A critique of the ‘subtle hierarchism’ of the Teal Organizations concept in the book ‘Reinventing Organizations’

“The veracity of (these claims) cannot of course be tested – but it conveniently allows for someone at the “highest” stage of consciousness to “understand” a lower level but not the other way around. (Or far worse, that anyone objecting to the theory is simply told they are operating from a lower level of consciousness, which is why they don’t get it.)”

Excerpted from a brilliantly argued review of Frederic Laloux’s book, by Zaid Hassan:

“Paradoxically, given how the previous chapter ended (“…The culture of the organization should be shaped by the context and the purpose of the organization, not by the personal assumptions, norms, and concerns of the founders and leaders.”) the first condition required to be Teal seems to be not that different from “the personal assumptions, norms and concerns of the founders and leaders.”

The first “necessary condition” for creating a new Teal Organization is “Top Leadership” and the second is “Ownership” where “The founder or top leader (let’s call him the CEO for lack of a better term) must have integrated a worldview and psychological development consistent with the Teal development level.” And so on with owners and board members (let’s hope they’re not all male). In fact Laloux argues that, “these two conditions are the only make-or-break factors. No other parameter is critical to running organizations within the Evolutionary Teal paradigm….” (italics added).

The role however that “top leadership” plays (even though I thought there was no “top”?) is to “hold the space.” As a facilitator, I know something about what is required to “hold the space.” It requires putting one’s own beliefs about where a group goes almost entirely on the back-burner. This would mean that a “Teal-leader” leading a mostly “non-Teal” group would need to park their “Tealness”, which would mean the group probably operates from a non-Teal place.

Furthermore, Laloux recommends that for anyone wanting to grow a Teal Organization, “If possible they can strive to do without external investors, financing their growth through bank loans and their own cash flow, even if it means slower growth…or they need to carefully select equity investors who have integrated a Teal perspective.”

So what do I make of all this?

Unfortunately, this is a deeply problematic and flawed book.

The book is littered with instances where it contradicts itself, its contradictory stance on leadership being just one case. Take the metaphors used to describe each “stage of consciousness” – Red, with the example of the Mafia as Red organization, is “the wolf pack” and Green, with the example of Ben & Jerry’s is “the family.” It behooves me to point out that the Mafia is an organizational structure with family at its core, that wolf-packs are examples of a “self-organizing” “living system,” that are valorized in the book and that hierarchies exist in nature (ever heard the phrase “apex predator”?).

While these problems are tedious in the extreme, they are distractions from three more profound problems with the book, these are the problems of science, context and ethnocentricity.

As Laloux himself acknowledges (in one of his many contradictory positions), “If we were caught in a civil-war with thugs attacking our house, Impulsive-Red would be the most appropriate paradigm to think and act from in order to defend ourselves.”

The decision to join a tribal militia or Ben & Jerry’s is a decision made on the basis of context and not on biology. Does my “level of consciousness” really make me look at the two choices in front of me (corporate job at Unilever or tribal mafia?) and lead me to pick tribal mafia? Does the fact that I’m allergic to bureaucracy tell you something about what “stage of development” I’m at?

Behaviours are context-dependent, and not necessarily dependent on a state of consciousness rooted in biological realities (even as they may be a function of biological realities – for example unconscious epigenetic reactions).
A constant use of an evolutionary frame also provides the contentious impression that our “organizational” behaviours (how the Catholic Church is organized for example) are somehow linked to our biology. I mean, they might be, but once again the point is to say “how,” rather than simply make the claim as if this were an obvious, uncontested truth.

If the decision for what “paradigm” to operate from is therefore a contextual decision (and not a genetic predisposition), then it makes no sense to normalize Teal as a destination. If, for example, most businesses are operating from an “Orange” mindset, then does that not make the context for business “Orange”? What should one’s operating paradigm be when being “attacked” by the competition? Why should “Teal” behaviours be more “fit” for the context of business? Is the context in China or India the same as in Europe? What behaviours are more appropriate for operating in a Chinese or Indian context? Does it make sense to have a workplace that’s open to animals in the Middle East?

