Roger Harrison: A Consultant’s Parting Thoughts

Here’s an inspiring message from organizational development consultant Roger Harrison on the occasion of his retirement from practice. It comes from the desk of Jon Husband, who had the occasion to work with Roger. It really speaks to the importance of finding meaningful work in one’s life.

A Time For Letting Go, by Roger Harrison

This paper is written for those who sometimes question the meaning and consequences of their work as consultants to business organizations and corporations.

In it I share the dilemmas which have caused me to falter in my commitment to our profession, along with the beginnings of a new vision of my own work. My intent is to provide a useful map of territory I have been exploring in my thoughts and conversations with others for about ten years.

What I have to say here is, I believe, coherent. It is certainly congruent with my own experience. Whether it is “true”, in the sense of being a useful map of the territory, each reader will have to decide.

The Consultant’s Journey

I began my career in 1956, when American busines organizations were at the top of the world heap. Their managers tended to be smug and self-satisfied, taking credit for the good times which had succeeded the disorganization of the Depression and the scarcities of World War II. I received my initiation into what soon became Organizational Development (OD) through participation in T-groups. I was inspired and uplifted by these experiences, and they embodied the ideals which animated most of my subsequent work. Most of my work since has been animated by three aims: 

  • To empower individuals at all levels to contribute their highest talents, to learn, and to make decisions,
  • To assist in the development of common purpose, shared vision, and unity of effort in organizations, 
  • To create a climate in organizations for open, cooperative and supportive working relationships.

I have had many deep, passionate and stormy love affairs with business organizations. The storms have revolved around the painful contradictions I have experienced between the potential in my lovers for what is fine and good, and the meanness, blindness and impersonal cruelty that has so often been their actuality. The pain has also been fueled by my strong need to make a positive difference, and to see myself as a contributor to human progress and the betterment of working life.

In recent years, I have seen many of these lovers turn mean and narrow, as they struggle to survive and to acquire and retain what they think of as their rightfully-growing share of the world’s resources.

I have sadly come to think of them as addicts, struggling with increasing desperation to control their lives and to feed their addictions with growth, money, novelty, success. Like most addicts, they lie, cheat and steal to support their addictions; they live in denial of the consequences of their actions; and they turn ugly when confronted with their addictions.

Although I continue my love of business and especially of the people I meet in business, I am saddened by the power of these addictions to corrupt or render ineffective our best initiatives. Increasingly, that is the context within which we work (see Schaef, 1987, Schaef and Fassel, 1988).

Where We Are Now

Codependency is the process of supporting another’s addiction and sometimes joining it, turning a blind eye to the addiction, playing the addict’s game of denial and rationalization, and endeavouring to save the addict from the consequences of his or her destructive acts. Organizational Development (OD) as I have known and practiced it is often highly codependent, especially in its focus on ameliorating the consequences of the addiction.

I have done considerable inner work over the years, and some of it has freed me in part from my own cravings for success and recognition, love and acceptance, and for power and influence. I now tend to see both my own addictions and those of others more clearly. At the same time, the flaws in our system have become more glaring.

Put simply, our system isn’t working, and it isn’t getting fixed.

I want to take just a little space to set forth what I see as the larger social context within which I see our work as consultants taking place. I see us now as facing a great and inevitable turning, one being brought about by the unbridled growth to which we as the dominant world culture are committed.

The signs and signals of that turning are in what is ending in our society that we used to imagine we could count upon.

I mention just five that have impressed me, and about which I have found considerable agreement in audiences to which I have spoken on these matters.

  • Our ability to treat the Earth as an unlimited resource and bottomless septic tank. 
  • The capacity of our system to provide social and economic justice 
  • The capacity of our dominant mental models to keep chaos and despair at bay 
  • The rewards and pleasures of individualism 
  • The patriarchy as a viable social contract in organizations and society.

There are other signs that have surprised and delighted me and have warmed my heart. 

  • Growing numbers of people are becoming attuned to the systemic connections between what we do privately and what happens in the larger world. We know, even while we embrace them, that quick fixes won’t work. 
  • Many long for community and for meaningful relationships in every sphere 
  • An understanding is developing that no great leader is going to fix things for us, and that we have to do it together. 
  • There is a spiritual renaissance going on, although (as usual) it has both dark and light sides. 
  • People are becoming more open to exploring the value of intuition, prayer and other non-rational ways of knowing and choosing.

Because these latter developments are all counter-cultural, they are subtle, hard to track, and there is less agreement that they are actually going on. My own confidence that they are there and growing depends a lot on my mood and spirit from day to day.

However, these trends do form the basis for those paths which I believe have integrity and heart that may be followed in working as a consultant to business organizations today.

