Dare to drop your gang face?
Relationships and bossless organizing. A joint inquiry.
Over the past six months I had the privilege to breathe the Enspiral air in Wellington. I am keen to learn more about the personal relationships at the foundation of this experiment in non-hierarchical organizing.
My journey across the continents started inconspicuously, when I stumbled upon the network’s unusually polyphonic choir of thoughtful reflections on their ways of working. It continued with a couple of engagingly open interviews turned conversations and eventually led to an unquestioning invitation: a research visit! During my preparations and arrival I experienced a wave of undeserved trust, or what someone would describe to me as assumptions of benevolence and care later on.
A dozen people made space for video calls to meet all my insecurities around immigration, housing or schooling for our boys. Once we arrived they not only shared their knowledge and contacts but also their things. Literally! We had to camp in our empty house for a few weeks, so ‘strangers’ would lend us their furniture, mattresses and kitchen-ware. They drove us around as well, needless to say.
I soon learned that Enspiral’s relational landscape is not primarily linked to bossless organizing but to a yearning for purposeful ways of working, where people are engaged with their whole selves — from work-life balance to work-life fusion one might say. Thus, many people speak about a sense of professional family or tribe that they have found. Where Enspiral has been most successful, I‘ve been told, is not with its advances into non-hierarchical organizing. It’s with the idea of an organization where interpersonal relations are sufficiently close to encourage reflection, learning and growth not only in the occasional away day, but every day.
In an open space workshop during a member’s retreat which I could kindly attend as an observer, I was stunned by a range of impressive moments of co-facilitating a workshop. Little cues and comments, like ‘speak more from the I’, ‘time’, ‘how can I say this non-judgmentally?’ or ‘thanks for sharing’ were deployed flexibly by different individuals. Moreover, I witnessed various unobtrusive gestures: After someone started raising a hand, all the hands went up to signal silence. At the same time wriggling one’s fingers signaled inaudible clapping. Another distinctive feature was the use of metaphors to crystallize a discussion and to carry it on.
‘People who drink the Enspiral Kool-Aid over some years turn into facilitation monsters,’ a friend of mine jokingly remarked. Indeed, I witnessed people as strikingly adaptive to bodily needs in the room. They were offering backrubs and little signs of affirmation, silently opening a door to let in fresh air. I became entangled with one of those tacit embodied circuits, when I observed someone carrying out an insect of the workshop space. Later, when we were sitting outside another person gently played with a rain worm. Suddenly, I found myself anxiously looking around, as I had casually ripped out (and therefore ‘killed’) some grass to fidget with. Embodied processes of knowing, in this case my felt pressure of a tacit value agreement, exercise power everywhere. Developing relational and reflective capacities to pull them out of the subconscious may not be the worst idea.
In one of the pivotal moments of that day a participant suddenly voiced his frustration with the prior discussion in front of the whole group. The reaction was not awkward silence or a sheepish tension as one might expect, but honest and empathic clarification that helped to bring the discussion to another level.
I soon learned that I had observed something very mundane in Enspiral’s culture. A practice some are calling radical sharing. Expressing personal feelings of unease or revealing some kind of weakness can break a tension and helps to unwind group discussions. ‘I’ve always thought of it as throwing myself off the emotional cliff,’ as one Enspiralite put it: ‘It’s quite uncommon for people who are leading groups to show vulnerability, and when you do it, it really helps to shift the energy in the way people relate to each other.’
Navigating emotionally nuanced environments
At Enspiral creativity and entrepreneurship thrive, because people feel safe to show up with their anxieties and needs. I see it as a space where a collective sense of collaboration and belonging trumps the industrial notion of individualized cooperation. People admit that it often feels painstakingly hard to resolve the old ideal of professional, rational and efficient relations at work. But ultimately, it’s rewarding to expand this narrow band of acceptable communication and relatedness.
To me Enspiral embodies a way of organizing where relationships are everything, where the myth of organizations as entities is exposed for what it is: a cheap trick to bind and motivate disenfranchised individuals. We seek for caring organizations, but hang on to an illusion. There is no Enspiral, only mundane ‘hard work’ to continuously build caring bonds. Eventually, this may be seen as a testing ground for Alain de Botton’s vision of translating the ethical practice of community building from the churches and temples into secular but sacred spaces.