If Laloux is seeing “Teal” as some sort of meta-context for our times, then what can we actually say about it? The only thing we could legitimately say is that our times are getting more complex. Situations of high complexity are situations of great fluidity, the opposite of stable situations. And in situations of high-complexity we cannot cut-and-paste prescriptions across contexts. Laloux’s stance towards context is essentialist, that is, he treats it as a stable and non-complex thing that just is. There is no sense of how context changes or the processes by which different contexts come into being. Prescriptions offered without any contextual guidance is a glaring example of this essentialist stance.

Laloux seems to be saying, “we are all living in a Teal world and so we should aspire to Teal consciousness.” That way, we have the option of “drawing on” Red or Orange but not the other way around, so Teal is better. (I imagine an Incredible Hulk-like transformation taking place – where a Teal person turns Red and goes berserk). This harks back to the idea that each stage of development “transcends and includes” the one before.

The veracity of this claim cannot of course be tested – but it conveniently allows for someone at the “highest” stage of consciousness to “understand” a lower level but not the other way around. (Or far worse, that anyone objecting to the theory is simply told they are operating from a lower level of consciousness, which is why they don’t get it.)

This is where the plasticity of language aids the argument (or rather, betrays the argument). Part of the fuzziness of the argument comes because “consciousness,” “paradigm” and “worldviews” are all conflated with “behaviour.” If each “stage of development” is a “paradigm,” as Laloux indeed sometimes refers to them, then according to philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (who coined the phrase “paradigm shift”) different paradigms are incommensurable ie it is impossible to “be” more than one “stage of development.” This would imply that “transcend and include” doesn’t make much sense when dealing with different paradigms. And if each stage of development is a “behaviour” then the question of what drives or generates that behaviour is far from simple.

In order to normalize the colour scheme, however, the basis for behaviours have to be framed as responses to our temporal milieu – that is, “Red organizations arises from Red behaviour, which reflects Red consciousness only fit for Red times and…we clearly don’t live in Red times.” Of-course, the boundaries between say an Orange and Green “age” is very hard to call especially in times of increasing complexity. This is especially hard to swallow as Laloux explains that there are plenty of examples of organisations out of time. The distinction between the environment versus biology as the driver for our behaviour is a debate as old as the idea of evolution itself – it’s called “nature versus nurture” and it’s not a trivial problem.

So while we may detect the emergence of a “Teal milieu” a genuine question is, “Is Teal as a milieu a desire or a reality?” and “For whom?” If it’s reality (or an emerging reality) then is it even possible for our Paleolithic minds to overcome our genetic hardwiring? Does “no status markers” in terms of interior design of an office overcome millions of years of status markers in the natural world?

Then if the behaviours outlined here are context-dependent, then what exactly is the invisible context that Teal behaviours arise in? The only hint comes towards the end of the book, when he writes that, “Some academics have devised methodologies to measure a person’s stage of development. Their samples indicate that the percentage of people relating to the world from an Evolutionary-Teal perspective is still rather small, at around five percent in Western societies.”

This snippet, coupled with the fact that all of Laloux’s case studies are all Western tell us that the invisible context that Laloux is operating in is Western (and white and male?).

The unconscious, un-remarked and un-noted ethnocentricity of Laloux’s ideas remind me his training is INSEAD and McKinsey & Co. His schooling means that Reinventing Organizations is coloured with (sorry) instances of “neutral, normative, and average and also ideal” injunctions that “will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’.”

Despite all disclaimers, in this framing there are people who “have integrated a Teal perspective” and those who have not. Anyone who wants to lead or own a Teal organization has to meet some sort of “Teal-test” (What this Teal-test is we are not told). While Laloux is careful not to call those who have not “integrated” Teal primitives or savages, clearly your behaviour categorizes what “stage of consciousness” you have reached.

While biologists would agree that all of us have a Paleolithic mind, the argument being made is that some of us (5% in the West to be exact) have somehow, in the last 100,000 years evolved a whole different mind. At one point in the book Laloux describes the Herculean struggle required to shift one’s “consciousness” to a higher level. It sounds like a particularly buggy piece of software painfully upgrading itself. This book would be much more interesting if he took his argument to its logical conclusion and actually documented the stories of the 5% Übermensch who walk amoung us.

