Work and the mental health continuum – Ezra Hewing’s work on changing perceptions in organisations

I am very happy to have received this article to publish from Ezra, who like me has a deep interest in the philosophy and dynamical way of seeing of Henri Bortoft.

Erza Hewing

In this case study, first published in Human Givens journal Vol.19 No.2, Human Givens Practitioner Ezra Hewing describes his work with an insurance company to change its perceptions about employee stress and wellbeing. The conclusion, influenced by the work of philosopher Henri Bortoft, reflects on the differences between holistic perceptions, arising when seeing through the lens of clear organising ideas, and  ‘systems’ or mechanical approaches to wellbeing. Also included are references to key Human Givens insights, such as the power of metaphors to shape individual and organisational perception and behaviour.

Download the paper (pdf): Work and the mental health continuum

As a member of the BCI network (Biomimicry for Creative Innovation) I was interested in Erza’s discussion around moving from mechanistic to organic models of the organisation:

By providing a clear understanding of essential emotional and psychological needs and how they can optimally be met, the human givens approach has an enormous amount to offer businesses that choose to adopt a ‘living organism’ philosophy. Essentially, workplaces involve people, and so the degree to which we work in tune with the givens of human nature determines how well they are able to function.

The paper I think will be of interest to many of you who are involved in any form of organisational change, and how we can shifts people’s mental models of their organisation.

Sometimes when people talk about a holistic systems approach, all that they mean is that they are taking more variables into account. This can still be mechanistic thinking. Erza takes the dynamic and organic approach, where we do not see the system as a static whole of which we can stand apart from and describe as an object, but where we view it as continually “coming-into-being”:

The holistic perception of needs is authentic in the sense that the individual or organisation is perceived as they really are; coming into being from moment to moment. While completing an Emotional Needs Audit captures a valuable snapshot at a specific time, our emotional needs are constantly in flux, and so they should be; our shared need to be stretched drives us to refine our emotional templates, seeking completion, and when we stop doing so we stagnate. The same is true for a business or an organisation; if it is to be “dynamic” and in tune with the evolving needs of its workers and customers, it must be “unfinished” and never “fixed, ie dead”. A living organisation, as opposed to a machine, must conform to the law of living things, which the human givens approach articulates; a life form must take nutrition from the environment and absorb it correctly into its organs in order to sustain and repair itself.

I hope you enjoy the paper as much as I did.

About Ezra Hewing

Ezra Hewing is the community development manager at Suffolk Mind. His previous roles include coordinating community mental health services, teaching young offenders and adult prisoners, and working in substance misuse. He gained the Human Givens Diploma in 2006.

4 responses to “Work and the mental health continuum – Ezra Hewing’s work on changing perceptions in organisations

  1. I thought this was a really interesting piece – thanks Ezra and Simon!

    Having worked with organizations myself and considered some of these issues, Ezra’s experiences certainly resonated with me. But I also found myself thinking about Henri’s work has informed my work, which has been in the rather different area of corporate branding. And I’d like to share some of these thoughts, as I sense the dovetail with what Ezra describes.

    Many of the issues I’ve been asked to grapple with the fact that modern organizations are frequently not a single entity, but actually a complex mass of different parts and levels, with individuals often feeling a sense of identification to several of these parts simultaneously (akin, I sense, to a person having multiple nationality or, perhaps better, to someone being a Scot, and thus a Briton, and thus also a European – while also at the same time being from Aberdeen, and a hairdresser!) With the penchant for mergers and acquisitions – as well as disposals (not to mention corporate restructuring) – employees are often caught up in the processes of change, and frequently don’t have a clear sense of what it is that they belong to. (To make this even more fragmented, the turn-over of staff in most organizations means that many of the individuals that make them up are in the process of transitioning between employers, too).

    Thus the metaphor of the ‘living company’ – so beguilingly presented by Arie de Geus and others in the early nineties – is more a myth than a reality. In the area of communications, however, it has become a rather pernicious myth, as we find speech acts attributed to ‘the company’, as if it were capable of articulating a point of view different to the individuals that, at any one time, make it up. This would seem to have been a significant element in the recent financial crisis, where the idea that – for instance – ‘the bank’ was somehow more than the sum of its members inhibited individual members of staff from questioning what they were asked to do, exercising common sense or taking responsibility for decisions.

    I’ve come to see that the idea of the company as a ‘superorganism’ is an example of the same phenomenon Henri describes with Systems Theory (and Systems Thinking). That is, it is an example of *counterfeit wholeness*. And this kind of counterfeit wholeness is a beguiling trap – far more beguiling than Henri’s lucid analyses and critiques sometime suggest. (I remember, in my greener days, asking at one of Henri’s seminars whether Goethe was describing the same thing as Sheldrake’s ‘morphogenetic fields’ – the rather withering response I got, which did contain a very clear explanation of why ‘fields’ were an example of exactly the (Neo)Platonic two-world view Goethe’s work challenged, acted as a very effective immunization against the ubiquitous counterfeit-wholes in our intellectual culture).

    What I came to realize, following Henri’s lead, is that ‘the organization’ comes to presence in the speech, behaviour (and let’s not leave out feelings!) of the individual. There are than 90,000 Royal Dutch/Shell’s, not one. Or, rather, Shell comes into being in more than 90,000 different ways through the individuals who are involved with it. Each of these is a wholly unique and particular expression of the company: it comes into being in a quite different way for the office cleaner than it does for the member of the court of managing directors (as, of course, it must). And, of course, it is not just one Shell that is coming to presence, but a rather blurry hologram made up the numerous wholes within this workplace that each employee is a part of – the immediate workgroup, the professional community (e.g. finance), the division, the operating company, the group (even the ping-pong club).

