Miki Kashtan on the three shifts needed for self-managing organisations to thrive

Ep. 37


Miki Kashtan is an author and an international teacher and practitioner of Nonviolent Communication. In this conversation we talk about the three different places shifts need to occur in order for a self-managing human system to thrive, and how we can start to talk about needs more in order to awaken the collective responsibility of groups of people working together. She also shares the five core systems we need to redesign in our organisations as well as the mindset shifts and dialogue skills we need to develop in order to collaborate on a deeper, more purposeful level.



Lisa Gill: My guest this week is Miki Kashtan. Miki is an author and she's perhaps best known for her work as a teacher and practitioner of Nonviolent Communication. She writes about and speaks about big topics like power, patriarchy, the gift economy. And more recently, I think she's becoming really influential as someone contributing to the discussion around what it takes to work together in self managing organisations and communities. So I'm really excited to share this conversation with you, because it's really altered the way I think about collaborating, and even just about being human and how I communicate with everyone in my life. She has so much experience and dedicated practice so there's so much wisdom in this conversation and a lot of provocative ideas, and a lot of concrete advice. Miki talks to me about what she believes are the three fundamental shifts that need to happen within us as humans and the systems that we're operating in, in order to collaborate in a self managing way. So it's a really deep conversation about navigating power, about mindset shifts, new levels of dialogue and self awareness. It's kind of impossible to do it justice in a summary, really. But Miki talks with such intentionality and importance that I found myself hanging on her every word. So without further ado, here's me talking to Miki Kashtan.

So, Miki, thank you, first of all, for coming on the Leadermorphosis podcast.

Miki Kashtan: Thank you for having me and inviting me.

Lisa Gill: So I thought we could start by talking about Nonviolent Communication, because I know this is a movement that you're very active in. And I think it's a technology, if you could call it that, that comes up a lot in the conversation around self managing organisations as something that's a really good practice for people to develop and get skilled at in order to have communication that's more human, more adult-adult. So what for you is most inspiring about the potential of Nonviolent Communication in organisations and in self management?

Miki Kashtan: Thank you. I think in the moment, as you're asking this, what comes to me most strongly, is that the focus on needs is a very powerful organising principle that really kind of cuts to the chase. You know, like, for example, you look at the entire world of economics [which] is organised around profit, not around needs. So there are profound implications to it that people don't like to think about. When you do things based on exchange, based on profit, based on so-called merit, you end up suddenly defining which needs or whose needs are more important than whose needs and it ends up being that resources go to where resources exist, instead of resources going to where need exists. And that creates a fundamental sense of precariousness for most humans on the planet, which isn't how it was before. Exchange, money, debt, interest, markets –before all of those were introduced, there wasn't that kind of precariousness that people lived in.

So fundamentally, our structures are not designed to attend to needs. And if I want a really resilient, robust self managing system, sooner or later, it will need to realign itself with needs. Because otherwise, there comes a moment where it's like, wait a minute, we're self managing, for what purpose? To increase the profit of one person somewhere that can then accumulate? Why would we do that? So the way that so called traditional organisations – there's nothing traditional about them, but they're called traditional – they function on the basis of command and control vertically, competition horizontally. So it's like you can't really trust anyone in those environments. And yet that provides a certain kind of odd coherence. So if you remove that, you need something else to create coherence. And that comes from purpose at all levels, which is very, very, very closely related to me.

And it also comes from having agreement about how you function together, which are also best made on the basis of what would meet needs. Because any time you don't address needs, you need force. If you if you are going to tell people to do things that are not aligned with their needs, they're not going to want to do it. And if people are expected to do things that don't want to do, you will need force to keep them in place. This is this starts with socialisation and continues with management. So that's that's the biggest potential that I see is it is a revised organising principle that if we declare that all our actions are designed to attend to needs as best as we know how, as many needs as best as we know how, everything changes.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, that's so interesting, because so many people working in self managing systems, have this complaint and say to me: "the one thing we're really struggling with is, you know, how do we get people to take a shared ownership of the company? To really step in? We've declared self management, why are these jobs that are maybe less desirable or something, why aren't people really owning them?" And and when you shared what you shared just then it made me think it's because we're coming from this command and control paradigm, we're still thinking in that paradigm, instead of a totally different organising principle, as you say, which is around needs. It's a complete shift.

