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The Social Ecological Approach to Human and Organisational Development
Social Ecology (also called the Social Development movement) is a holistic approach to human beings and to the groups, organisations and societies they form. In this article we will examine some of the main features of the Social Ecological approach to human development.
The common approach human resources development has been to train people on a technical basis, improving skills and intellectual knowledge of the particular function they have within their organisation. This limits the field of possibilities for the individuals in question as well as the potential use the organisation can have for them. For too long motivation has been based on ideas of improving technical skills, or in the thought or possibility of a higher salary or position within the company, which is dangled in front of employees like a carrot on a stick. These approaches have been based on a limited mechanistic point of view of man, and have basically been shown to be ineffective. For some time the West has been looking with envy on the Japanese worker’s loyalty to the company and identification with their work as a source of pride. However, it has been difficult for Western companies to adapt Japanese methods, as the mentalities of the peoples are radically different, and Western management has been slow to understand the real needs of Western and European individuals.
What characterises Western and European people is an increasing sense of individuality. The strong sense of clan, family, belonging and being an integral part of a social group is still very much present in the Oriental culture, but is disappearing at an amazing speed in the Occidental cultures. Thus, a worker may be astonished and repelled by the idea of considering the company he works for as something he owes full loyalty to. For a worker on an assembly line, whose company has, in line with the mechanistic view of life, considered him or her as little more than an expendable wheel in the cog with a limited field of action, his or her work easily becomes an evil necessity. The job is only a means to have money for food and family needs.
On the managerial level, loyalty to the company too often carries the condition that salary and position will continue going up.This is because salary and status have become an exaggerated part of the sense of self. This leads to one-sidedness in life, and to important crises in the lives of these individuals. Because of the mechanistic view point, the company, i.e. the top management, is unwilling to address these crises. The company demands full creativity from its management, yet has problems recognising the need for attention on the free creative side of individuals as the way to engage managers fully in their work. But if as an individual with an increasing sense of identity I find myself ignored as a person by my company, I will not be inclined to give any such thing as loyalty to it. Thus it is possible for management to find itself stuck with an attitude which does not meet the actuality of the modern-day Western and European personality.
Luckily things are beginning to change, and many companies are realising that it is to the company’s advantage to address their employees from a humanistic and holistic point of view, thus engaging their full potential in their work for the company.
What is a holistic view of man?
Social Ecology sees people as consisting of a body, soul and spirit. It maintains that thinking, feeling and will should be balanced in every person, and its processes strive to address the whole as opposed to the part. Therefore, along with the training of skills, social ecologists have developed processes which seek to enrich peoples lives and their ability to function socially. These processes lead to among other things:
– An understanding of one’s own developmental process throughout life, so as to take full advantage of every phase of life. This benefits the company, as its leaders’ understanding allows for a more efficient use of the work force, as well as a more humanitarian individualistic approach.
– An understanding of temperaments, so as to allow for better interaction. This knowledge also helps leaders within an organisation to pick the right person for each type of job.
– An understanding of the importance of listening on the level of thinking, feeling, and will.
– An understanding of the workings of sympathy and antipathy and their balancing factor, empathy, as a tool for understanding and avoiding unnecessary conflicts of personality.
– An understanding of a facility for 7 main different leadership styles and ways of interaction, and how to balance them.
– An empowering of each individual worker, so as to increase self-responsibility for quality work and quality life.
– A balancing of each individual’s life, private and professional.
– An understanding of the dynamics of conflict and uses of the countering forces to regain a balance.
– An understanding of the stages of development of an individual, a group, and an organisation.
Development through understanding the principles of the time stream.
A holistic approach entails among other things , an understanding of the needs and principles behind the stream of time. How do we deal with the past, present and future, so as to create a balance in individuals and their organisations, where they can stand, as on a mountain top, viewing the panorama behind them with all its richness, trials and tribulations, looking ahead to where they want to go, and planning from the point of view of where they are presently.
