All living systems are very sensitive to environmental conditions, because this sensitivity defines their permanence. Fundamentally, all living systems are able to recognize something that appears as "new" in their environment. These disturbances activate warning signs that are necessary to redefine the responses to these new living conditions. Human systems are sensitive to the context conditions, like other living systems. But human systems have the singularity that our sensitivity does not have mechanical or genetic neutrality. Our singularity is composed by interpretations, ideas, emotions, perceptions and values. This means that the context for people is an incomplete puzzle (which permanently changes), which defines an unfinished picture of reality (because we always have to resolve empty spaces). The interesting thing is that only humans can understand that they are taking everyday decisions based on a context that has the scope of an incomplete jigsaw with unfinished images.
How do we transform perceptions of threats into alternatives of development? How do we transform resignation into determination? How do we expand the limits of personal territory? How do we generate alternatives movements? To transform these (and others) experiences, we must restructure the emotional territories to expand opportunities in the present and extend more alternatives in the future. People live in a virtual reality that defines everyday movements. The transformation of daily life depends on an emotional connection with the events. To reshape reality is necessary to transform the experiences that define the characteristics of the environment where they live.
The responses of human systems to something "new" depend on how they describe their living conditions. Therefore, depending on what we see, what we feel, what we think and what we project; decisions will be more or less attuned to the facts. Each contingent on the context introduces a gap in the subjective images that people have of the context. The essential factor for survival depends on how those gaps are filled. This means which ideas, emotions, concepts, experiences, memories, etc., complete the internal image to give meaning and significance to these external aspects.
In organizations, vulnerability begins with rigidity and an inability to generate new responses for new situations in the environment. Organizations keep a state of vulnerability when they approach the present based on the past. This situation is exacerbated in contexts of transformations.
Why do organizations fall into the paradox of failure? When decisions are based on outdated paradigms that do not correspond to the dynamics of this interaction, their decisions not only enlarge the problems, but also strengthen the structural vulnerability of the system (organization, company or society). In this context, the everyday routine of organization is focused on managing the constraints, rather than the generation of alternatives and possibilities for development.
The cycle of vulnerability in organizations is caused by three structural conditions: 1) when the organization suffocates in its own routines and transforms everyday processes into a compulsive stereotyped sequence of actions; 2) when its activity is based on structural symptoms which transform the possibilities of development into a set of hypochondriac behaviors and 3) when organization becomes emotionally fragile and reduces its movements to a territory of hostility and threats. These conditions create the cycle of vulnerability, which could be expressed in a formula that involves: inefficiency (the difficulty of responding to something new), inertia (the impossibility of transformation) and resistance (the fear of disintegration):
inefficiency + inertia + resistance = vulnerability
The relationship with the everyday facts is a relationship with subjective interpretations and explanations of everyday facts. The landscape we face daily is a virtual reality supported by a neural network connected by chemical components that define the "color" of these images. In the virtual reality, the subjective meaning of the world generates an emotional impact. And, at the same time, the emotional impacts also affect the meanings.
Emotions regulate behaviors through chemical discharges that emerge as responses to contact with certain facts. All living systems, from unicellular to social, respond to the dynamic of context. But in a case of people, these responses are mediated by the personal experience of events. In other words, the characteristics of the context are based on our personal interpretation, which more or less is connected with reality and facts. Interpretations define the meaning of events which are emotionally colored by certain molecules. This combination of chemistry and meaning sets the way each person experiences everyday events.
Emotions are the chemical component of our behaviors. Emotions are complex programs of actions, usually automatic, inherited by evolution. In fact, there are a set of universal emotions, not learned, that can be recognized in all cultures. Our experiences are not neutral image.