Miki Kashtan: Yes. Most organisations in the world are designed to maximise accumulation for a few individuals. That is their purpose. And that purpose has nothing inspiring about it, except possibly for the person who's going to get the money, but even then, I don't actually think it's inspiring. It's not life giving. I mean, there's a whole other, you know, sub thread about that claim of doing well, by doing good, which you know, we might or might not get to, I want to put that on the side. But whatever it is, ultimately, if the purpose is to maximise profits and accumulation for one or a few individuals, there isn't going to be a strong enough "why" that is intrinsic for people to own the jobs that are nasty. You know, for example, if you look at not taking the trash out or collecting garbage, which is simple, a job that nobody wants to do. And until and unless we figure out how we are going to not outsource that kind of work, to the less desirable people, we haven't actually changed. Fundamentally, we're still saying, "Oh, they are the few who have skills, who have passion, who can align their life behind their passion and all of that, and there will be those who collect the garbage." And I might be very willing to collect the garbage from time to time, not all the time as my sole job, but I might be very willing to do that – when I know what purpose it serves. And then I won't need any extrinsic motivation, I will do it because I know that every time I take the garbage out, I'm serving such and so purpose. If there is no purpose you will need to force me and you don't force me with the gun these days, mostly you force me with: "You don't do it, there won't be a job for you."

Lisa Gill: Something else that's connected to this, I guess, is this whole topic of power, and patriarchy, which I know is something that you've written about and explored at length as well. And, again, I think in self managing systems, this is another total paradigm shift. And it's more complex I'm learning than just "let's change this manager-subordinate power dynamic." There's so many other power dynamics and relationships to power that are sort of invisible, I think, to many of us. So I know that you've written about, for example, these useful terms of power over and power with. And that's quite a helpful distinction, I think for this topic.

Miki Kashtan: Yeah, first of all, I want to give credit to the woman who invented this distinction, who was very much a management person, but early, early thinker that did massive radical things that nobody knows about her. Her name is Mary Parker Follett, have you heard of her? Yes. Great, you belong to a minority. So she is the one who made that distinction. And it's now used all over the place, but without giving her credit. And that is one of the outcomes of patriarchy is that women disappear. Even pioneer women. All women end up disappearing. So I'm trying to give her credit. She did this 100 years ago, she was talking about these things well before anyone else was. And so power over essentially, is about me, deciding what is going to happen without involving other people in the decision. It doesn't necessarily mean I don't care about you, I might even think that what I'm doing is for your benefit, that for as long as you are not directly or indirectly participating in deciding things that impact you, it is power over in the sense that it is done to you.

And I don't necessarily think that it is hermetically always in all conditions bad. You know, for example, I always like to give this example, if I'm going to have a piece of surgery, I really want the surgeon to decide on her own, on his own, what is going to happen, take the pace, make the decisions and go with it. I don't want the surgeon to check with the nurse, if it's okay with her to hold the scalpel or whatever the nurse does. No! I want I want that flow, the particular kind of flow under very particular types of circumstances that comes from things being decided, and other people being told what to do. Sometimes that's necessary. And I want us to be able to do that when it's necessary. The problem is when that's the only way or when it is declared necessary, in many more cases, then, I think, are necessary.

Because people declare it necessary on the basis of fear that collaboration is just not workable, rather than on the basis of specific circumstances and criteria. And power with is essentially about honouring the autonomy and freedom of other people. It's not just caring about your needs, in general, it's about specifically honouring your freedom and capacity to participate. It results in much more powerful collaborations, because it really gives you the room to say no. And if you can't say no, you also can't say yes. Your yes is then compromised. So essentially, it is the interplay between everybody's needs, that results in a path forward that has more needs within it, more wisdom within it, more perspectives within it. More things that have been worked out before implementation. Because in the command and control world, so many times I talk with people, you know, at the lower level of the hierarchy who say they are such idiots, the managers because they decide things they think they know, but they make this decision and they don't ask us and we have to implement it. And we know this is not going to work, it's both going to slow us down and make some things that we need to do impossible. So we're going to work around their decision, just because they didn't even check with us, what is going on in the field. So you end up having decisions that are less robust, less wise, that fall apart, but you then have to rethink.

