Welcome to our interview with Dennis Wittrock. Dennis is a partner at encode.org as well as a Holacracy® facilitator. A recurring theme in his life has been to create spaces for the emergence of a new, more refined consciousness (“integral”) to manifest itself in various areas. He connects people, projects and ideas to foster global transformation.
Welcome Dennis, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Forward Thinking Workplaces conversation.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, people thrive and find meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Dennis Wittrock: Well, that’s kind of a Gordian Knot type of question people have been pondering through the ages. Certainly, for me, it has led me on a path to the type of work I’m doing now because I never felt attracted to the corporate world or anything business like.
My interests led me to study philosophy, art and languages. That was really my way of prolonging my entry into the world of work because I had a sense I needed to figure out how to make this work for me. I would not survive in an environment where I would have to do things that don’t resonate or are not aligned on purpose.
Eventually, my interests led me into integral thinking and philosophy. From there I came into contact with Holacracy, which I pursue as a certified Holacracy coach. So Holacracy is one answer on how to do this, and it is creating a work environment I would actually like to work in.
It also works for other people too, and it does it by enabling everybody to have a voice in the governance of the organization and how the work should be done. My engagement with Holacracy also led me into working for encode.org where we are exploring the questions on how to work, earn, and live on purpose. It’s a more in-depth exploration of some of the questions that Holacracy created.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Dennis: It requires an ability for employees to co-create and get an inner alignment with their purpose. If employees are able to co-shape the journey of the organization to fulfill the purpose they signed up for because it resonates with their own personal purpose, then there’s no big friction. There’s a natural joy and a natural resonance with what needs to be done. The question doesn’t come up in the first place.
This question arises out of the unnatural condition that we find ourselves in this corporate world where it’s highly arbitrary and feels like what does it have to do with me? And if it actually doesn’t have anything to do with me, I need to be incentivized and motivated, but I think the inherent need in the universe is to express your full potential. If you look at a flower or anything in the natural world, it’s striving to express its purpose, its beauty, its natural potential. A tree grows as high as it can and as beautiful and magnificent as it can.
I think human beings just want to express their full self in work and so it’s not so much a question of how can we make them do that, but how can we help to remove the barriers of them doing so out of their own accord. I think a big part of it is that you have to have the opportunity to work self-directed and within a larger context that aligns your personal purpose with an overarching purpose you consciously sign up for.
Bill: What do people really lack and long for at work?
Dennis: What people lack and long for is meaning. They long for purposeful work that has something to do with them and how they show up in the world. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “Oh I want to be a replaceable cog in a machine,” says nobody ever!
At a certain point, people want to be able to unfold their unique potentials. Before that, they have the Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to navigate. People want a secure job and they want stability in their lives. They want to be recognized by their peers but at some point, they want to self-express and do the work they are meant for.
I think at some point people long for an opportunity to do so and if they don’t find it, their soul withers. And if their soul withers―how dare I say the word soul in this context, the corporate world―but this is the new frame of reference when we come from a “teal” paradigm or “integral” view of the world, or a more holistic stance, whichever you want to call it, is to include this what we refer to as “soul”, as “highest calling” or your inner voice that communicates with you via your feelings.
If you feel great, you could translate it as your soul telling you’re on track. You’re on purpose. You’re aligned with life. If you are misaligned with life, you’ll start feeling drained. You get signals from your body. We are really good at ignoring those signals and if we’re really good at it, we end up in the hospital. It’s just poor skills of observation. If we are more sensitive, then we are more aligned with the inner dimensions of how we feel. The feeling of how the tones of the emotional atmosphere is and then we have a bigger chance of getting the cues of what I would call soul. We could call it your “highest self” or your “potential” calling you or your “future self”. It’s up to you how you hold this. I find it apparent that this is what people are oftentimes lacking through their work.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Dennis: This is a question coming from the old paradigm and it’s geared at optimizing the relationship between management and employees. For all it’s worth, it’s a good question to ask, but it’s an obsolete question in the new world of work where management and leadership are distributed among equal partners of the organization. Equal not in terms of experience or skills, but in terms of having an ability to co-create the journey that the organization is taking.