The past is just that, past. But the memories from it live on below the surface of our awareness, affecting our behaviour in an automatic fashion. If as a nine year old I had to walk past a certain house where there lived an old lady with a stick, who had a small vicious dog, and if every day that old lady shouted at me and waved her stick while the dog barked and bit at my heels, then I will most likely, as an adult, have an automatic negative reaction towards old ladies, or small dogs, walking sticks, or houses and neighbourhood reminding me of that of the old lady’s house. On meeting with any or all of these, it is the nine year old in me who reacts, not the adult. In order to unblock this automatic reaction, thus freeing the adult in each individual from the childish reaction, the Austrian philosopher and visionary Rudolf Steiner has given exercises where the ability to form living objective pictures of people and situations frees the feelings from the old memories, and allow the individual’s I to work with the picture and unblock the reaction.
The past, if it is to be used as a springboard for the future, needs to give us clear messages about ourselves, and present a useful continuity. My rhythms, my ideals, my leading themes and patterns, my decision-making processes, my ways of creating and maintaining relationships, just to name a few of the aspects which can be extracted from one’s biography, speak to me about my developmental process, tell me who I have been, and why I am. When this is done objectively and in as pictorial a way as possible, the I is freed to work with this very personal material in a positive manner.
Growth and the 7-year phases of development
I also grow physically, in my soul, and in spirit, in phases. Social Ecology examines the personal biography in 7 year phases. By the end of the third phase, the physical development is usually at an end, unless I work hard to put on muscle, through hard physical training. I also have the grounding in my thought life as well as my feelings. For the next three phases I have the opportunity to develop my soul, as the focus of the inner developmental urge is on refining relationships: “I meet the world”, on refining my reflective and creative thinking: “What is true?”, and gaining a sense and orientation for my I in the world I understand, away from egoism towards altruism, and building my soul up through an attitude of reverence: “I prepare to give myself”.
Splitting off from the stream of development
In the next three phases, from ages 42 to 63, the mature adult I know am feels (in varying degrees according to individuals,) the urge to develop my spirit. It is clear that some people feel that this does not apply to them, they have never noticed any such urge. But the symptoms can be read in almost everyone, whether they realise it or not. Usually in it is in the form of a feeling of displacement, discontent or disenchantment, or as a question popping up, beginning with “why”. It can become visible through looking at the type of people one admires or envies, and in the books one chooses to read. As man is not yet at the stage of development of being spiritual through and through, one can see only the seeds for what humanity as a whole will develop in centuries to come, just as we can see how man’s consciousness has radically changed since man first appeared and up until now.
One can also see a definite split in the way people develop from the early forties on, as each individual chooses either to decline with the physical body, becoming more and more closed, rigid, bitter and cynical, or to develop independently as a spiritual being, becoming more giving, open-minded, kind and altruistic, and remaining creative and interested in life until the end.
After age 63 Social Ecology considers the individual as free from the given developmental urge, free to develop himself and the world, as a gift, and to prepare for life after death.
An organisation too is a living, changing organism, with a biography and phases of development like an individual. Great clarity can be found in bringing an objective biography of an organisation into the light. Without a realistic view of the development of the aims and activities, it is difficult to understand the why of today’s situation. Is the organisation a child, an adolescent, an adult, an old person? How did the environment affect it from the beginning? Has the organisation been held back from developing naturally through the 3 phases of organisational development ( the Pioneer phase, the Differentiation phase and the Integration phase)? How has the organisation met inner and outer changes? What crises have ensued in the transition periods from one phase to another? How have they been handled? By whom?
The organisation can also be diagnosed with Social Ecological tools such as
The four leaf clover model.
The four leaf clover is a model created by a dutchman, Bernard Lievegoed, to demonstrate the dynamic interaction of four basic fields in an organisation. Each organisation has resources that it draws on. These resources are part of the physical, or earth quality of an organisation. They include housing, machinery, equipment, money. They also include people. The staff has skills and knowledge which are put at the disposal of the company, as well as time. A part of this field is also the physical limitations of the company, such as geographic location, mobility, possibilities for expansion etc..
Opposite the physical aspect of the company we have the spiritual or ideals aspect. In this area we have the company’s vision for itself in the future, and its image in the present, its identity. Its values and aims are there as well. The visions need to be carried by values, which aid in the interpretation of the vision and carry over into the principles and methods applied to carry them out. In this area one looks at who carries the identity of the company, and whether it is visible as a clear entity in its surroundings. One also looks at how well the identity has been assimilated by every employee and how the employees have translated this into every day work processes.
