The following post comes from Rodney Evans and Alison Randel. Rodney and Alison are both from The Ready. Rodney is a keynote presenter at Strategic HR in 2020.


The Fish & The Aquarium

Work isn’t perfect. Your team has issues, your boss is irrational, you spend your day in pointless meetings. But when you drop into what’s really going on, are these human problems or system problems? Is it the fish or the aquarium causing your sleepless nights or daily wine habit? 

This decades-old debate among business thinkers, philosophers, therapists, and consultants is cyclical and seems never-ending. Is our behavior a product of our environment? Or, is our environment shaped by our behavior? If it’s both, which comes first or has more weight? And, if we want transformation, do we start with hearts and minds or systems and processes?

Usually, at some point in the argument, the two sides agree that change requires a shift in both the fish and the aquarium. So, the coaches focus on individual mindsets and the org folks on environmental reinforcers. But what if, instead, real change is about shifting the interaction between the people and the system? 

Rather than trying to see the container and the contents as two separate entities to be nudged, molded, or marched toward the future, let’s explore and understand what interdependence means and how it might be holding us back. 

The Pernicious Org Debt Cycle

We’ll begin with the f-word. Feelings. The mere mention makes a lot of people in traditional businesses uncomfortable, but human emotion has utility in shaping organizational design, and it’s time we start availing ourselves of this valuable resource. 

Feelings are both the cause and the effect of the most virtuous and vicious cycles we see in organizations. It seems counterintuitive, but if we don’t pay attention to our feelings, or just narrate or rationalize them, they can power our actions in ways we aren’t even aware of. And, if we aren’t in tune with how environmental stimuli are sparking our feelings, we tend to try to control or avoid the situation or individual that has us hooked. 

This cycle leads to what we call “org debt,” defined as the interest companies pay when their structure and policies stay fixed and/or accumulate as the world changes. The cycle below helps us understand how the critical interrelationship between the individual and the system can create unwanted organizational debt. 

Click to view full size.

We begin with unmet needs. All humans have a need for autonomy, connection, and safety in our lives; work is no different. When one of these needs is unmet or in peril, human emotion results. And here’s where the link to the larger system comes in – often those emotions remain subconscious and lead to an individual’s desire to control or to avoid the environmental stimulus. 

When an unmet need leads to a desire to control, we see individual action like micromanagement, hoarding work, or blaming, or discrediting others. Over time and at scale (either because an individual does this a lot, a lot of individuals do this, or both), we end up with a permission culture  – one where most individuals are fearful and the best way to make progress is through permission from those in control. Scale this pattern and the company is mired in bureaucracy.

Let’s look at the left side of the diagram; when an unmet need triggers a desire to avoid, we see individual action like canceling meetings, refusing to make a decision (or generally nail down details), and unresponsiveness. Over time and at scale (either because an individual does this a lot, a lot of individuals do this, or both), we end up with an influence culture – one where boundaries and authority are unclear and the best way to make progress is through politicking because there are no formal avenues available. Scale this pattern and the company is mired in chaos. 

Neither bureaucracy nor chaos solves the unmet needs of those who kick off the cycle. If anything those markers of organizational culture likely mean more individuals with more unmet needs, setting us up to repeat and solidify the cycle. In many organizations, individuals with unmet needs swing between control and avoidance, leading to pockets of both bureaucracy and chaos within the same system. 

The Third Way

Our work as leaders, org designers, and “People people” is to break this cycle by recognizing when we have unmet needs and attendant feelings and considering several potential remedies rather than trusting our knee jerk reaction. Breaking the Org Debt Cycle means finding an alternative to control and avoidance. A third way characterized by experimentation, iteration, and systems thinking. 

When we see the Org Debt Cycle and decide to step outside of it, we begin to use our feelings intentionally like a set of data. Data that can guide us toward change and clarity, rather than clouding our judgment, or fueling our stories. In practice, this looks like clear articulation of the feeling and the unmet need, consideration of possible remedies, and choosing one to try. 

Consider the impact of this pattern as we look at a greater scale. Imagine the difference between a hundred teams stuck in a loop of overreacting or underreacting vs. a hundred teams that can effectively identify when one or multiple members sense an uncomfortable feeling, traces it to an unmet need, and uses that data to design a better way. 

A Tale of Two Cycles

Meet Robert. Robert is smart and he feels angry. He routinely behaves aggressively in meetings, on email, and probably in traffic. Other teams are afraid of him because he uses a combination of verbal bullying, intellectual gymnastics, and a loose grip on facts to get his way. His own team is afraid of him, but also feels protected by him. The team doesn’t do much without his express approval and, if they do, it’s in secret. Engagement survey results for the whole department are declining month on month and more than half the comments make reference to the difficulty of working with Robert’s team.  

Why is Robert like this? Is he a bad person? Does he wake up every day hoping to be loathed by his co-workers? Or has Robert kicked off the right loop of the org debt cycle?

Robert was recently promoted and assigned to lead a much larger team. He made significant commitments about how he would reduce budget and headcount in his first year. He believed the prior leadership had fallen short and had plans for creating efficiency through automation.  

Robert is six months into the job. Nothing has been automated. His internal stakeholders are unhappy with his unwillingness to allocate resources to support them. In order to do his job effectively, Robert would have to admit he made promises he can’t keep, based on facts he didn’t have, and incorrect assumptions about his new organization. Robert’s need for safety is in peril. He perceives his connection with his boss to be at risk. And, he is unable to fix the issues without outside help, threatening his sense of autonomy. 

