This is mostly about relationships

Effective organisations are central to getting “stuff” done in society. The accepted structural model of human organisations is a hierarchy where governing is undertaken by an elite leadership team who make high level decisions, which are then directed downward. Implicit in this model is the assumption that some people are more capable of making decisions about direction/resource allocation/strategy than others.

A cascade of educational/social/financial implications flow from valuing and creating an elite. This patterning is culturally embedded and validated by all major religions, it is at the heart of patriarchy, and central to our stories and mythology. The archetype of the strong, powerful and far-seeing male heroic leader rising above and conquering challenges is both familiar and comforting. Organisations are designed, critiqued and maintained from this cultural context.

This post shares some emerging findings from my PhD research exploring the ways decentralised governance structures and practices might alter our experience of organisational culture. After contextualising I will give a brief overview of my methodology and the case study organisations. Then I’ll explore patterns in the individual experience of a decentralised NGO, and the ontological shifts reflected in participants reflections on power, authority and wellbeing at work.

Considering our current focus on improving hierarchy, it makes sense then that influential organisational development books like Good to Great and In Search of Excellence concentrate on improving the capacity of the executive individual hero/leaders.  Better leaders and strategy, more emotional intelligence, more effective design and communication within a hierarchical structure. Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer have been influential in moving the focus from the top of the hierarchy into the whole organisation with the concept of a learning organisation. Even so the voice of the executive leaders are privileged in our education and political system.

With the benefit of having experienced a more participatory and democratic work world, Swedish researchers have documented the impact of higher or lower levels of control at work. Since the 1990’s Swedish organisations have moved away from democracy and towards hierarchy. From the experiment they learnt that when employees are able to influence their work and determine both the tempo and planning of their work they experience greater levels of intellectual challenge and learning at work at work.

“The individual’s possibility to exert control over his or her own situation is of fundamental importance to health. In a worksite lacking democracy, the individuals can be exposed to a multitude of humiliations which could provoke psychophysiological reactions.” Theorell, 2004.

Theorell describes a complex mixture of local (Swedish) and international ‘push’ factors that lead to participatory democracy governance and design loosing favour in Sweden during in the 1990’s.  There was a sense that participatory governance had achieved consistently good results, but had not solved all workforce problems – specifically women taking more sick leave.

More recently, a 2014 Gallup poll records that over 70% of employees indicated they were either ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ at work. Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer from Stanford Business School argues that the current management practices creates chronic stress in the workplace and that this is the 5th leading cause of death. This data indicates a systemic failure of organisational governance to adjust management practices for human wellbeing and I believe foundational hierarchical design assumptions are at the core of the chronic dysfunction.

SELC office art 2
An alternative society envisioned (image credit Janelle Orsi, SELC)

Framing this inquiry is the pressure of the Anthropocene epoch or boundary. Earth System Scientists call us to ‘Wake up to this challenge’. For philosopher Donna Haraway the Anthropocene is a marking of ‘severe discontinuities’ or endings. A place to make ‘a thin as possible’.

‘Making it thin’ means transforming the nature of the relationship between society and all we might term terrestrial (non-human). Such a transformation would reveal our current practices of consumption and extraction as illogical and untenable. 

Rousing individual critiques of 21stC capitalist society by Haraway, Arturo Escobar, Raine Eisler, Stephen Sterling, and Val Plumwood recognise the limitations of the mindset underlying and informing the actions of dominant national and international institutions. A worldview that makes them incapable of responding adequately or profoundly to change the destructive avalanche of the Anthropocene. Effective forms of governing then must move beyond an elite/separate/hierarchical patterning, towards organisational structures that are designed with a ‘genuinely democratic’, multi-species and partnership orientation and supported by congruent practices that also develop human capacities for a post-capitalist, post-patriarchal world.

FoE Consensus banner
Friends of the Earth Melbourne – vision and practice

Replenishing and regenerating will not be achieved via token additions to existing ways of working together. An important step then is develop and practice viable democratic and partnership models of work and social engagement.  My contribution to this quest is twofold: to bring work from the environmental humanities into the field of organisational governance through an exploration of non-hierarchical forms of governance and, with the gaze of the bricoleur bringing my bag of multi-modal and creative methodologies into organisational governance research.

