Is Teal The New Black? Probably Not

A review of Federic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations

The question that this book explores is “What would healthy and soulful organizations look like?” Laloux’s direct answer to the question is “Teal Organizations.” The book articulates what Teal organizations are, their practices and detailed guidance for how to become a Teal Organization. Laloux makes the case for the suitability of Teal Organizations for the times we live in.

The first part (Pgs. 11-43) puts forward the theoretical foundation of the book, a “Historical and developmental perspective.” This presents a 100,000-year “history” of organizational development and the types of consciousness that gave rise to different organizational structures, leading to present times.

The notion of “Teal” is derived from the theoretical model at the core of the book, a model called Spiral Dynamics developed originally by Clare W. Graves, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at Union College in New York (1914 – 1986). Spiral dynamics was then further developed by Don Beck and Chris Cowan, is part of a body of work that has been christened “Integral Theory,” developed primarily by Ken Wilber, assisted by a small group of American academics, consultants and Organizational Development professionals.

(Note that there seems to be some degree of contention in this community [see comments at the end of this link], which includes Laloux, as to who is ripping who off in terms of bastardising ideas.)

Laloux makes the case the human consciousness evolved in stages, which are denominated by colour, each colour representing a stage of development that gave rise to an organizational culture “fit” for the epoch it arose in. Each stage of development or colour, therefore correlates with a particular time in human history and each “stage of development” then represents a certain “cognitive, psychological and moral” orientation.

The main stages the book concerns itself with are those that arose in the last 50,000 years, Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and of-course, Teal. Teal represents nothing less than “the next stage in the evolution of human consciousness.” Each stage is posited to also “transcend and include” the ones that came before, therefore a later stage does not lose the behaviours that come from earlier stages but earlier stages obviously cannot access the insights of later stages.

Laloux points out that these organiszational forms did not die out with the end of each epoch but that they survive today in various organizations that operate from a “paradigm” such as Red (ie. the Mafia) or Amber (ie. Catholic Church).

In his explanation on the stages of development, Laloux explains that we “get into trouble when we believe later stages are “better” than earlier stages; a more helpful interpretation is that they are “more complex” ways of dealing with the world…Another way to avoid attaching judgment to stages is to recognize that each stage is well adapted to certain contexts.”

While Laloux (and many other SD practitioners) are at pains to point out that one stage is not “better” than another, a utilitarian judgment is being applied to each stage. The judgment is loosely based on the notion of being “well adapted” which can also be understood as “evolutionary fitness” or simply “fitness,” a central idea in evolutionary biology.

The argument is that each stage of consciousness can be thought of as one that was “fit” for it’s particular epoch and context. As the context changes, fitness means that “successful” evolution requires a shift from one stage to a different later stage more “fit” for the changed environment.

A shift of consciousness therefore allows for a range of behaviours more suited for the context or epoch we find ourselves in. Some behaviours can be thought of as “unhealthy” and some as “healthy.” Although in the book behaviours are not explicitly labeled as “unhealthy”, rather they are categorized by colour, which becomes a tacit judgment. The punch line of the argument for evolutionary fitness is that organizations embracing the most “evolved” stage of development (Teal) are more successful than ones mired in previous stages of development.

On the face of it, this argument is emotionally hard to refute. After all, who would argue for Red (Mafia, Street Gangs, Tribal Militias) or Amber (Catholic Church, Military, Most Government Agencies, Public School Systems) as a desirable destination for an organization? Try taking that to your board or staff. What is, of course, more likely to happen is that leaders determine the structures, processes and behaviours in an organization without being “aware” of what “stage of development” they are at (Like Pope Francis?).

Cutting through the layers of argument, the core argument in Reinventing Organizations is that Teal Organizations are more “healthy and soulful.” Teal is therefore the destination for any organization wishing to succeed in these complex times. Teal, in other words, is the new black.

The second part of the book (Pgs.53-225) describes the core practices and culture of Teal Organizations through a series of case studies. The twelve cases in the book consist of for-profit and non-profit organizations of various sizes from the United States and Europe (one is listed as also having 3 HQs, one being in South Korea).

The animating idea at the heart of Teal Organizations is that of  “self-organization.” Laloux explains his vision, “Life in all its evolutionary wisdom, manages ecosystems of unfathomable beauty, ever evolving towards wholeness, complexity, and consciousness. Change in nature happens everywhere, all the time, in a self-organizing urge that comes from every cell and every organism, with no need for central command and control to give orders or pull levers.”

In contrast to seeing an organization as a living system would be, for example, seeing the organization as a machine (what Laloux would label as an “Orange” mindset common to many multi-nationals). The shift is therefore a shift from the organization as a machine to the organization as a “living system,” in other words to an ecosystem.

Based on his research, Laloux posits three “breakthroughs” that characterize Teal Organizations, with a chapter dedicated to each. These are (1) self-management “…a system based on peer relationships, without the need for hierarchy or consensus.” (2) wholeness “…a consistent set of practices that invite us to reclaim our inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work” and (3) evolutionary purpose where “…members of the organization are invited to listen in and understand what the organization wants to become, what purpose it wants to serve.” Laloux uses case studies from twelve organizations to explore these three breakthroughs.