Experiences are “subjective packages” arising from the articulation of two processes: the content related to certain situations and emotional position regarding this content. The frame of contents is defined by cognitive interpretations of events (what). The other process responds to chemical answers that define the emotions related interpretations (how). Both processes operate as a unit approach to daily events. The relationship between these two processes is described by the following formula:
content + emotions = experience
In personal experiences there is a direct relation between interpretations (meanings) and emotions (chemistry). Subjective interpretations can change the chemical components of emotions. Similarly, chemical reactions can change subjective interpretations. A thought can change brain chemistry, as well as a physical event in the brain can change a thought. Feelings are emotions associated with certain thoughts. The sequence is as follows: an external or internal stimulus triggers a specific chemical discharge, which generates a specific emotion (fear, joy, anger, sadness, etc), depending on the type of molecule involved. This is a natural reaction of the body when facing certain situations. But in the case of people, the emotions take a particular meaning from thoughts that generate specific feelings. Feelings are a combination of chemical reactions and thoughts. The experiences can be triggered both by an emotion or a thought. But at some point, both processes begin to reinforce each other, generating global feelings. Feelings are made up of a set of simultaneous processes: the stimulus that generates reactions in the brain, the response in the body and ideas that accompany this reaction.
To transform experiences is necessary to change the conditions that create those experiences. In this context, the transformation of experiences in the organizational context has a dual approach: maintain clarity of content that defines the interpretations and maintain the quality of relationships that define emotional responses. Let's see how to address each of these aspects to develop a process of transformation.
Clear the contents. This dimension refers to the management of content that influence personal interpretations and collective explanations for certain situations that affect organizational life. This area of intervention aims to generate a coherent framework of processes and shared situations. These ideas should be clear and simple to constitute a reliable reference on living conditions in the organization. To manage this framework of content, there are three important aspects:
- Share key ideas. To maintain clarity of ideas is necessary to have consistent answers about the reasons and justifications for the movements of the organization: external and internal. It is important to define a few simple ideas to share. At the same time it is necessary to clear rumors and reviews the content circulating in different media to keep the relevant information at different levels of the organization.
- Maintain feedback. This point is related to the management of the explanations of the events that affect the organization. This requires expanding the spaces for dialogue to enable care for the quality of the contents, simplify information access points, and generating processes for managing participation and opinions of people.
- Define a framework of performance. This point aims to define the organizational expectations on certain roles to guide the actions of people in their workplaces. Excessive bureaucracy and indiscrimination role, cause responses that have no relation to the demands and needs of the context. Organizations often transmitted isolated ideas, generating confusion, poor performance, and weakening confidence in people. This fragmentation and incoherence decrease the responsiveness of organizations and teams. It is necessary to provide details on the characteristics of the processes, the personal role in every process and organizational goals with those roles defined.
Keep the quality of relationships. This dimension refers to the management of relationships that define the emotional positions of people in their workspace. The approach in the quality of relationships aims to maintain an appropriate emotional environment for integration and motivation of people. To address these emotional conditions are necessary three aspects:
- Reduce hostility and threat. The threatening contexts activate the neurobiological circuits of fight or flight. Consequently, the body prepares for attack and all biological processes are oriented to survival. Cognitive activities weaken. Thoughts become automatic, negative and compulsive. Anxiety affects decision processes. Reduce hostility creates a favorable emotional context to think, create and decide. This requires maintaining the threat alarms at manageable levels. Alarms are activated against an unknown context of unexpected movements and uncertain consequences.
- Encourage the participation and integration. This process activates the neurobiological circuits of empathy, cooperation and reward. This facilitates self-management performance through neurobiological processes that enable autonomy, concentration and determination on personal goals. This requires building learning environments that allows integration and cooperation between people, reinforce positive experiences and enhance communication and empathy attitudes.
- Inspire challenges and recognize people. This process activates the neurobiological circuits that allow positive mood and personal enthusiasm. These neurobiological conditions encourage creativity and the development of ideas, decreases anxiety levels and strengthens resilience facing pressure situations. To activate this circuit is necessary to maintain levels of long-term challenges in people and teams, encouraging diversity in the working groups and generation of new experiences.
