Helena Clayton | Disrupting our organisations – with love



Disrupting our organisations – with love

27 Apr 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

On Friday 24 April, I ran a session at the ODN Europe mini conference (it was cracking day…) about love and the role it could and should play in Organisation Development. The theme of the conference was ‘disruption’ and I wanted to say something about how love both disrupts and soothes.

I woke up on Saturday feeling that I missed an opportunity to say a few things about what this might mean in practice for us, if we were to put love at the heart of our OD practice. So I thought I’d try a few words here.

I’d welcome more conversations along these lines and so do let me know what you think.

Where we began

OD originated in the rupture and destruction of WW2.

Times of great chaos and confusion can also be times of great creativity and so with its ‘shamelessly humanistic’ values, the field and discipline of OD emerged with a clear vision for improving the ways we do things in organisations. These values of democracy and inclusion, fairness and equality, co-operation and holism have served us really well for 70 years, and still do.

This is also a time of rupture. And, no doubt like you, I am hearing many people talk about the extraordinary opportunity we have now to remind ourselves of why we are here, and focus on what matters most. And so we should be putting those OD values to work like never before.

And so: don’t assume you are living those values just because you’re in OD. Instead, for every OD intervention, ask out loud with the people you work with: specifically, in what ways is this policy fair? If this is truly a democratic culture change programme, whose voices are not being heard? Where exactly is the equality in this restructure? Where does our OD practice live these values and where might we be falling short?

Where we are now

At this new time of death, upheaval and confusion, why would we not consider adding another value to that list, one that is missing and may be necessary and even essential for these particular times.

I’m advocating that we add love as an explicit value for OD.

Yes, you may feel that the current values are loving, and I’d agree. But I’d also argue that this is a time when we are hurting SO much that we need something in addition. Something more. Something that specifically allows us to tend to the intense hurt and struggle, and puts care, nurture and generosity front and centre of our practice.

It’s worth saying, too, that love need not only be gentle. Love can also allow for a righteous anger where we see clearly where an injustice has been done and we move to put that right, or fiercely protect something or someone.

And so: let’s add something more into the questions above. Ask – regularly, consistently – in what ways is this process loving? How could we be more loving here? Where are the places and ways we could add more love? What would it look like if we brought more love to this?

(You might like this research report from the Carnegie Trust about kindness being a blindspot in public policy. You could swap out kindness for love, and public policy for leadership or OD and it’s relevant).


The actor Steve Coogan says ‘the edgiest word to use at the moment isn’t f**k, c**t, piss or shit. It’s love. That’s what really makes people’s buttocks clench’. And so it would make sense to me if you felt some discomfort when you consider using the word love explicitly in your organisation or in your OD practice. You wouldn’t be alone.

But one role of OD is to disrupt. It’s to bring difference, to bring what the organisation lacks. We are meant to be ‘tempered radicals’, holding a radical vision of the organisations yet tempering our actions so that we can work within the system. As the activist George Monbiot says: we need to get embarrassing about [it] and overcome our own reticence …and risk upsetting people’.

Part of our role in OD is as a ‘corporate heretic’ and love is, I think, the ultimate corporate heresy. Love in organisations is inherently disruptive.

And so: Go on. If you believe in love, stir the pot a little and start using the word. In team meetings and 1:1 conversations. Maybe even in reports and proposals. Just try it. And see what happens 🙂

(You could also just print of copies of my Love and Leadership research report and leave that lying around … :-))

Bold and radical

‘When things fall apart the hopelessly radical becomes common sense’, says Charles Eisenstein.

It’s been difficult, hasn’t it, trying to make change in our organizations? Generally, I’d say we’ve made relatively little progress towards the way we would ideally like to organize and restructure for great equality, fair pay, no gender gap, deeply human working practices, integrating the voices of the ignored?

But new doors are opening. These last few weeks we have seen things that we cannot unsee. We’ve tasted things we want more of.

OD came into being to support organisations to ‘remake the world’ says Art Kleiner. And remake it for the better. So perhaps now is the time for us to consider whether we in OD have lost sight of our wider social purpose. What do you think… has OD become too focused on serving what the organisations wants done? Have we lost sight of our role to challenge an organisation to become better than it currently is in being a force for good in the world? And for its people?

And so: get really clear, from what’s been made visible to you in the these last few weeks and months, about those things that you are committed to make happen – and what you won’t allow to continue. Ask your teams to do the same. Ask others. Then together, what would be the boldest agenda you and your team could create for your organization, or an issue within it? Now is the time to allow yourselves to dream and to start to plan for that to come about.

(You might like this podcast on ‘cathedral thinkers’ – those people who start a piece of work knowing they won’t live to see it completed).

Holding Space

As human beings, one of the things we crave is to feel heard and feel seen. And many of us right now are feeling things that are not being expressed, and therefore not seen and heard.

Not far below ‘coping’ and ‘doing ok’ is a sea of anxiety and fear, overwhelm, grief and loss, confusion and stuckness, guilt and dread. And more.
Grief specialist David Kessel says that ‘if we can’t name it, then we can’t feel it. And if we can’t feel it then we can’t move through it’. And this process is vital to release the trauma – acute and chronic – that’s building up in us individually and systemically right now. In our organisations, we need intentional and collective practices to help people talk about what they’re experiencing and feeling. We need to find ways to ‘hold space’ for what’s going on for people. Right now, this feels to me like the most loving and also the most useful thing that OD can be doing.

And so: where and how can you create spaces where people can come together and simply share what’s going on for them and how they’re feeling? Can you set up safe and confidential spaces – with no work agenda – where people can simply talk and be heard. Be witnessed in what they’re feeling. ‘I hear you. I see you’. A gift of love.

(You might like this recent piece from me saying more about ‘holding space’ and what this could look like in practice, drawn from my work running Listening Circles for two clients).

Finally …

At a time of great disruption, we don’t want to add more disruption. But disrupting with love feels about right. In OD, let’s find ways to disrupt with love – with care, empathy, kindness, nurture and generosity. With acceptance, service, deep listening, space, encouragement and protection.
I think it’s what we’re here to do. To put love at the heart of our practice. And I think it’s where we can make a meaningful contribution to what’s happening right now.

Helena x

More blogs a bit like this, if you so fancy, over on my blog page on my website

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