My methodology has been designed to be congruent with and strengthen democratic and participatory/partnership approaches to research. I have drawn on the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser, and educators Inna Semetsky and Bernie Neville, who argue that human consciousness is constantly evolving, growing and expanding. Only partial engagement via the conscious mind will occur with a solely verbal and reflective methodological approach. Integral practices encompass a variety of domains – in my 1:1 interview participants engage their cognitive mind in the logical flow of the questions, their experience their embodiment through drawing (featured in this post) and image selection, and as they speak to the images in the cards their stories and symbols stir their imagination and feelings.

Integral method
An integral method of research engagement

I use the 78-card Motherpeace tarot deck as a conduit, assisting participants to suspend their intellectual response, opening the moment of affective learning. Jungian scholar Robert Romanyshyn used the word ‘imaginal’ to describe the dimension between the senses and the intellect that Tarot images engage.  Selecting and talking about cards is a deceptively light and playful process, stimulating complex, feeling filled responses. Bringing embodiment, feeling and imagination into the context of governance is disruptive, disturbing our notions of the rational, autonomous human. Interestingly my case study organisations were hungry for methodology that assisted them to move beyond a simple linear and logical forms of in their engagement.

Non-government organisations have been identified as drivers of change, often less embedded in mainstream organisational norms and structures. I sought case study orgs with a mission for social, political, legal and environmental change and who were confident in their non-hierarchical governance. 4 case studiesThese four NGO’s agreed to participate as case studies. I was on location with each org. between 3 days and 5 months participating in organisational life. Each of them are influential transformative hubs with signifiant global networks.

The Friends of the Earth (FoE) network is the largest environmental federation in the world with 5,000 local branches, in over 77 member countries. FoE Australia and FoE Melbourne are the only non-hierarchical structured members of the federation. They operate as a network of self-managing and self-funding collectives. Consensus decision-making is used to govern collectives. Their equal pay policy and anti-hierarchical rhizomic leadership training are significant contributions to strengthening decentralised practice in their Australian network. A challenge they experience is being aware of emergent ‘time’ and ‘knowledge’ hierarchies emerging between staff and volunteers in collective governance.

The Enspiral foundation is a dynamic incubator for social enterprises and a global network supporting collaborative work practices through a range of self-organising ventures and livelihood pods. Founded in 2010, in Wellington NZ, Enspiral contributes to global conversations revolutionising work and prototyping alternative models via prolific blogging on Medium. Structured with a core of approximately 30 Members and over 150 Contributors they use Loomio and Slack to facilitate governance and collective decision making, virtual spaces to hold and to keep conversations going over time/space. A challenge they experience is new contributors getting in and finding their place in ventures, and members balancing voluntary governance with their own venture development. 

Enspiral mission 2018-10-02 at 1.51.46 pm
Enspiral Vision and structure

The Sustainable Economies Law Centre (SELC) is committed to changing the law and providing legal tools, information and support. To empowering more vulnerable communities to develop their own sustainable sources of food, housing, energy and work. Founded 2009 in Oakland California, SELC model their values in an equal pay policy where all staff are paid US$60,137 p/a. Their ‘program circles’ are supported by a highly structured system of distributed decision-making. SELC are well networked and active in the global commons community, They launched the US based Non Profit Democracy Network last September. A challenge they are engaging with is how they might scale their governance model as SELC grows over the manageable intimacy of 12 staff.

The Pachamama Alliance, founded in 1997 in San Francisco, have a mission of changing the dream of the modern world. Strongly guided and grounded by their relationship with the Achuar and other Indigenous peoples in the Amazon. Three years plus into their transition from hierarchy to decentralised governance, they draw upon Teal and the Advice Process to inform team decision-making. Pachamama theory of change it to mobilise a global, strongly middle class network of over 5,000 trained volunteers in 80 countries, who undertake community conversations to ‘change the dream’ and move themselves and their communities into action for a just/sustainable world. Their challenge is to expand their governance model into their traditional philanthropic board and global network of volunteers.

Leader in every chair

Non-hierarchical governance processes are well defined and clearly organised drawing upon ‘Teal’, Holacracy and Sociocracy models. A range of online collaborative platforms such as Slack, Asana, Google docs and Loomio, enable a-synchronous decision making – which is important when bigger groups of people are making decisions.