    Following Henri, I have come to realise that a far better (and safer!) metaphor for the organization than that of an organism is, instead, *a text*. It’s something that human beings have authored (and are still in the process of authoring), which comes to meaning in different ways for different people in different times and in different relationships to it. It is *an intention* to convey meaning. And, as Henri puts it (in Taking Appearance Seriously): “The meaning is what is intended – in French it is the voloir dire, the ‘want to say’ – but which is always more than can be said, even though we try to say what we mean.” Organizations are always trying to express, and understand, these meanings through their activities and communications, but will never conclude this task because: “What is intended, the meaning, can never be expressed completely… because the context… is just as much part of the meaning, and evidently this cannot be included in the content.”

  2. Hi James,

    Your observations that people often don’t have a sense of where they belong within an organisation, and why they are there – what the meaning of their role is within the wider context of the organisation’s purpose and aims – is spot on; these are some of the innate needs that must be met if we are to thrive and lead healthy, constructive lives. Unhealthy working environments are undoubtedly exacerbated by poor relationships and, therefore, a lack of clear communication between employees.
    I think that some of the problems you describe arise when people mistake the metaphors they have chosen for concrete reality, in much the same way that systems thinkers mistake the description of a ‘system’ for the whole. In organisations driven by individuals who’s vision is disconnected from the experiences of employees, we might expect to see the use of grandiose metaphors which shape the way people see, feel and behave; the fate of an adrenalin-and-caffeine fuelled CEO springs to mind, who, when his health inevitably failed, was overthrown by the ‘Tigers’ he had created, having neglected to remind them that tigers need to sleep for 18 hours a day…
    I think this holds true for metaphors in general and so wisdom is required if they are to be used judiciously. I love your ‘text’ metaphor, and the way you have described using it is shaped by the knowledge that meaning is necessarily unfinished and ever evolving. However, it would be easy, in the wrong hands, for a text metaphor to become as misused as ‘organism’ metaphors. If senior management have a very different sense of the text’s meaning from customers or shop-floor staff, and if there is no shared responsibility for authoring the text, might it become meaningless to some of supposed authors? Might they become disconnected from it? What happens if one of the authors insists on regular full-stops? Or sentences which are too long? Where does this text live? Can employees find it on a shelf or look it up on the company intranet? I’m exaggerating for effect I know…
    Organism metaphors do bear a closer relationship to our social, psychological and biological natures, but are only helpful only when underpinned by a clear understanding of our shared innate emotional needs and resources. Perhaps, the healthy use of innate resources would balance access to reason – the current dominant mode in many parts of the world – with our ability to perceive the world through metaphor.

  3. Ezra, you raise what is for me the biggest question about the organization. Because of the kind of work that I do – which is often understood by managers to be the creation of a representation of the organization that is somehow superior to the reality (‘the brand’: a term I’ve come to loathe!) – this issue of ‘grandiose metaphors which shape the way people see, feel and behave’ is a difficult one. I’m tempted here to fall back on distinctions Iain McGilchrist makes between true metaphors and representations, since management thinking often seems unable to understand metaphor *as* metaphor (and that is where much of the difficulty comes from). But I want to stick with Henri’s perspectives, as I think he has something equally important to say about this.

    Just now I was reading Ingrid Leman Stefanovic’s tribute, in “Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology”, which Simon signposted earlier. And there was one passage that particularly struck me:

    “Within philosophical circles, there have been important critiques of holism. For instance, in The Case for Animal Rights, ethicist Tom Regan claims that environmental holism is necessarily ‘eco-fascism’ because individuals, such as animals, are sacrificed to an omnipotent whole, such as an ecosystem. Bortoft, however, demonstrates that authentic holistic thinking has nothing to do with creating a dominant ‘super-part’ to rule over individual components sacrificed for the good of the whole. On the contrary, by brilliantly contrasting the image of a hologram with an ordinary photographic plate, he shows how the ‘whole’ is properly reflected in the ‘parts.’ He writes:

    “If the hologram plate is broken into fragments and one fragment is illuminated, it is found that the same three-dimensional optical reconstruction of the original object is produced. There is nothing missing: the only difference is that the reconstruction is less well defined…. The entire picture is wholly present in each part of the plate, so that it would not be true in this case to say that the whole is made up of parts… On the contrary, because the whole is in some way reflected in the parts, it is to be encountered by going further into the parts instead of by standing back from them.”

    I sense that Stefanovic’s point about the ‘eco-fascism’ speaks directly to your
    concern for the way senior management can dictate the meaning. The corporate brand frequently is just such a false-holism, where concepts like ‘shareholder value’ become the hijacking superpart (although these days one has to feel for the poor shareholders, often abused by managerial cadres). But there is *also* a holographic truth to the organization, even if is obscured by systems-thinking: ‘Counterfeit gold exists only because there is such a thing as real gold.’

    I don’t think I had realised quite how much Henri’s approach had informed the work I do with organizations until I read ‘Taking Appearance Seriously’ over the Christmas break. Because over the years I have found myself instinctively ‘looking for the organization’ in the experiences and perceptions of people (often finding casual conversations with people with quite lowly positions in it more revealing than the carefully considered statements of senior management). As a kind of corporate storyteller – although I’m a bit wary of ‘storytelling’ in organizational contexts – all I can hope to do is to give voice to the same meanings, through my own lens and tools, as everyone else does. More, of course, must inevitably remain unsaid than can be said. But if I am to be at all successful in this enterprise, it is by forming an impression of that meaning (or meanings) and allowing it to come to appearance in the form of visual language. That is a very different enterprise from creating a representation, even if it often confused with it. The proof is that it will be as recognizable to the janitor as it is to the chief executive.

  4. Pingback: Pat Williams talks to Henri Bortoft about Goethe’s Approach to Science | Transition Consciousness·

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