So that's this distinction that I see between power over and power with. And to make the shift, the shift has to happen in three different places. One is, in the person who holds the structural power, the person who has the possibility of using their power over others. We all have the habit of power over but we don't necessarily have the capacity to do it if we don't have structural power. So I once worked with a group of union activists and there was a very profound moment when they became willing to admit that if they had power, they would treat management as poorly as management was treating them. So the impulse to power over has been instilled in us, but the capacity is given to us by having structural power. So a person who has structural power needs to transform their habits in order to exercise power with, because otherwise, you will be caught in this very odd, painful contradiction of where you want collaboration, and you want things to go your way, both at the same time, which is not possible. So the main change internally is to be open to hearing different needs, different perspectives, different considerations, somebody's no, in one form or another, to be open to something that isn't what you want. Not that you're going to give up on what you want, but that through mutual influencing, something will change. That's the internal change on the part of the person who has structural power.

The internal change on the part of the person who doesn't have structural power, is to overcome fear and habit of deference. And there is a risk because if the person with power hasn't made the shift, standing up for what you know is true does carry risks. So ultimately, on an individual basis, changing it from below is the highest skill level necessary – to be able to collaborate with someone who isn't in a collaborative mindset, and also has power in relation to you. That is the biggest deal, that is where nonviolence really gets tested. So they're internal changes. There are also changes in the structure because if you don't change the systems and the agreements within which you operate, then it requires individuals to be saints. So ultimately, for self management to really be institutionalised, you need to have clear agreements, clear criteria, about when you do this, when you do that, how you function and all of that, which is why the advice process is such a wonderful tool, because it moves you in the direction, regardless of which side you started from. It moves you in the direction of collaboration of openness to multiplicity of perspectives, before anything becomes a decision.

Lisa Gill: Yeah, those three shifts that are necessary I think are so helpful to bear in mind. And I think you touched on something there about agreements and structures in order for self management to work. And I think one of the myths or misconceptions about self management is it's no structures or, you know, let's get rid of structures and processes. You know, it's sort of free for all. And I think there are some parallels, I could see when I was reading about some of your writing around the myths of power with as well. What are some of these myths and misconceptions in your experience? And how can we address them and look about look at them in a more mindful way?

Miki Kashtan: Yeah. So one of them I already addressed, which is the idea that unilateral decision making or or using power in this kind of way is fundamentally bad, which blocks things from being able to happen in the circumstances that we already talked about. Another one is a myth that says that you can have perfect complete inclusion and that's the way that it's supposed to be. And in my mind, every entity of people needs to have exclusion criteria, so that not everything is for everyone. For example, I've seen many groups collapse, because you include someone that isn't aligned with the purpose or values or norms of the group to such an extent that every meeting becomes a nightmare. And there will always be some people who will want to continue trying to include that person and work with them and etc, etc.

And meanwhile, other people are excluding themselves, because they can't stand it anymore. So that's already not perfect inclusion, you've tried to include this person and these other people who were completely aligned with the purpose and values of the of the group, they are leaving. So it's a very hard one for people to think about. And still, I think it's necessary and that we don't serve ourselves well if we don't define clearly who we're looking for, and who not. One of the things that I think a lot about these days, is how to create criteria that are so precise, and so transparent, that for the most part, people will self select, so that it isn't about telling people you're not welcome. It's that people will read or see or hear, whatever the medium of the information sharing is, they find out what this group or organisation or community is about. And they will know I am not a fit. This community, this group, and I are not together. And no matter how well you define your criteria, there will come moments when conflicts cannot be contained within the capacity that the community has. And where it is time to actually ask someone to leave. Those are incredibly, incredibly difficult times because of how wounded we are from childhood. And how devastating it therefore is, instead of being a simple recognition that something is not a fit.