Teal is definitely not the new black, it’s the new white – or rather the journey to get the rest of us “colours” to Teal, the new white man’s burden. Imagine just for a moment what would happen if in the colour schema proposed here, Teal was actually called White? Ouch.

The boundaries between what constitutes individual behaviour, individual consciousness, worldviews, organizational culture, and a historical milieu all blend seamlessly into a chain of proximate causes – one directly causes the other. This intellectual sloppiness here is staggering. The linkages and relationships between these very different things represent, in many ways, the holy grail of understanding the human condition. Yet Laloux writes as if these relationships are well understood and uncontested. (Which, of course they are for some New Age philosophers.)

The ideas in this book represent what Laloux believes, they reflect his own cultural values and his own ethnocentric prescriptions for what it means to be a healthy organization. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with presenting the ideas as such, but unfortunately they are presented as a normative and neutral truth, as the rational-scientific product of human evolution aligned with the natural laws of “living systems.” That’s a pretty outrageous thing to do in this day and age. (By the way, there’s a word for normative preferences – it’s “ideology”)

Part of the appeal for this sort of argument is its simplicity. Laloux’s argument suffers from some of the same critiques applied to the wider field of Integral Theory, Argumentum ad Wilberiam, “spurious, or at least largely untested, truth claims” and “excessive overgeneralization.” By skipping the finer details, the book, “solves” some of the most complex questions scientists and philosophers of all stripes are grappling with. Despite the hundreds of pages, and tens of thousands of words, the core argument here is very simple to grasp. There are five stages of “cognitive, psychological and moral” development; Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and of-course, Teal. Each gives rise to a particular type of organization, suitable for its particular time. Teal is the newest and the best, here’s what Teal looks like. Go for it.

I suspect that the clean, uncomplicated notions put forward in the book will be undone by context, the actual details of implementation and to a large extent power-dynamics (for example, autocratic “Teal” leaders making “non-Teal” people do things they don’t want to do). In other words, I’m not sure I actually believe Teal even exists. I’m not sure I believe any of the “stages of development” actually exist.

I believe the colour schema is an instrument, a not very accurate map. And like all instruments it appeals to a certain instrumental logic, one that craves a simpler world and shies away from complexity. In my opinion, this cognitive style mostly serves to distract from the important questions of who we are and what type of organizations we want to be creating.

While there may or may not be merit in the many prescriptions that Laloux offers, it’s very hard to get to them. The intellectual trick at the heart of this book means the core of Laloux’s practice is buried under many layers of good intentions, New Age beliefs, and polemical spin. It’s all very unfortunate because the question at the heart of Laloux’s book is a timely one. Alas, we will have to look elsewhere for a convincing exploration.”

5 Comments A critique of the ‘subtle hierarchism’ of the Teal Organizations concept in the book ‘Reinventing Organizations’

  1. @antlerboy - Benjamin Taylor

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well-informed critique.

    I also have concerns about the levels of development argument, although I think that this kind of thinking can be a useful tool for personal self-development. I’ve played around with both Jacques’ levels of work (which I seem to recall he drew from someone else – must look it up!) and Torbert’s developmental levels, and when I asked a vaguely Jacquesian question about individual capabilities in ‘teal’ systems, I got the really interesting answer that ‘life seems to get somewhat simpler in teal organisations’ and doesn’t necessarily demand the long-term complexity thinking which these models of ‘vertical development’ talk about.

    You are right that the book deals (once, as Matthew Taylor slightly rudely stated at the start of the RSA video, you’ve skipped the first ?3 chapters) in prescriptions. My two concerns are:
    1- that people are being encouraged to ‘implement’ ‘answers’; not a fundamentally learning-based mode. In social complexity and the conditions which are usually postulated as the conditions which call forth ‘new ways for the future’ (always a rhetorical move, if not actually propaganda), it’s my belief that a learning approach is fundamentally required.
    2- that the very lack of hierarchy is likely to lead to a situation where (with considerable rule-sets and overheads constituting the control system) issues at different levels of complexity and long-term thinking will all be dealt with at the same level. In short, is the system capable of managing not just its operations but also the emergent properties and results of the system?