The third area within the four leaf clover is the area of movement, processes, and belongs to the element of water. What do the communication streams look like? What are the work processes? Are they stuck anywhere? What is our connection to time like?
Lastly we look at the area concerning the relationships of the company with the outside world. How does it relate to clients? To the environment? What is its marketing like? How well does the company listen to or hear the actual needs of the world outside? How does it meet them?
The flow and balance between these four areas is a vital point to look at, as it indicates the health of the organisation. Any stuck areas in the flow need to be unstuck in order to ensure that the organisation is flexible and dynamic, adapting to change inwardly and outwardly while still maintaining a high standard of care for the employees.
– future picture
– work processes
– relationships w.outer world
– Market resources
Let us now go back to our original picture of an individual standing on his mountain top. He has gained an overview of his past, the road he has travelled, and how he has travelled it. Now, however, as much alone as any individual might feel, and no matter how isolated he has become from other people, no individual is actually alone. All of us fit into our present landscape as part of it, be it as a tall oak, a friendly house, a wild flower, a small pebble forming a path, a weed, a predator or his prey. So the social ecologist looks at the way the individual fits into his context in the present. Present values, the social and family network, and status at work, are some of the important factors to look at, in order to create a total picture of the individual’s life at present.
The organisation also needs a realistic view of its present situation. The most important factor here is once again objectivity. It is difficult, but vital, that those who form the organisation reach as objective a picture of their present situation as possible, in order to be able to make decisions about the future from as free a perspective as possible. This phase in the process of developing an organisation is one which is very prone to the impatience or conflicts of the parties involved. But once again, the I of every individual involved in the process needs a clear emotion-free picture which his thinking can then work with freely. Then, when an examination of the objective facts is made, in order to choose what one wants to develop further or discard as not useful, the feeling should be brought in, in such a way that each individual can examine his heart to see whether he can whole-heartedly take part in building the future, based on the common picture of positive and negative aspects of the present situation. This can be painful if the individual realises that he cannot or does not want to be a part of the future direction. It may cause him to re-examine his values and desires for the future, in correspondence with who he is and who he wants to become, and might eventually lead to his seeking to join another company whose goals and values lie closer to his own. But it is very satisfying if he feels himself committed to building the future based on the group’s evaluation of the present situation. His commitment becomes a great asset to the company as well. Empowering employees so as to make it possible for them to feel co-responsible for the quality of their organisation is one of the aims of the social ecologist.
In order to be able to make a plan of action for the future, the members of the organisation need to take a look into the future.
The future lies before me with so many unknown factors. But now that I have a picture of who I am, what I can do, and what I’ve been striving for, I can begin my steps into the future with a plan of sorts. Among the things I’ve discovered, I can see some which I would like to develop further, and others which I would like to put a stop to or change. I can also see new elements which I would like to bring into my life. E.g. I can see how building new relationships could benefit the rest of my life. Or I might see that learning a new skill could bring me further opportunities or increase my value as a worker. Or I might have always wanted to be able to play an instrument, so why not start now, just for the pleasure it will give me. With this background knowledge I can now imagine different future scenarios and then choose one to aim for. later, after the various scenarios have been allowed to live in the judgement-free world of ideas, I can start carefully considering the consequences of each one. The moral aspect of this choosing process determines the quality of the future path. Recognising that I am not alone, I use my moral imagination in order to look honestly at the consequences of my future actions on my nearest and the world around me. Having made my choice, I can then make a plan of action with concrete first steps.
Of course, this is one of several methods used by social ecologists in dealing with the future, but the common ideal is active participation in one’s destiny, empowering oneself to take responsibility for one’s life, and a moral attitude towards the world around us.
In order to step into the future in a balanced, positive and organic way, the members of an organisation need to have a common picture of the future.