So I don't think of exclusion as a punitive measure at all, but it ends up being. At best it is about recognising the limits of a group to expand itself to include something without cost to the whole that is beyond capacity. And there is no formula for this. Every group, every community, every organisation needs to grapple with it. The key is, it needs to grapple with it rather than imagine or pretend that because we're nice people and we have shared values, and we have such a cool purpose, we don't have to look at it. So I think of exclusion criteria as being part of what I call a conflict engagement system. So it's one of five core systems that I think are there, in every entity they exist. And if you don't define them, you inherit them. I will say what I mean.

But let me first say that a conflict engagement system is the set of agreements that a group makes about what to do when there's conflict. And if you don't have that system, if you don't have clear agreements about how you handle conflict, you're going to inherit the way that conflict is handled in the dominant culture. You know, some of the ways that we tend to handle conflict in at least the global north societies is avoid, erupt, suppress, erupt again, quit or fire, fight. You know, those are the things that we do. And if instead, you know, if there's conflict, there are these people that I can go to for support and advice about how to handle this, and if they can't help me directly, then they will mediate, or they will call a restorative circle, or they will do whatever else is in the agreement, then I am not alone holding the conflict. And it's that system that needs to hold within it the piece about conflict escalation. When conflict is not contained, and it continues to escalate, under what conditions, in what ways, for what purpose? How do you mitigate for consequences? How do you do it with as much love as possible? All of these things, every group needs to work out.

That's not at all the only system, I said, there are five of them. There are more systems. Most of them are specific to this or that group and the things that it needs to do. The five core systems are... the first one is: decision making system, which addresses questions of who makes which decisions, who else is included, who finds out about it, and what processes are used, etc. And so, you know, if a group decides to use the advice process, then the system is this: who makes which decisions? Anyone can make any decision. That's the purest advice process, it gets modified in Holacracy systems based on roles, but essentially, who makes which decisions? Anyone can make any decision. Who gives input? The people who are affected, and the people who have expertise. Who finds out about it? All of the above, and possibly others, maybe everyone. What process is being used? You find ways of how you request advice, defining the forms for asking advice under which conditions, developing more criteria for it, can be really helpful to people, because the shift into the advice process is very hard for people. It's like it needs to be jumpstarted, people don't just start doing it just because they hear it's there because of the internal and external obstacles. So that's the system.

Then the second system is the resource flow system, which is where the resources come from, and how do they get distributed? What happens to them? And there are many, many, many different ways, and if you are in a self managing system, you need to work out, especially if the sum total of how people want to use the resources that are within the organisation – which is not just money, it's human power, it's machinery, it's everything that is there – if the sum total of how people want to use it exceeds the sum total of the resources that exist, which is going to happen regularly, you need mechanisms for figuring out how to sort it out, is it going to be through dialogue? Are you going to say, "so and so has ultimate authority"? All of these things need to be worked out. That's the resource flow system.

The third system is information flow, which is basically about how information moves around. And in self managing systems, information flow is vital and critical because if you want people to make good decisions everywhere within the organisation, if you really want teams to be able to self manage, they need to have all the information. You cannot decide for them which information they have access to or not, they need to be able to have access to everything. So designing flow of information that attends to all of that is not a trivial task. It's not something you can leave to chance, because if you leave it to chance, information will be clogged, because anyone with structural power will fall back on doing the information on an as needed basis, because of not trusting that people won't take advantage of information that they have or in any event, they're not smart enough to be able to use it. And the people who don't have power will keep information to themselves, especially information that is challenging or complicated, because they will be afraid of the messenger being killed. And so you need to actually do something for information to flow.

And then the fourth system is feedback, which is also absolutely crucial in a self managing environment. Because if you are over here, self managing something, and there isn't feedback that constantly comes, you will silo. And you will function without sufficient information about the impact of the choices that you make. We learn through knowing what impact we have on others.

So those are the five systems. And those systems can be set up, to be collaborative, to be supportive of 'power with', to be supportive of collaborative decision making, to be supportive of empowerment, to be supportive of support for everyone, to be supportive of attending to issues of power and privilege that come into the organisation from the outside, and are within the organisation, all of that. Or they can completely replicate the existing structures that we have in a patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist, etc. world. Meanwhile people are trying to do self management and going "why isn't it happening?" It's not happening because you didn't set up the systems and structures to support it in happening.