Sara clean drawing SELC
Participant interpretation of SELC’s programatic, policy and admin circles, held within General Circle

In decentralised organisations structure is held in roles rather than people. And roles are held within work focused units forming a nested system of programmatic ‘circles’, ‘collectives’ or ‘teams’. Governance of each unit is informed by a constitution or handbook. Available to all online, such documents provide detailed guidelines and codes of conduct. Each member is on-boarded to participate in making decisions related to running the org, including strategy, finance and HR. The group has the authority to change the constitution. Once on-board, theoretically, there is a leader in every chair.

What does it take to become a member of a decentralised organisation? For each of these orgs their decentralised structure is congruent with their mission in the world. For Pachamama Alliance their relationship with the Achuar peoples frames their impetus:

…. There’s nothing hierarchical in nature or the way an indigenous community operates. The basic structure is about everybody working to take care of everybody else.” Pachamama Interview, September 2017.

Decades of experience lead Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea to assert that circles are ‘energetic social containers’. I observed meeting processes held in circle configurations in these NGO’s enabling qualities of acceptance, respect and spaciousness to develop in the group.  “A formed community, moving beyond transaction, when ‘I’m seen’ and ‘I belong’”, this distinction, expressed by one Enspiralite, was understood as a non-negotiable cultural principle by many in each NGO. Overall gathering in circle enabled each person to be seen, to learn to ‘talk to the centre’, to routinely listen to and be listened to in a systematic manner. The circle as a symbol of wholeness and containment informed their culture.

Summerfest Enspiral dive 1.2.18
“This is mostly about relationships – a cornucopia of relationships” Enspiral Interview December, 2017.

Care for relationship between team members distinguishes the intent of each NGO from other organisations I have experienced. The consistent, iterative decision making structures are an opportunity for individuals to ‘learn for participation’, and to ‘unlearn’ dominating behaviours rewarded in hierarchy. This reduces the struggle to be heard and domination of the collective by taking the floor is not tolerated.

I observed strong collaboration facilitated by curiosity and well developed listening skills. There was a marked lack of emotional charge and competition in decision making. Meg Wheatley names this as the transformation from “hero to host”.

Recovery from Hierarchy

Joining a non-hierarchical organisation, many interviewees shared their sense of coming home “finding a family or cohort” for the first time. As one person said: People arrive at Enspiral in a certain degree of broken, bringing their trauma with work and belonging”.

9 Cups
Pleasure in Belonging: Motherpeace Tarot (Noble and Vogel 1981)

Experiencing the emotional safety to express oneself without the fear of derision, or exclusion initiated many to begin a healing process. Participants named acceptance, care, respect and even love when asked what qualities they associated with their workplace.

From this place it became possible to move on from the accumulated traumas of hierarchy into a more pleasurable experience of work – reflected in the often selected 9 Cups card, and in this observation from a FoEM interviewee: “We have power through being together. When you cooperate you create beautiful patterns…”

Familiar bondage Motherpeace Tarot (Noble and Vogel 1981)

Participants acknowledged that moving into non- hierarchy required them to un-learn behaviours, such as conforming to positional expectations and being directed –represented for many by the Devil card. This un-learning exposed underlying emotional dependencies: Without a boss or line manager to confirm their actions, some participants experienced uncertainty and a lack of self-confidence.

Many reported taking 6 months to a year to feel comfortable with the accountability and responsibility of decentralised decision-making.

Shadow lands

Dismantling racism cover shotEach organisation had initiated conversations about power and privilege and had begun to surface their own colonising behaviours. The layers of contradiction Western emancipatory projects are built upon. I hasten to assure you this was not undertaken in a rigid manner. People and the group ebbed and flowed in their comfort levels and time availability. These inquiries were undertaken with care for the group. Articulating taken-for-granted white, heterosexual, middle class assumptions often occurred in the deeper dives on retreat. In particular, the invisible work of women was problematised and articulated. The ‘work’ of caring, catering and cleaning was consciously taken on by key men in each org.

These conversations and actions created new patterns in the group, bringing to mind Haraway’s recommendation of developing making-with (sympoiesis), as distinct from self-making (auto-poiesis) heroised in hierarchy – a necessary capacity to develop to make the Anthropocene thin.