    Note that Frederick is a cheerful and thoughtful chap who it’s impossible not to warm to – even though, like all of use, he has his own chips on his shoulder – and cheerfully acknowledged at an event I was at that his choice to focus on ‘reinventing’ (new) organisations is the easier task. The harder path is to help those billions in traditional hierarchical organisations that are not functioning well to find evolutionary ways to enable the nice things set out in the case studies.

    He did also recognise and return several times to the issue of determination of form and outcomes by both the leaders and the owners of the system. You have covered this in some depth in the article.

    BTW, I’d dispute that ‘transcend and include’ is completely incompatible with ‘incommensurable’, though I admit that such understanding I have of Kuhn comes from Alasdair Macintyre) – surely the point is that a paradigm survives while it adequately predicts interactions with the world. And when that model breaks down, the new paradigm must explain not only what the old paradigm failed to predict, but also why it failed, AND adequately explain everything that the old paradigm predicted?

  2. Jon Freeman

    This is not a well-informed critique, nor is it an objective one. Mr Hassan has his own competing schema. He has not troubled to understand the developmental model – the Graves Schema that was incorporated into integral and morphed into Spiral Dynamics. As a result he doesn’t understand the evidence base that Graves compiled over decades before he produced the theory. He doesn’t understand how the stages of existence function in human psychology – hence the ludicrous idea that someone “chooses” between Ben and Jerry’s and the mafia. He seems to be unaware that Frederic Laloux has deliberately and necessarily simplified the presentation of the schema in order to write his book. He doesn’t understand at all the redefinition and re-articulation of hierarchy that is required (and which will vary from one organisation to the next). Because he doesn’t understand the theory (or chooses not to) he misconceives the nature of transcend and include.

    I also dispute the suggestions in Benjamin Taylor’s comment that anyone working in this area would not expect that learning approaches are essential. And the management of complexity is quite the opposite of what he seems to have taken it to be. Self-organisation seems simpler because it is less effortful. The very reason why Teal thinking is arising at this time is that our life conditions demand that we raise our game. The new level of consciousness is not some kind of new age fluff (though admittedly some people in that arena present it in that way). It is a concrete and pragmatic response to a world in which change happens faster, with more interactivity and interdependency. The responsiveness (whether societal or organisational) requires intelligence to be applied responsively and interactively, not determined by linear thinking at the pace of command and control hierarchies. Self-organising systems are, ultimately, a requirement for our adaptation to the new conditions of existence. Yes, it will be a challenge to transition the traditional hierarchical organisations. Those of us who practice in these areas know that. Not all organisations will need to change. Some will be OK as they are. But those that do need to change will need the new toolkits that are more completely presented in the Spiral Dynamics model than in Laloux’s book. Laloux has addressed a specific task, and done it well.

    Hassan treats Teal as if it is something imposed. It is the reverse. It is an emergent property of complexity in socio-psychological evolution. You could not run cities with the red system, so it was necessary that Amber would emerge. You cannot run a planet from Orange and Green, as is being demonstrated in our many known global problems. Whether through Laloux’s model or not, these issues have to be addressed. A new paradigm is not optional.

  3. François Dupuy

    As a sociologist, my most important concern is that Laloux seems to deeply ignore the knowledge that has been build by organizational sociology. This book is neglecting Herbert Simon and the notion of “bounded rationality” as well as the concept of “strategy” as has been developed by Crozier and Friedberg in “Actors and systems”. To make it short it’s strange to write a book on organizations without knowing anything about the most important inputs of the best specialists in this field.

    François Dupuy

  4. J Garwood

    I think it is really nice that Jon Freeman defends the book in the same way in different places. I’ve been taught a bit about the model, but not read the book. The model without the dodgy science is quite interesting – but I know enough evolutionary psychology to know where I stand. Gore has been great, flat, organization for years. I think we can learn a good deal from that…

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