Lisa Gill: Thank you for sharing those those five systems. I think that's really helpful. What strikes me is how important it is to be really diligent, actually, and very intentional about how we are going to organise those five systems...

Miki Kashtan: Exactly. Yeah.

Topics in this question

Lisa Gill: I'm wondering as well... So we've talked a bit about communication. We've talked a bit about structures and systems. You mentioned those three shifts that need to happen; within the people who have structural power, the people who don't, and then the system itself. In terms of those first two, in a quote unquote traditional organisation, it might be the managers and the non managers. So, beyond structures and and systems, what are the sort of human shifts that need to happen? What can I do as a human being to develop the mindset, the skills, the abilities needed to collaborate in in a more self managing way?

Miki Kashtan: I'll start with telling you a story. And through that story, I will pull out a very core principle. I was once working with an organisation that was a nonprofit service organisation, and their CEO was retiring after 25 years of service. So it was a big, huge transition. And it was looking at some point, like this search process wasn't going to be successful in time. It was a totally traditional organisation. So there were five of them right under the CEO. So it looked like they were going to suddenly have to co lead the organisation for a while until they found a new CEO, which of course, leaves open the question, why do you then need a CEO? [Laughs] We will leave that aside for the moment. And so I was supporting them in preparing for that possibility, which in the end wasn't necessary.

But in that particular meeting that I had with them, we talked about what would be most important for them to be able to do. And they clearly knew how to make decisions together because it wasn't going to be one of them making decisions, they would need to figure out decisions that all of them could make together. So I said, "Okay, let's try it out. Tell me a decision that you know you need to make already for this time during this transition." And the decision that they needed to make was something about who else to include in their design process for the transition. And I said, "Okay, great. That's a small enough and concrete enough decision that we can practice. So let's now, just for practice, first of all, I want to hear each one of you tell me what your preference is for who to include and why."

And then we went around this little circle, they came up with five answers that could not be more different from each other. It was like, "Oh my god, how are we going to reconcile this?!" Right? And they all felt it. And I said, "Okay, thank you. Now I want you to do the following. I want you to take some time in silence thinking through, having heard what everybody wants, what would be your proposal for how to move forward, that would include everything that you heard, that is most likely to work for everyone. And don't say anything. Just tell me when when you have it. I want everyone to finish thinking before anyone speaks, so that you will not be tainted by what others say. So that you actually finish your own thinking process."

They told me and then I asked them to say. And within five minutes, we worked out a decision that everyone said, "Yeah, that works. I can I can deal with that." So some of the principles there. The main one is the mindset shift from "what do I believe is the best thing to do" to "what is most likely to work for everyone". And it is literally something that changes people's perspective. It's like physically, people look in a different direction. When they think about the one and they think about the other, like, where their eyes look, somehow the eyes tend to look further out, when you look for a solution that works for everyone, because you look at it from above. And so you're looking for something that can see the whole.

So a fundamental shift in mindset is from me to we, and all of us have that capacity. It's there. It's built into our evolutionary design. Because we evolved, as far as I understand the literature, we evolved to live in small groups of people that collaborate, to share resources for the wellbeing of all, that's what we evolved for. That's not how we live now. But that capacity is still within us. It's just atrophied. So we don't remember to do it. But when asked, almost invariably, people can do it. So that's one key mindset shift is: what will work for everyone.

And we tend to polarise. If I want something and you want something else, it's like, "Oh, my God. And it's like an either/or". And in fact, we often present problems, not as a problem to be solved, but as a choice between two opposites. Even something as simple as, you know, scheduling a meeting. It's not, "When is the time that's gonna work better for everyone?" It's, "Are we going to meet on this day or this day?" I mean, this is not the greatest example. But colleagues of mine did a training in a refugee camp in Pakistan, for people from Afghanistan, this is about 15 years ago. And the training was super successful. And the people were saying, "Oh, we wish we had known this training before, we wouldn't have had to go to war, etc, etc, etc. They was so excited.