Right Livelihood

What I have to say about the right work for OD consultants is absurdly simple and, in my experience, devastatingly difficult. I propose that we: 

  1. wake ourselves up; 
  2. learn to support and nurture ourselves in the loneliness and despair of being awake in the midst of sleepers;
  3. assist others to wake up; 
  4. join together with others who are awake to a) nurture and support one another, and b) decide upon and take joint action based on our awareness

I do not have space in this introductory piece to map this territory in a complete or detailed fashion, even to the limited extent that I am capable of doing so at this stage in my own journey. Rather, I shall focus on one key to awakening I have experienced recently in my own life: detachment, or letting go.

Awakening requires us to step outside the mental models which we share with our clients and with other consultants and to walk the lonely road of what Marsha Sinetar in Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics (1986) calls “social transcendence” .

By social transcendence I mean emotional independence or detachment from societal influences, even from other people when necessary: I call the monk one who has detached emotionally from a known, familiar and comfortable way of life in order to embark upon an uncharted inner journey. The monk responds to an inner call, reinterprets his or her basic way of being in the work – which might include reinterpreting the way he relates to others, work, marriage, Church or other organizational status, and even includes a renewed definition of himself or herself and one’s basic place in the scheme of things. (Sinetar, 1986, Pg. 5)

Most of us who practice organization development have always done this to a degree. What makes us valuable to our clients is in part our different ways of seeing and valuing.

For example, many of us have steadfastly held a mental model that organizations which liberate the human spirit will also be productive and economically viable. I think of that as a small and manageable difference from our clients.

However, when we come to believe that the organizations with which we consult are leading us to destroy the environment, perhaps irretrievably, and that both society and business are addicted to these destructive patterns, we have a larger problem of maintaining rapport and communication. The path I am advocating requires that we allow that problem to develop as we free ourselves from the denial and rationalization which validate and give meaning to the continuation of business and societal practices which are destructive of life on Earth.

Codependency or Detachment?

Probably most of us have read or heard quite a lot about codependency and about liberating ourselves from such destructive relationship patterns. Many of us are fed up with the constant repetition, perhaps in the same way we become fed up with bad news about the environment – not that it isn’t true, but that it is painful.

The task of separating oneself from the addictions of other individuals with whom we may be codependent is similar to that of separating from the addictions of our culture. It is a spiritual practice, and a demanding one.

There are lots of guides and teachers, books about liberating oneself from codependency (see for example, Beattie, 1987) and programs for helping one to do so, Al-Anon and other Twelve-Step programs being examples. They are relevant to the task of awakening. Based upon my own experience, I give below my understanding of what is required of us to awaken in relationship to the organizations with which we are codependent and in relationship to our culture.

  • First and foremost, we practice detachment. We let go of worry about situations in our client organizations, and we do not attempt to control what happens there. We abandon the idea that out mission is to make our clients healthier, or to teach them to live better. We learn not to depend on our clients emotionally or financially, neither for bread, nor for love, nor for approval.
  • We walk with our clients in integrity and with compassion, neither proselytizing for our own version of the truth, nor distorting our truth to make it more palatable to them.
  • We let go of responsibility for the harm that our client organizations do in the world, and for undoing it or preventing it, except through bearing witness to the truth. We do not take credit for the good they do, or for the progress they make, even to ourselves. We learn not to subject ourselves to shame or guilt on account of the action or inaction of any organization, or of society.
  • We acknowledge our own faults, inadequacies and betrayals to ourselves and to others. To the best of our ability, we forgive the faults, inadequacies and betrayals of our clients.
  • We seek over time to experience to the full the sorrow and despair which we feel over what is happening in the world, so that we can move on to be free of the apathy, powerlessness and emotional deadness that attend the suppression of our feelings.
  • Although we accept the pain of knowing that our world is in a mess and our sorrow that we cannot fix it, we continue, with or without hope, to learn to act in ways we believe are constructive. We take responsibility for behaving in ways that contribute to the future we desire for all of life on Earth.

My Own Story

I want to be clear that I am myself stumbling along this road I am mapping. I am not offering myself as a model of what I here advocate. I shall share where I am along that road, and something of the stages through which I have gone to get this far. In a way, this is a transitional epilogue to my recent professional autobiography (Harrison, 1995).

Melody Beattie makes the point that while we endeavour to detach in love, it is better to detach in anger than not to detach at all. My own detachment from business organizations began in anger and resentment, masked as reflection.

In the early nineties I was burned out and discouraged with the results of my long career as a consultant. I turned to my autobiography as some people turn to their journals, in an attempt to work out the meanings in my life. The work was fueled by th paradox in which I found myself. I was at the peak of my powers as a consultant, but my passions and values were less and less shared by actual and potential clients, It was increasingly difficult to find work that felt worth doing, in the sense of promoting the three values mentioned on the first page of this paper.

Like any good codependent, I took considerable personal responsibility for the situation in which I found myself, and I spent many pages in my autobiography analyzing my failures, paying less attention to my successes. What I felt, but didn’t say directly, was that I felt abandoned and unappreciated, and I resented it at the same time as I looked for its causes within myself.

