote about his desire to “become all things to all people,” and I believe that the church has a similar calling today. There are times when the church needs to journey with, to suffer with, and even to (non-violently) “revolt with” the people that she is serving. With the nearly constant change that we are now experiencing around the world, however, continual, adaptive change processes will prove to be more effective for organizations such as churches than will episodic “revolutions” that radically disrupt the status quo but are generally not sustained. The historic reforms of a “Vatican II,” for example, were easily overturned by successive popes, whereas the profound change accomplished over time by a Church continually reforming will not be.

Yago: Organization change when leaders change. How does this apply to the Church?

David: It’s important to know who I include when I say “leaders,” as I’m not talking only about the formal leaders in the organizational hierarchy. Rather, religious “leadership,” for example, includes not just the ordained but also the lay leaders who provide the key energy and direction for that congregation or organization. So when I talk about “leaders changing” I mean that a critical mass of the formal and informal leaders have made a significant change. We almost never get 100%, but we don’t need 100%. Rather, we need to have a sufficient critical mass that the change is both initiated and sustained.

Social Capital and Community

Yago: The Catholic Church has an amazing Social Capital. Her level and potential for networking is beyond definition. Still we see that its real impact in concrete international and domestic policies in today’s world is very precarious. Why?

David: Every organization, including religious and academic ones, faces the temptation to become self-serving rather than other-serving. The older and larger they are the greater this temptation, so again the Roman Catholic Church will be vulnerable to this temptation. But universities are equally tempted, as those of us who are faculty members start to believe that the real purpose of the university is to support our careers and our scholarship. Instead, we must remind ourselves of how incredibly fortunate we are to be part of a diverse and energized learning community, and that the overarching priority of the institution must be the education of students and the co-production of knowledge—not institutional maintenance and faculty benefits.

Helder Camara
Yago: You have being living for three years in Brasil in the 80’s. You had the privilege to witness a very lively Church in Recife Diocese under the leadership of Bishop Helder Camara. What can you share with us of your Church experience during that time? How Camara envisioned the Church as a healthy organization? How does it relate to the bottom-up model of emergence theory?

David: I would love to talk more with you about this incredibly energizing time in our lives and the life of the Recife/Olinda diocese with the leadership of Dom Helder Camara, but it would take far more space than I think you would want to devote here. Suffice it to say that I have never experienced a time when the church was so alive, and the people who comprise the church so hopeful.

Yago: What happened when you returned few years later? Why do you think that occurred?

David: When Dom Helder Camara retired and was replaced by Dom Jose (appointed under John Paul II), there was an attempt to purge the “liberal” elements of the Church in the diocese. This led to the closing of the seminary in Recife and the disappearance of most of the lay Catholic communities that had been meeting for weekly Bible studies. In the desire to “control” the Church the energy and enthusiasm was wrung out of it, a truly tragic by-product of traditional command and control thinking applied to a living organism.

Yago: How do we create a conflict-healthy organization?

David: A conflict-healthy organization is characterized by three attributes. First, there is a general attitude that conflict is natural and normal, and therefore is not to be feared or avoided. Second, there is a culture of approachability (modelled by leaders) that invites disagreement and moves towards disagreement and conflict rather than away from them.
Third, there are mechanisms in place (such as mediation and an ombuds office) that are offered to help individuals deal with conflict when it has escalated beyond the point of effective interpersonal communication. How do we create such an organization? We start behaving as if it has already arrived. When members start behaving this way, particularly those who are formal and informal leaders, the conflict culture begins to change. Sometimes the assistance of an outside coach or consultant is also needed to help the whole system move forward in healthy and incremental ways.

Yago: We become fully alive when we are co-creators. Identity is a crucial issue. How can an organization become fully alive, with a sense of flexibility of constant newness?

David: We’ve been talking a lot about change and agents of change, so I want to put in a good word for what I call “agents of stability.” The organizations that I have experienced as healthiest (and most alive) tend to have a delightful balance and respect between the “agents of change” and “agents of stability.” While the latter may appear at times to be the ones who resist change, when I talk with them I realize there is something very precious in the history or tradition of the organization that they are trying to hold on to. If we can learn to value the agents of stability alongside the agents of change we will find that there is a delicate symmetry in organizational life, and that we are embracing both the new and the old. But when we demean those at either end of the spectrum, we will create destructive conflict and contested identity (such as we now see in the U.S. Congress).

Yago: Leadership as meaning-making… Leadership as a journey of self-discovery… How can an organization live in the now? What kind of mechanism (inner design of the organization… roles, leadership positions, use of power and rank…) are needed so that the organization becomes really organic and interactive with the environment?

David: What I have learned from your “butterfly model,” Yago, is that the inner journey matters every bit as much as the outer journey. Therefore, leaders who are going more deeply inside themselves (often with the help of a guide on that inner journey) will also find themselves able to accompany an organization on its own inner journey. It is that journey of self-discovery (both at the individual and the organizational level) that will allow an organization to reach out into its environment with a clear sense of identity and purpose. Organizations that are clear about their identity and purpose (that possess a clear mission and vision) will be far more successful than organizations that are fuzzy or opaque about their identity and purpose. Just as in nature, an organization survives and thrives in a particular environment because it has established an ecological niche.

Yago: Richard Rohr in his last book Immortal Diamond speaks very clearly about the urgent need to find the “unified field of love” and then start our thinking and strategizing from that point. What nourishes really an organization? How can living in the Now nourish and challenge an organization?

David: I first entered the world of work in 1975 as a recent high school graduate working as a dispatcher for a trucking company, and I have been employed by eight different organizations in the nearly 40 years since that first full-time job. When I look back at the various organizations I worked for and the many colleagues and supervisors I worked with, I realize that there is one essential difference between the leaders and organizations I loved working with and the ones I did not. That essential difference—leaders I loved and respected cared about me (and my colleagues) as human beings, not just as human doings. While they valued productivity and encouraged clear goal-setting, the leaders I most respected valued relationships even more. What most nourishes an organization? Leaders who love—what they do as well as who they work with. What most destroys an organization? Leaders who use and abuse the people who work “under” them. Those of us who are leaders, formal or informal, must also strive to be lovers.

Yago: David, thanks a lot for your wonderful contribution to this blog. We have gained many insights in our call to live meaningfully within organizations.

David: Thanks to you, Yago!