From the above perspective, everything shifts. It’s really a limited question. The question itself exposes the assumptions it is based on. Sometimes this leads to an inquiry of the assumptions we are embedding in our questions. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just where we are today.
Bill: What’s the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Dennis: In the context of self-organization and the work of encode and Holacracy, the question becomes “If we are self-organized, why are there still employees? Why is there still this divide between management and employees? Or this divide between owners and employees?”
At encode.org we attempt to create the legal structures and pathways that not only enable co-organizing the work but also co-owning the profits in a fair way. There are differences in individual contribution of time or money in a startup or when you create a company which should be accounted for to make it a fair distribution of equity shares among the co-founders. There are models for that (like “Slicing Pie”) and we are exploring those and applying them to ourselves. I think this is really possible and is making this question obsolete too. At the same time, these questions are totally valid. In the context of this forum, it should be asked. But this context is one of a parental dynamic or of a leader and subservient follower. It always recreates this kind of relationship dynamic which can be appropriate in certain contexts.
But at the leading edge of organizational development, we are now looking at overcoming this divide. The question is no longer any more of overcoming this parental dynamic of the traditional top-down model, but we are also making other distinctions obsolete like “is your company a for-profit or non-profit?” We would reframe this question as “is your company a for-purpose or not-for-purpose organization”? That becomes a burning question from the perspective of this new paradigm of a “teal”, “integral” or self-organized type of organization.
In Holacracy we say people lead their roles. You lead your role and your roles are always connected to purpose. The purpose of the organization is broken down into roles, circles, and accountabilities. If you lead your role, I follow the lead of your role in that domain, but you may follow the lead of my role in my domain because I lead on that.
This is the way Holacracy distributes authority and gives you space where you and your role can have total freedom to reign autocratically. You don’t have to ask everybody for permission, but if there’s any conflict then we can work this out with the rules of governance and create limitations on the authority or process the tension in a different way. It distributes the authority to lead and make decisions across the roles that people fill.
The question in this new context of self-organization is how do we reframe leadership? Historically, we’re coming from a top-down autocratic system, but I think the age of “heroic leadership” is over. Heroic leadership being the one person who calls the shots and heroically saves the company. That’s the old way of looking at things. It might have been useful in the old framework, but in the new framework, it’s no longer useful because you’d usually step on someone’s toes. We need to unlearn traditional leadership habits that were useful in the previous context of the corporate world as we know it.
Brian Robertson of HolacracyOne talks about “the irony of empowerment”. The irony of the heroic leader which empowers his employees is that they need somebody to empower them in the first place. A heroic leader pre-supposes weak followers that need to be guided. It is simply perpetuating a co-dependent relationship. Many companies have already demonstrated that we can move beyond that and that these models work.
Bill: What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Dennis: Am I on purpose? Personally, if I’m not on purpose and I’m just in it for the paycheck then I really need to ask myself or the question will arise, “What am I really doing here?”
If I’m not a good fit for the organization, the organization is not a good fit for me and the chances are we are both not very happy with each other. This is also a not a question for yourself but a responsibility for the company you’re joining because if you’re a bad fit, then you’re creating friction in their system. Friction not only in your personal experience, but you are also wasting another’s resources.
There’s always something you run up against. You’re not very motivated to do your job and you’re a drag on the organization. It’s not healthy for anybody.
In summary, the question really is, “Am I on purpose? Does my work help further the purpose of the organization I’m joining?“
Bill: Dennis, you have a very interesting summary on LinkedIn. Your profile reads:
A recurring theme in my life is to create spaces for the emergence of a new, more refined consciousness (“integral”) to manifest itself in various areas. I connect people, projects, and ideas to foster global transformation. I’m in for the deep stuff.
How do you feel about this interview series? Does it create space for this type of emergence?
Dennis: Yes, totally. It’s a beautiful opportunity for people to sense what’s next. The very act of being asked elicits knowledge you didn’t know you had. The very act of being listened to is very valuable to create a new context and let new insights emerge and let these nuggets come to the surface.
Thank you, Bill, for giving me the opportunity to explore some of these exciting topics with you. I think it is important work, and it feels like you are expressing your authentic personal purpose with that.
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