Practices transform

The founder’s unique role has been seen as a residual of hierarchy by other decentralised organisational researchers.  This drawing of a Sun, three moons and planets as a representation of SELC’s organisational dynamics generated much conversation in the group conversation. The founder’s life-giving visionary energy was deeply appreciated. And group was keen to explore how this image named a tension, felt by all but not yet articulated.

Yassi SELC clean drawing
SELC Solar system: a Sun, three moons and planets (2017)

The discussion took the group beyond separation and into an awareness of our ability to co-create and constitute our reality:

“To what extent are we trained to see a founder’s behaviour differently from others? If we can notice that – we can change our actions and our perceptions…. That might be a leverage point for transforming the dynamic.” SELC Reflective Conversation

Health and happiness in work

These 4 organisations demonstrate how decentralised structures might support humans to develop their capacity to govern together. In this process relationship, trust and wellbeing increase.

“We didn’t start with the old and then try and peel it away. It’s an experiment of starting new…..We have developed explicit and implicit ways of working with each other that feels really healthy.” SELC Reflective Conversation

To move society beyond extraction and exploitation feels to many working in hierarchy like an impossibly profound and dramatic shift. Developing non-hierarchy takes time and care, it is messy at times and it requires new words to guide learning. The emphasis here making together, which distinguishes decentralised organising as a model worth investing in for a ‘thin’ Anthropcene.

This talk was first given on 21st October, at the New Economy Network Australia Conference, Melbourne 2018.


Governance models and resources

Baldwin, C. and Linnea, A. (2010), The Circle Way – A leader in every chair (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.).

Bockelbrink, B., David, L., and Priest, J. (2018), ‘Sociocracy 3.0 Effective Collaboration At Any Scale’, <>, accessed 3.10.18.

Edenburg, G. (1998), Sociocracy: The organization of decision-making (Netherlands: Eburon Academic Publishers).

Holacracy, (2015), ‘Holacracy Constitution’. <>

Jones, K., et al. (2003) Dismantling Racism: A Resource book for Social Change Groups [online text], Western States Centre <…/Dismantling%20Racism/download>

Laloux, F. (2014), Reinventing Organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness. (Brussels, Belgium: Nelson Parker) xviii + 378 pp.

Noble, V. and K. Vogel (1981). Motherpeace Tarot Cards. Berkeley, California, Harper and Row Publishers.

P2PFoundation (2018), ‘P2PFoundation Wiki’ <>

Sociocracy <;


Eisler, R. (2013), ‘Human Possibilities: An Integrated Systems Approach’, The Journal of Global Education, 69 (4-6), 269-89.

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the Pluriverse : Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, Duke University Press.

Gebser, J. (1986), The Ever-Present Origin (Athens: Ohio University Press).

Haraway, D. (2016), Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, eds M. Michael and J. Dumit J. Fischer (Experimental Futures; Durham, England: Duke University Press).

Neville, B. and T. Dalmau (2008). Olympus Inc. Intervening for Cultural Change in Organizations. Greensborough, Flat Chat Press.

Pfeffer, J. (2018), Dying for a Paycheck (USA: HarperBusiness).

Plumwood, V. (2013), Environmental Culture The Ecological Crisis of Reason (Environmental Philosophies: Hoboken : Taylor and Francis).

Romanyshyn, R. (2010), ‘The Wounded Researcher: Making a Place for Unconscious Dynamicsin the Research Process’, The Humanistic Psychologist, 38, 275-304.

Semetsky, I. (2011), Re-Symbolization of the Self : Human Development and Tarot Hermeneutic, ed. S. R. Steinberg (Transgressions . Cultual Studies and Education, 64; Rotterdam: Sense Publishers).

Senge, P. (1990), The Fifth Discipline : The art and practice of the learning organisation (New York: Double Day).

Sterling, S. (2003), ‘Whole Systems Thinking as a Basis for Paradigm Change in Education: Explorations in the Context of Sustainability’, (University of Bath).

Theorell, T. (2003). Democracy at work and its relationship to health. in Emotional and Physiological Processes and Positive Intervention Strategies P. L. Perrewe and D. C. Ganster, Emerald Group Publishing Limited: 323 – 357.

Wheatley, M. J. (2006), Leadership and the new science : discovering order in a chaotic world (3rd ed.. edn.; San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler).

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