I came away from writing the book feeling a whole lot better about myself, and worse about organizations. Their magic was gone for me, and I saw only the destructive part they play in our exploitative economic system. I resolved to disconnect from business consulting and devote myself to playing a part in healing the environment.

My wife and I moved at that time from the San Francisco Bay Area to a new home near Seattle, and I endeavoured to find clients among the many environmental organizations here in the Northwest. Many of these seemed in part to be mirror images of the corporations they fought – caught up in the struggle to survive and to win converts to their agenda.

They and the corporations used similar strategies and tactics, and perceived one another in similarly distorted ways. That did not disqualify them as clients, but their addiction to action was even stronger than that within corporations, and most were too busy surviving and fighting the enemy to accept the kinds of help I could bring. So here, too, I found myself with gifts to give, but few takers.

As I look back on these few years, I seem to have gone through a process of loss and recovery similar to that described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others (Fink, 1967, Kubler-Ross, 1969). I began with feelings of loss and disillusionment which I found ways to blame on others. I endeavoured to replace what I had lost, without success. Following that I became despondent and deeply self-questioning for some months, a low-grade depression mixed with bitterness, which impeded my efforts to create a new life for myself here in the Pacific Northwest. My energy was low, I had some health problems, I couldn’t seem to commit to any one thing for very long, and my performance in doing the things I did commit to was very uneven.

All the while there was healing going on. Living close to nature here on Whidbey Island, I was moved to learn ways of consciously using the natural world for my own healing (Roszak, Gomes & Kanner, 1995), and that has worked for me to a degree I had not imagined likely. I have also worked with self-healing aproaches such as Reiki (Haberley, 1990) and the “MAP” process pioneered by Machaelle Small Wright (1994).

This story hasn’t ended, but there has been a turning. Eventually I found a new work with heart and meaning, a program we call Life on Earth, developed with my spouse and partner, Margaret Harris. As is typical of my work history (and that of many others in our profession) I am now offering people what I found I needed for my own healing. In this case, that is a relaxed and nurturing time in a beautiful setting, where participants can reflect on where the world is going and what part they want to play in its changes, and where they are guided in deepening their connection with the natural world.

My transition did not take place in neat, demarcated stages. Everything overlapped, and the pattern was a kind of wave motion – forward into the future and towards freedom and detachment, then pulled back and down into resentments, regrets and doubts.

Detachment, forgiveness of self and others, and letting go of the past have been the keys to my transition. I became involved with the development of Life on Earth in the spring of 1995, but as long as I was burdened with my feelings of bitterness and judgment towards business organizations, everything I did required great effort, and our successes were negligible. For example, we had to cancel our first workshop we offered when only two people signed up. By late summer of 1996, when I had in large part transcended my negativity, our next offering was greatly oversubscribed, and we continue to receive many expressions of interest in our work. Perhaps in the interim there had been a big shift in others’ readiness for what we offered, but the only thing I am sure was different was me. That change in me did of course have an effect on the promotional copy I was able to write for the workshop, but I find it hard to believe that what I wrote is that magical.

Anger, sadness and grief over what is happening to Earth have also been barriers to my movement. When we lived in the urban Bay Area, the destruction of the environment was something we read about or saw on television. Here on Whidbey Island, it is ever present, and personal. We round a corner of the road and come upon the wreckage of a forest, now reduced to a tangle of stumps and slash. Another day we hear the whine of chainsaws and the crash of falling trees near our home, and investigate to learn that a neighbour is clearing the timber from a piece of property and will sell the land for a housing site. For some time I was nearly immobilized by my feelings about this destruction. In time I learned to live with my sorrows without being disempowered. I was greatly helped in this shift by attending workshops with Joanna Macy, in which we learned to move safely into the grief, anger and despair we were holding at bay (Macy, 1983, 1991; Seed, Macy, Fleming, & Naess, 198! 8).

I learned not so much to release the sorrow as to embrace it as a necessary companion on my journey, an aspect of being awake.

I find now that I am moved again to find ways of contributing to the lives of people in business organizations, but, consistent with my having achieved some degree of detachment, my aims and expectations have changed.

I no longer frame my aspirations by the three bullet items given on the first page of this paper. I seek rather to provide opportunities for people to engage in dialogue about what is happening in the world and in their organizations, to find the courage to speak their truth, and to support one another in finding what has heart and meaning for each one.

Although my own path leads me to deepen my connections with the natural world and to work co-creatively with nature in search of truth and healing, I feel this can only be entered into when one is attracted to it. I have no expectations of changing the people with whom I work, nor of changing their organizations.

Both will be changed by the force of events, in ways we can only guess at.

My own hope is to support the learning and healing of those with whom Iwork, as they enter the great turning which I believe lies ahead.

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