Some of them invited my colleagues to go to the mosque with them the next day, which was Friday, the training ended on Thursday. And others said, "How dare you invite Americans to the mosque?" And within seconds, there were at each other's throats. Why? Because the problem was, do they come into the mosque? Or do they not come into the mosque? It wasn't presented as a problem of how do we honour them, invite them to partake in a culture in a way that also honours everybody's sensitivities? That is a problem statement that lends itself to a solution. And they found a solution. They went into the mosque into a particular corner, where they could see from behind the veil or something like this, and so they could be part of it without disrupting. So if you bring a question for a decision as an either/or, it's less likely to be worked out. So that's one principle.

Another principle is that when I'm trying to make a decision, I focus on the underlying criteria and principles, and what's important, not on the specifics. Again, if you look at this mosque situation, it was either "they come in or they don't come in", but the solution was identified once the underlying needs were put on the table, and I don't have that list, but when you have the list of needs that go into different people's desires, you have the entire universe of the problem. And you can do that when, if you are trying to work out something, and let's say you are in a position of power, and it would be easy to kind of like impose your will. Instead, really inquire as to what's important to everyone, and then you can start making proposals that have the capacity to work for everyone.

So the third principle is to distinguish between preference and willingness. And to realise that, most likely a solution that works for everyone is within a space of willingness. It's not any one person's preference. Because preference has a narrower range. I prefer exactly this, but I can have willingness for much wider range of options. So if I can distinguish even within myself, "okay, this is my preference, but am I willing to stretch, probably." If I know that I matter, then I'm willing to stretch more than if I don't know that I matter. If I know what's important to another person, then I'm willing to stretch more than if I just know what they want. And that's just how it is. So there's also a way in which if I want to be in 'power with', I need to find a way to let everyone know that they matter. Because that is what will support all of us in moving from digging our heels in our preference to finding out where is the intersection of all of our willingnesses. And the last one is to watch out for compromise. Because a solution that works for everyone has to be an integrative solution, not compromise. A compromise is lose-lose. And an integrative solution is win-win. And that by the way, it's going back to Mary Parker Follett, she's the one who first investigated how you reach decisions that are win-win. She didn't come up with that term, win-win, but she came up with the idea of an integrative solution, as opposed to domination or compromise integration. So those are those are some of the mindset changes.

And the shift in terms of skill. It's about learning dialogue skills. And in particular, I can give two principles. The first one is: how to speak the deepest truth, which means owning it more within myself than it being about you. This is what's important to me, this is why it's important to me, this is my perception, this is what I observed. This is not the truth, just taking full ownership of the truth and saying it with as much love and care as possible. So not compromising on the truth, but finding a way to say it that will care for the impact on another person.

And then asking questions, always ending with a question that is designed to move us forward. So it's going to check for the impact of what I said, it's going to check for what's important to you, it's not going to be immediately focused on the solution. "Are you okay to go this way? Especially if I have power? The person will say yes, but if I say, what do you see as the obstacles to implementing this, the person will give me the information. And I'm just trying to think if there's anything else that in a really short time, can be said, I think this is plenty. This is something that people can chew on for a while. And also, you know, I have a lot of materials that are available, entirely available for download without any cost or on a gift economy basis. And also, you know, calls and things. There's a lot of ways that people can get involved if they are interested in this and the main entryway is to through the website, thefearlessheart.org

Lisa Gill: Thank you for that. Yeah, as you say we are coming to the end of our time together when I feel there's so many other things I would love to have talked about... So I guess in closing thoughts, then, what would be one piece of advice that you would give to listeners who are on some kind of self management journey of their own?

Miki Kashtan: It can be daunting to make the shifts. I mean, I'm just listening through the ears of someone who hasn't done all the work that I've done in the last 20 something years. And it's like, "oh my god, maybe I would just rather not do self management". So I want to say, it may be daunting. And in my experience, every step of the way, yields more freedom, and more collaboration, both. So you take baby steps, and you do only what is within your capacity. Don't change everything at once in one day, just take one piece at a time, one piece at a time to change it. And you will experience benefits. It's not theoretical, it's super practical. Once you start seeing, for example, how much trust increases, and suddenly, you have people who have way more willingness to come and do necessary things, where previously, they just disappeared behind closed doors. When you needed someone to do something, you will see goodwill, trust, wisdom increase, and you will feel more alive.