Protective Postures

Organization Development Lessons from Physical Therapy

I remember the spring of 2017 as one of the physically most uncomfortable times of my adult life. While exercising in an outdoor gym in cold weather (not something I tend to have a habit of doing) my neck got stretched the wrong way and a disk slipped. I held out with scarfs and painkillers for a couple of months but as the pain seemed to become my daily companion, I eventually went on to see an orthopaedist. Looking at my MRI, the guy had not much more to say than „This is bad – we cannot fix it, but I can give you shots to take care of the pain“. I didn’t take the shots but instead asked him for a prescription for physical therapy. It landed me with an Osteopath, who was much less interested in the MRI than a bunch of other things: My posture, my digestion, my walking habits. His take on things was that most of my pain was muscular, derived from tensions and pulls my body produced to avoid dealing with whatever was wrong with my neck. Over time, these tensions had become chronic. His introduction to my treatment was blunt: “Mr. Knoth – you will not want to marry me after this. And it will not be better tomorrow, in fact it will probably be worse. But we have to make it worse in order for your body to heal itself”. The idea: A chronic patch does not heal. A problem must be acute for the body to take care of it in a productive way. 

It made sense to me. I consented to the proposed treatment and he went to business making my pain acute. The way he tortured trigger points in my neck and shoulders made me wonder about his Hippocratic Oath’s compatibility with the Geneva Convention. It was agony. And he was right, the day after and the day after that, things felt worse than before. Then, another day passed and the pain felt different – something transformed and slowly found a new order. We had 10 sessions in total. After the 8th, I was actually looking forward to the treatment and was enjoying the chats with my therapist about his approach and all the things there were to learn from it for my field of work. A few weeks after the last session, I did not feel any more pain in my neck. My body had found a solution. And it needed that push, the acuteness to stop working around the injury and go head on with the problem. Obviously, I still need to be mindful how I move and still need to practice and maintain a healthy muscle base on my back. But I am glad I didn’t stick with the pain shots.

So what is there to take away from this for the field of self-organisation development? 

Every system has work-arounds, patches and tensions that have become chronic. The German word “Schonhaltung” signifies a physical posture that is taken on in order to protect an injured or strained part of the body. Such a protective posture starts as a solution to avoid further pain and strain. In becoming chronic, the compensating habit may well end up as the primary problem – sometimes even more harmful than the initial injury. 

I have seen many teams with a protective posture relating to power. Any time the uncomfortable sides of power show up in daily business (as they do), these teams declare individual autonomy the highest value in order to neutralize power. Often this results in a power vacuum with problematic knock on effects. Other teams shelter themselves from topics like money, intimacy, spirituality or political convictions by tacitly declaring them taboo. Usually, there is something behind this. An injury, a micro trauma, a painful episode, maybe even a dramatic conflict in the history of the organisation that has settled in on a bearable workaround level to avoid raw pain. Like the defensive routines described by Chris Argyris, these workarounds hinder us from learning, growing and moving freely.

Chronic conflict, like chronic pain, will not heal by itself. In fact, if you want to heal a conflict that has settled in, you may have to reactivate it by making it acute. In effect, if there are protective postures lingering, instead of diffusing tensions, we need to catalyse conflict in order for the system to be able to work itself out.

If we accept that we need to address protective postures head on before moving deeper into self organisation, the question is: how do we do it without getting stuck?

For most people, going back into an old conflict is mad. It seems like a step back, a reopening of books that were tediously closed and safely sowed away. How safe or fragile it actually is sometimes only becomes obvious when triggers are being pushed. It can be difficult and risky to go on this journey without external support. As working to relieve muscular tensions may call for a physiotherapist, conflict work calls for an experienced facilitator. The most basic ingredient of conflict transformation is dialogue: honest sharing and rigorous listening. There are many formats this can be practiced in – Restorative Circles as presented by Dominic Barter, Deep Democracy as introduced by Arnold & Amy Mindell, and of course the needs based framing of Nonviolent Communication by Marshal B. Rosenberg, to name a few. Different methods have different charms and it will take another book – most likely not written by me – to honour them all. 

Beneath any methodology though, the critical ingredient of conflict work is as simple as challenging: to overcome the fear of conflict and face it as an opportunity to start losing our protective postures. Once the ground becomes soft again, the system may gracefully adapt and recreate itself with a free flow of energy – the quality of a healthy state of self organisation.