The concern to maintain economic performance and personal well-being is a topic of major interest in most organizations. On the one hand, it is clear that there is a limit to growth rates in many sectors in all regions of the world. On another hand, due to global interdependence, instability is present in all decisions. In pursuit of an improved quality of life, organizations have generated a variety of responses. The dynamics of the current context pushes human systems to innovate. These decisions are related to restructuring the patterns of life in order to maintain the capacity for response to new conditions of the context.
All decisions in human systems are based on a purpose. In the human system, this purpose is symbolic and constitutes the framework for actions that make sense and give coherence to decisions and choices. Without a purpose, decisions become random (compulsive) or stereotypical (reactive). The consequences in both cases is that lost response capability. This gap between environmental demand and the ability to the system to adapt and respond generates symptoms. In a system that has lost its ability to make decisions, symptoms decide for the system.
When the machines overcome their structural capacity, they are broken. When organic systems stray from their biological commands, they suffer transformations and mutations. Human systems become ill when their lives become meaningless. What keeps the dynamic cycle in life is the purpose of the system. When the human system loses its purpose, the growing cycle stops and begins to spin in a vicious cycle that leads to collapse.
Therefore, dysfunction gives meaning to the system in the absence of meaning. In the case of a lack of purpose, dysfunctions order and organize the daily life of the system. Symptoms visibly emerge from a system that is stopped in its transformation to a new order of internal complexity.
Organizational design and management have had, from the beginning, a principle based on the efficiency of the processes, but isolated from the dynamic context. This self-referential design that generated the great development of industrialization, in this century, is collapsing due to three factors: a) the conflicts in its functioning, b) the difficulties in responsiveness, and c) the impossibility of sustainable management models. In the first case, the mechanical design is a rigid structure that conflicts with the nature of human systems: open, dynamic, and paradoxical. The dynamics of machines do not correspond to the dynamics of human processes and generate deep conflicts in a team’s performance. Second, in the current context of increasing volatility, this rigid design has no appropriate responses to changing environments. Inflexibility does not guarantee adequate responses, which intensifies the difficulties in operation and performance. Finally, mechanistic management models are designed to "win", they are not intended for system development in all its dimensions. This principle defines the decisions and movements that focus on the exclusion of actors (market or community) and resources exploitation.
- Define a clear picture of corporate objectives. This point is related to organizational purpose. Vulnerability appears with the sense of threat or danger. In order to transform vulnerability to determination, it is necessary for people to be clear about the goals of the organization and integration values in the system. In this regard, it is important to: share a clear picture of the strategic direction, manage the integration of people in a shared project, and design a framework to guide responses and adaptation movements the context.
- Hold symmetrical relationships. This point is related to linkages in organizations. Emotional capital is critical for performance, to encourage participation and cooperation in groups. The quality of relationships determines the level of trust, security, and cooperation of the people. In this regard, it is important to: strengthen diversity and the integration of heterogeneous points of view (professions, gender, age, philosophies, etc.), create an environment of respect and shared learning to hold the symmetry of relations, and maintain a solid emotional capital and a clean working atmosphere.
- Share a transcendent inspiration. This point is related to the meaning of work that people assume. The greater the significance of personal contribution, the greater the level of commitment and creativity in the task. To develop this purpose, it is necessary to: set meaningful goals to achieve new areas of development, generate innovative solutions to address everyday challenges, and recognize the participation and contribution of people in the development of corporate purpose.
- Encourage a transformational role. This point refers to the interdependence of people and the impact of individual behaviors in others person’s life. Each person can contribute significantly to the transformation of life of others. To maintain the importance of people as agents of change it is necessary to: expand personal leadership and knowledge sharing, broaden participation and commitment to different social groups, and define long-term goals and objectives of social transcendence in everyday acts.
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Damasio, A. Descartes' error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. Avon Books, New York, 1994.