Why choose Gestalt organisational development?

November 12, 2015

Behaviour

When leaders want to make their organisations more efficient in realising strategic goals, many of them resort to behaviourist, carrot-and-stick approaches. However, there’s a big problem: despite all the scientific-sounding talk of “measurable” KPIs and clearly defined goals, many of these approaches fail to deliver.

Most human beings dislike feeling manipulated in some way. But core to the health of any system has to an ability to defend itself. it is this that we routinely see when any transformational change is rejected by an organisation. So what might a non-manipulative approach to Organisation Development look like? The one I most favour is the Gestalt approach. I’ll explain why.

According to a Gestalt view of change (first articulated by Gestalt pioneer Arnold Beisser in 1970), the best approach to take is at once more radical and yet less likely to generate resistance. This approach focusses on supporting people through the process of becoming who you they already are and dropping futile efforts to become who they aren’t, and probably never can be. Sound like psychobabble? Well it’s not, and here’s why.

Most of us absorb the ideals that important authority figures hold out for us as we grow up; or at least, we fashioned ideals out of what we imagined they wanted us to be like. The Paradoxical Theory of Change (which sits at the heart of Gestalt) helps individuals not so much to break these ideals as to break with them, to stop being dominated, even tyrannised, by them. In so doing, they’re free to begin noticing talents, aptitudes, interests and desires that had been buried or suffocated under the regime of the Ideal Self.

Arnold Beisser’s statement, “Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not,” shouldn’t be read as meaning submitting to one’s presumed limitations, but as allowing space for “evocation.” If we step off the treadmill marked “Ideal Self” and allow pause for playful thought, we see that there are many other options and aptitudes within us that our pursuit of ideals never allowed ourselves to explore.

This pause for playful thought is sometimes called “mindfulness”, but I think that’s a little misleading. In Buddhism, mindfulness refers to emptying the mind of distracting false desires in order to reach a pure state of being. In Gestalt, I think it’s much more to do with releasing hitherto suppressed or frozen potentials. If these unexplored potentials are innumerable in any given individual, just imagine their scale and magnitude in an organisation.

The Gestalt approach to Organisation Development has at its heart exactly the same aims as the Gestalt approach to personal development: to expand the space of playful innovation and experimentation, to release novelty from the prisons of convention and authority-driven prescription.

The organisational equivalent of the individual self is the culture: awareness of the myriad forms of inter-relatedness and mutual enrichment that might become possible if routines and protocols were suspended as a prerequisite for reform.

When we become more mindful of how we have been relating to one another, and how we might alter these patterned interactions, resistance to culture change eases and authentic organisation development becomes a true prospect. In Gestalt organisation development, the process of inquiry into existing organisational culture is itself a form of change.

This differs radically from the behaviourist paradigm, which begins with an authoritative (possibly authoritarian) vision of what the desired culture should be, and then proceeds to manipulate “behaviours” (i.e. sentient human beings) to fit. Gestalt treats human complexity as an asset to be harnessed – behaviourism as noise to be quietened.

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