Saturday, January 05, 2013

Theory U--I Actually Read It

Theory U was on our reading list for a class in Organizational Development.  I actually finished it, a monht after the semester ended.  Here's my take.

Theory U was a struggle to read, not because his language is dense, philosophical, or arcane.  Individual sections are quite lucid and he uses lots of good examples and case studies to  exemplify his ideas, of which there are many, to say the least.  Or maybe not.  The book is hard to read because it is so redundant, and you read a chapter that is 50% or more a repetition of something earlier in the book, and he keeps going back to that darn farmhouse fire!  That must have been incredibly traumatic for him as a child. 

It is also hard to fathom because his model is inelegant at the same time it is oversimplified.  Everything is in fours:  four levels of this, four levels of that, and then there are six pathologies of organizations, three kinds of openness, etc.  By the time we get to the end, the U is covered with all kinds of additions from politics, religion, psychology, business, and sociology.  It's a mess, and yet it is based on the very simple idea that if you open your mind, still the voices of fear, judgment, and cynicism, then really listen to people and shut up, you will have some kind of psychic or spiritual or "field" connection with the conscious or unconscious or subconscious minds of yourself and the others in the group.

So, it is essentially New Agey.  I don't want to dismiss it as just New Age nonsense, because it's better than that, and he does have a great deal of life and business experience to back it up.  The ideas are worth knowing, but the book could have been 100 pages rather than 500 and less formidable to the average reader who might benefit from it.

Now, of course, as a Western, Christian, more empiricist thinker, I don't glom onto New Agey ideas without a lot of resistance, so I wrote a lot of argumentative comments in the margin.  I also wrote many "good" notes or connections to my own research, which is ill-defined at this point.  I think one can benefit from the ideas without buying into the psychic and uberconsciousness ideas of it. 

I also was put out by his ecumenical overtolerant comments about religion.  No, Allah is not the same as Jesus who is not the same as the Tao who is not the same as the Holy Spirit who is not the same as Hindu gods (page 190).  I wrote a big fat Baloney there.  First, I reject this as a Christian, but I also reject it as a thinking person who has studied other religions.  To say that Islam and Christianity are essentially the same is to dismiss them both, to not take the time to understand them.  They see the world, the self (another issue with the book, but I'll get to that), the holy, the supreme being, all of these, in totally different terms.  To make them the same is to say I don't care enough to find out what really makes these religions tick and what really goes on in the minds of its adherents.  If they are the same, why are the external trappings of the cultures in which they predominate so different?

Also, as far as the self, I am not 100% sure what all this talk about the self is.  The conscious mind?  the personality?  the will?  the soul?  the spirit?  All of the above at the same time?  Does my autistic brother who cannot speak and engages in weird and even self-hurting behavior have a self?  He doesn't function in the world in any way, shape, or form that would be considered acceptable.  I think the self is a euphemism at times, a shell to be filled with whatever meaning we want to put into it at others, a fiction perhaps.

Side note:  He also uses the word autistic wrong.  "Autistic" is not a pathology to be placed on businesses, organizations to be clever.  Autism is not static-ness.  Autism is a real mental and physical and neurological condition that comes from oversensitivity to stimuli, not ignorance of stimuli.  Autistic people are not necessarily stupid.  This is no different than calling a silly person a "retard" or claiming a person with a crappy personality has "Asperger's."

He also doesn't understand fundamentalism.  Or let's say he doesn't understand Christian fundamentalism.  Trust me, I know Christian fundamentalism, which has many variations.  Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism is what he describes in the book, a fundamentalism that wants to attack and change the other who is not "right."  Here is what he says, p. 250.

"Religious fundamentalism is characterized by four beliefs:  the belief in one omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God (one language, one Truth); the belief in belong to the chosen people (one collective, one center) and as a consequence, a lack of empathy for those outside the collective (infidels); the beliefs that the sources of the divine and of evil reside outside rather than inside the human being, from which it follows that the role of the human being is to subjugate the human to the divine will by battling against the agents of evil; hence the willingness to use violence and destroy life if it serves a higher purpose."

Christian fundamentalists do believe in one Truth and one God, but seek to change others by rhetorical and referent power means (very few examples of Christian fundamentalists killing anyone, although a few exist, of course; many of those are outside the mainstream of doctrinal fundamentalism); they (and evangelicals would go along with this) that evil does come from within us, but not divinity.  Fundamentalists are also empathetic, albeit in awkward ways, to others, because we "used to be that way," as nonbelievers (not infidels, although that is a Biblical word). 

So I feel he writes about things he doesn't really know about.  It's easy to broad-brush.  He writes from a European perspective, period, and a quasi-socialist one. 

So, what did I like about the book?  It actually has some practical information in there, hidden among the over-rhetorical flourishes about the field that is supposed to exist between people when we really listen and open up.  My view on that is what happens is we become more conscious as individuals of our own unconscious or subconscious thoughts and feelings  and reach a level of empathy with others, where we really start to listen and are deeply moved within ourselves, but it is internal and psychological, not some truly existing "force field" or spirit that takes over.  It's psychological, not spiritual.  That doesn't make it any less real; I can say I have experienced it myself, and I often do individually when I write fiction.  For me, spiritual power only exists in the presence of the Holy Spirit (or demonic, perhaps), not in human terms.

He has made me re-cognize (cognize again) some key concepts.  In speaking of Hitler's secretary, he writes, "She realized that whatever she had done and participated in was ultimately her full personal responsibility--there was no hiding behind the collective fate of her generation" (p. 265).  Elsewhere, quoting a participant in one of his seminars, "We had better change ourselves and stop whining about the pathologies of our systems."  He states, "The participants began to see that they themselves enacted the features of the culture that until then they had seen as being imposed on them by "the system."  So, there is a paradox or contradiction here--we live in systems and are influenced by them greatly, but we can always choose, we can reflect and rise above, we can understand the impact of the systems on us personally and reject it or at least modify it. 

 Also, the voice of fear, cynicism, and judgment is a good breakdown--although I think VoF dominates.  Judgment can be helpful; cynicism and fear, never, really.  I like his chapter on prototyping, on getting an idea working quickly, even if in tiny form. Like Frederick Buechner, he tells us to let the world's great need and your passion intersect, something I so want to do but feel held back from by the circumstances of life and family.  We can't all be CEOs; some of us have to work on the front line. 

"Leadership's primary job, I have come to believe through my work with Schein, is to enhance the individual and systemic capacity to see, to deeply attend to the reality that people face and enact.  Thus the leader's real work is to help people discover the power of seeing and seeing together."  Now that I like. I definitely think that is the key to leadership in nonprofits and educational organizations; in profit organizations I think staying ahead of trends is really important. 

He encourages the suspension of judgment; I agree with that but for a season of time.  I think more problems come from suspension of judgment than application of judgment!  I liked his stories of CEOs (and Hitler!) who had either orchestrated organizational lackeys (through fear?) to not show them reality or who had refused to look at reality.  I like the emphasis on quietness and listening; as John Stott said, the hidden dimension of discipleship is listening.  I like his rant on page 299 on how not to educate children to tap into their unconscious or to really learn period.

There is much here to like.  What he should have done is create a condensed version--100 pages of key ideas for people who don't have the time to slog through all this.  I also wonder to what extent this is a true theory.  I think it tries to be, because he gets into historical analysis of the 19th century somewhat, but it's more a prescription than a description of cause and effect.  Maybe.

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