In summary: Robert’s unmet needs for safety, connection, and autonomy, have led him to trying to control the situation through bullying. As a result, his team is fearful and permission-seeking, which reinforces Robert’s perception that he is unsupported and alone in the weight of fulfilling his commitments. This perception exacerbates his unmet needs. And, at scale, the org is stuck. 

Meet Melinda. Melinda is smart and wants to be liked. People find her presence, ideas, and storytelling inspiring. She can be a little fuzzy on the details, but most folks leave interactions with her feeling energized. They also sometimes wonder whether they really got what they asked for or walked away with a platitude and some general support. Melinda’s team is all over the place, some of them look to her or ask for advice while others ignore or outright undermine her. This lack of coherence is felt all the way through the organization, with people anchoring to what they believe she intends, or what they believe about Melinda, rather than clear direction or articulated expectations. 

Melinda has a huge organization and some big decisions to make. Two of her direct reports have opposing ideas about the company’s main product. The impact of the decision will be strategic, financial, and organizational; the rest of the teams will need to make significant changes to their workflows to support either strategy. Because these two directs don’t get along, Melinda has had several meetings with each of them to understand more about the nuances of their proposals. Despite hours of conversation, there’s been no real progress, no decisions, no detail nailed down. The C-suite is watching and her directs are growing impatient.

Why is Melinda like this? Is she trying to drive her direct reports crazy with indecision? Or has she kicked off the left loop of the Org Debt Cycle?

Melinda doesn’t like conflict. In fact, every fiber of her being seeks to avoid the discomfort of an argument. She knows it’s necessary, but because of her unwillingness to confront she lets misalignment persist. 

In her old role, Melinda could rally the troops with her vision for the future and leave the execution to the teams. The org was small, nimble, tight-knit, and known as the “rock stars” in the larger system. Now, she’s at a new altitude and the air is feeling a bit thin. She feels the pressure of her new level of seniority and has a keen awareness that she’s not a subject matter expert in the company’s main product. Melinda is feeling pretty unsafe. She doesn’t want to alienate either of these direct reports or further the divide between them but connection feels impossible. 

In summary: Melinda has unmet needs of connection and safety, so she is avoiding the decision causing the discomfort. This results in her direct reports trying to influence her behind the scenes and signaling to a 3,000 person org that is how one gets their way. The influencing exacerbates the pressure Melinda feels which reinforces her unmet needs of safety and connection.  At scale, the org becomes political. 

Seeing these loops in practice, think about the last time you had a strong negative feeling at work. What was the feeling? What was the unmet need it signaled? Did you make a move to control or a move to avoid? What was your move? Did you act more like Robert or Melinda? What impacts might that have had on your larger team or organization?

Stepping Out of The Cycle & Into The Third Way

To break out of the org debt cycle, we first have to see the cycle. Then, we have to develop self-awareness – an ability to observe our own internal experience and our interaction with the environment around us. Individual feelings are a critical data source in making change. Without the ability to notice and observe them, we can’t possibly understand the interaction between the fish and the aquarium. 

We must deeply explore and understand the interrelationship of the system and the humans if we have any chance at improving our organizations. Feelings are the missing data source, and when leaders dismiss the emotional experiences of their people, they’re willfully ignoring information that is the lifeblood of good organizational design. If the performance or outcomes are good, but the feelings are bad, we can bet there is trouble on the horizon. We can start this exploration by practicing a few simple (not easy) steps. 

First, we must reframe how we understand feelings. Usually, we point to another individual’s behavior as the cause of our feelings (“I’m upset because Greg yelled at me in the meeting.” “Karen told me what a great job I did in this morning’s presentation and I’m feeling really happy.” ) That’s natural, but when we want something to change, we can look beyond Greg or Karen as the cause of our feeling, and consider the feeling as one data point that tells us something about the system.  

When we recognize this we can more effectively explore and understand what is actually happening and why that might be. If Robert could reframe his emotions and interrogate what about the system was sparking them (his budget commitments) and why (his unmet needs), he could then consider his options for changing the system, rather than remaining stuck in the situation and letting his feelings drive his behavior. 

Practice stating how your work-related tensions are making you feel – even if at first it’s just to yourself. Many individuals don’t have the language or courage to use feeling words [mad, sad, glad]. We’re so practiced at turning our frustrations and our joy into polished, sterile bullets points that feel safer to say. Strip out the jargon. Stop telling stories. Use feeling words to describe what you notice about your reaction to your environment. Turn that held feeling into the fuel to make change. If Melinda could say out loud to her direct reports what about the decision was making her uncomfortable, she might be able to stop avoiding a conflict without worry of breaking down relationships.

Turning feelings-driven insight into concrete action won’t be easy – it requires courage and vulnerability. Not to mention learning to notice feelings and the language to describe them. The good news is, we can start with the easier, more positive emotions, asking questions of ourselves and our teams like: When am I at my best at work? When is our team in flow? What makes us burst with pride? And thinking through what was true about the environment in that context. Then, building on and investing in the interactions that made those feelings possible. Over time, we can wade deeper into feelings that are more difficult to talk about. Awareness of the cycle and our feelings is critical, and to effectively use that data we must notice, articulate, and channel them into new ways of working. 


Rodney Evans has twenty years of experience in org transformation and coaching. She is currently a Partner at The Ready. Ali Randel is an org design practitioner and practiced facilitator. She has helped organizations in industries ranging from technology to banking to mining with major transformations. Ali is also a Partner at The Ready.