If on our mountain top we have three people whose professed aim it is to reach the city they can see in the distance, we might think that this picture would be enough to get them there without further ado. But if one of them has the idea that he must procure some money on the way, which he can then spend in the city; another feels that the important thing is to enjoy the countryside on the way, the company of his fellow-travellers, and get to know the people living in the area, and that the city is just another place to spend the night; and the third wants to get to the city as soon as possible because he has always had the dream that in the city he would be someone, not just the son of the village drunk, then we have a problem. Sooner or later on the way to the city, differences of opinion will arise. As none of them knows each other’s secret dreams, motives, or hidden agenda, the conflict will be inevitable. All three need to take time to share their vision, and either come to a common one or part amicably. Hidden motives, and misunderstanding each other’s motives, creates conflicts which are hard to resolve, as they are based on personal values of individuals, and thus lie close to their hearts, i.e. are full of feeling. There is nothing smart or clever about operating with secret agendas. Sooner or later they become apparent, and eventually they cause damage to a co-operative effort. Understanding that a healthy group is mightier that the individual is part of a new stream of thought which is becoming more and more vital. How do the very individualised modern personalities meet in groups of mutual interest , and function at maximum effectiveness and benefit to all? E.g. having the future picture of the organisation as being large and prosperous is not enough. How do we want to do this and can we agree on the moral principles we will follow based on common values, in our dealings internally, i.e. staff, employees, managers and their interrelationship, externally, with regards to customers, producers, other organisations we have dealings with, and so forth.
Having arrived at a future ideal, and having examined the consequences of one’s decision, then a plan of action can be drawn up.
Anthroposophy and Social Ecology
So far we have looked at the approach to the stream of time as regards individuals and organisations. Another important factor for social ecologists, is reading the signs of our times and diagnosing them. This we can do if we understand human development so far in history, the needs and developmental stages in each period of history, and then see where we stand today in the human stream of development. We need to identify positive moral streams leading to a balanced social ecology, and those developmental streams which lead to human beings fulfilling their greatest potential. For the Anthroposophical view of the development of mankind, see Rudolf Steiner’s “Occult Science – an Outline”.
The Anthroposophical view of the world gives its foundations to Social Ecology. As regards the Anthroposophical view of human society, Rudolf Steiner developed Goethe’s fairy tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. The principles which Rudolf Steiner saw underlying the tale took many years to come to fruition as his theory on society based on liberty, equality and fraternity. Liberty in the cultural -spiritual sphere, equality in the rights sphere, and fraternity in the economic sphere.
It was, however, Bernard Lievegoed, a Dutch psychiatrist, who was working with developmentally handicapped children in Holland from an Anthroposophical point of view, who then started the Social Ecology movement. He founded the NPI (the Netherlands Pedagogic Institute), which has trained many consultants in Organisational Development and biography work. Many of these consultants have in turn started their own initiatives in Social Development, and trained others in their own countries. Two such initiatives are SEA, the Institute for Social Ecology, in Sweden, and until recently the Centre for Social Development, a part of Emerson College in Sussex, England. These centres have offered an introduction to Social Ecology through experience of Social Development processes. The Centre for Social Development also offers a counselling course for counsellors and psychotherapists wanting to introduce the Anthroposophical view of man into their work.
Art as a tool for developmental processes.
We need only to look around us, at our work, our relationships and our attitudes, to see that the middle realm of the human being, the feeling sphere, is often underdeveloped, and indeed sorely neglected. Working holistically with a human being requires that feeling be addressed as well as thinking and will. One of the most rewarding ways of doing this is through the world of colours. In the world of colours, feelings are moved and enlivened, healed in a natural way. Social Ecologists have integrated several art forms into their work, in the knowledge that different arts address different elements of the soul. In order to strengthen and express the will, clay modelling is encouraged. The Anthroposophical art of Eurythmy, a completely new art form, could be described as visible speech and visible music. It brings the creative formative forces into movement, and helps free the habits. Loosening up the stuck patterns of habit is very helpful in encouraging creativity within people.
Through Anthroposophy, freedom of the individual, strong independent thinking and a strong artistic element, influence the Social Ecological processes. Furthermore, the holistic approach can be typified by the social ethic which follows:
“Healthy Social life is found only when in the mirror of the human soul the whole community finds its reflection, and when in the community the virtue of each one is living.” R. Steiner.
See “Vision in action”, working with soul and spirit in small organizations, by Christopher Schaeffer and Tijno Voors, Hawthorn press, Hawthorn House, 1 Lansdown Lane, Stroud Gl5 3ja, UK
See “The Developing Organization” by BCJ Lievegoed.
See “Developing Communities” by BCJ Lievegoed
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