And now bring your own story to this blog!
It is part of my research to collect stories of relational encounters. You can help me with that in three simple steps:
1. The above account, illustrating what I called organic facilitation and radical sharing are part of a larger set of observations which I describe in the chart below → scan through them.
2. Does one of them relate to a memorable experience from your bossless context? (both Enspiral and non-Enspiral are welcome)
3. Write a brief experiential story that fleshes out my observations (yes!), discards them (whooha!) or adds something new (aaaaahhhhhhhhh!!).
Please contact me anytime, if you feel triggered to tell one of your formative moments or uncanny encounters! It can be very short. Any genre — from fable to screenplay — is possible. And I offer my support in the writing process.
Withness talk is a term coined by the late John Schotter and refers to an interaction where the participants’ intentions and aspirations have a place in the discussion. It’s not about understanding a topic that is over there in a rational and imaginatively objective manner (as in aboutness talk). In contrast, withness talk means relating the concrete emotional experience of the other to my own. You sense first and think second.
People at Enspiral have instituted multiple practices where they sit together in circles and practice withnessing: Mundane check-ins and -outs at the beginning and end of most meetings, the recognition of sharing as a gentle practice of uttering a rather undefined unease, but also more radical sharing of tension-laden emotions as well as group formats on the annual retreats like a big sharing circle or so called home groups (in which you regularly meet a small number of people over the course of the event).
These practices open up spaces to speak in experiential accounts while others try to listen intentionally. In my own experience your prejudices quickly dissolve, once you understand the insecurities of other people, you forgive yourself more and that sort of stuff. Storytelling changes the space between us — it invites a recognition of something in my own experience that makes a unique connection between us. I’ve heard people at Enspiral talk about this as an experience of delightful difference, ‘which doesn’t come easy’ .
This umbrella assembles a number of practices within which people try to facilitate agreements and organize initiatives in the network. Unfolding is a term borrowed from ecologically inspired architecture. It ‘slightly resembles patterns’, but is actually entirely different. While a pattern describes a fixed shape that should be realized, an unfolding focuses on the process of development. ‘It acts to generate form’. Whenever I witnessed people engaging in practices, like organic facilitation, the smooth oscillation between online and offline facilitation, or introducing rhythms and rituals, they had an idea of what was desired and needed, but no concrete plan of how to get there.
Leadership at Enspiral often means creating frameworks to iterate on experimental solutions in a culture of continuous participatory change. Whatever proposal coming forth, has always been building on what was already there. Practices of unfolding suggest a step by step approach that doesn’t lose sight of the whole. In fact the whole is always embodied in its parts.
In this emergent organization people’s voice and feelings are actively encouraged to contribute to the formation of solutions. Such a form of organizing involves the doers who are moving in the space every day, who are seeing, feeling, and taking action. In that sense practices of unfolding can never resemble ready-made solutions to be replicated in other organizations.
As people got rid of a formal management structure, they quickly had to learn that they had removed formal care structures as well. Subsequently, relying on informal care structures proved tricky. At Enspiral mostly a small group of people, which was predominantly female, did the work of caring for the community. Some got overwhelmed by the sheer amount of emotional labor and for the worse their work remained hidden and unacknowledged.
People are referring to this as a tension between caring too much and not caring enough. The network has seen people who were falling through the gaps, for whom there was not enough care. On the other end there were plenty of individuals who tried to care for too many people and burnt out on the way.
One consequence was to formulate a stewardship agreement, which essentially is a reciprocal circle of coaching relationships, a space for having repeated trusted reflective conversations. Less institutionalized practices are celebrating, thanking and gifts, breaking the taboo of touch as well as positive gossip to organize support.
The inevitable downside of a positive culture of celebrating success and nurturing relations, is that the acknowledgement of failures moves into the background. I perceived a paradox: The network is very good at rapid change; dismissing processes that do not work and deploying iterative solutions in an experimental mindset. But personal failures or interpersonal conflicts tend to stay in the dark. Some groups within Enspiral try to address this though: ‘It is part of our social contract to speak up about little conflicts. It is a commitment to each other to having the conversations that you don’t wanna have.’