At the end of each of these chapters Laloux contrasts and summarises the “self-management” practice of Teal Organizations from Orange. So for example, the organizational structure of an Orange Organization is “hierarchical pyramid” and for Teal it’s “Self-organizing teams” and “When needed, coaches (no P&L responsibility, no management authority) cover several teams.” And so on for staff functions, coordination, (types of projects), job titles and job descriptions, decision-making, crisis management and many more. The lists are prescriptive to the point of specifying what the interior design of Teal firms should be like (“Self-decorated, warm spaces, open to children, animals, nature” with “No status markers”).

In the final chapter of this part of the book, Laloux summarizes what the organizational culture of a Teal Organization looks like,  “With self-managing structures and processes in place, and with practices to pursue wholeness and purpose, culture becomes both less necessary and more impactful. The culture of the organization should be shaped by the context and the purpose of the organization, not by the personal assumptions, norms, and concerns of the founders and leaders.” (italics in original)

Finally, the third part of the book (Pgs. 235-293) extrapolates from the first two sections by laying-out a sort of “how to” guide for organizations that want to be Teal.

Paradoxically, given how the previous chapter ended (“…The culture of the organization should be shaped by the context and the purpose of the organization, not by the personal assumptions, norms, and concerns of the founders and leaders.”) the first condition required to be Teal seems to be not that different from “the personal assumptions, norms and concerns of the founders and leaders.”

The first “necessary condition” for creating a new Teal Organization is “Top Leadership” and the second is “Ownership” where “The founder or top leader (let’s call him the CEO for lack of a better term) must have integrated a worldview and psychological development consistent with the Teal development level.” And so on with owners and board members (let’s hope they’re not all male). In fact Laloux argues that, “these two conditions are the only make-or-break factors. No other parameter is critical to running organizations within the Evolutionary Teal paradigm….”  (italics added).

The role however that “top leadership” plays (even though I thought there was no “top”?) is to “hold the space.” As a facilitator, I know something about what is required to “hold the space.” It requires putting one’s own beliefs about where a group goes almost entirely on the back-burner. This would mean that a “Teal-leader” leading a mostly “non-Teal” group would need to park their “Tealness”, which would mean the group probably operates from a non-Teal place.

Furthermore, Laloux recommends that for anyone wanting to grow a Teal Organization, “If possible they can strive to do without external investors, financing their growth through bank loans and their own cash flow, even if it means slower growth…or they need to carefully select equity investors who have integrated a Teal perspective.”

So what do I make of all this?

Unfortunately, this is a deeply problematic and flawed book.

The book is littered with instances where it contradicts itself, its contradictory stance on leadership being just one case. Take the metaphors used to describe each “stage of consciousness” – Red, with the example of the Mafia as Red organization, is “the wolf pack” and Green, with the example of Ben & Jerry’s is “the family.” It behooves me to point out that the Mafia is an organizational structure with family at its core, that wolf-packs are examples of a “self-organizing” “living system,” that are valorized in the book and that hierarchies exist in nature (ever heard the phrase “apex predator”?).

While these problems are tedious in the extreme, they are distractions from three more profound problems with the book, these are the problems of science, context and ethnocentricity.

The problem of science

The behaviours of Teal Organizations and “Teal-Evolutionary consciousness” are normalized as being rooted in science – through the presentation of 100,000 years of “organizational” history and the use of an evolutionary framing.

There is unfortunately no scientific basis for the arguments made in this book. No, not even a little.

If we were to turn to a field of study concerned with human evolution and the biological basis of human group behaviour then it would be biology and the field of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists, notoriously aggressive in asserting the biological basis of social behaviour, would run a mile from the claims made here. This is because at the heart of this book is a vacuum, a cheap and depressing theoretical sleight-of-hand trick.

The entire thesis of the book is reliant on readers accepting what I would call Laloux’s “evolutionary history of organisations” as expressed through the colour schema of Red, Amber, Orange, Green and Teal. The case for this schema relies on a widely accepted belief, that human society has evolved from one state to another.

Let’s contrast Laloux’s scheme to one from evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford’s Social and Evolutionary Neuroscience Research Group. Dunbar, like Laloux, argues that during the course of human history we have gone through “five transitions.”

The first transition, according to Dunbar, occurred some 2 million years ago, the Australopithecines, second the rise of early homo 1.8 million years ago, the third around 500,000 years ago saw archaic humans, the fourth around 200,000 years ago saw the rise of modern humans. The fifth transition is the Neolithic Age some 12,000 years ago. At the individual level our biology is unchanged in the last 100,000 years (the time-scale Laloux’s evolutionary history covers) and there is no difference between you or me and one of our ancestors one hundred thousand years down the line.

The basis of Dunbar’s thesis are four biological shifts, and one behavioural change on evolutionary time-scales, that is over millions of years not hundreds of thousands. All of Dunbar’s significant evolutionary shifts occurred before the 50,000-100,000-year timeline of history that the book operates in. Checking a couple of other places reveals a similar timeline to Dunbar is in common use, I couldn’t find Laloux’s 50,000-100,000 timeline in use anywhere other than in Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics.

In sharp contrast to the work of evolutionary psychologists like Dunbar, the scientific basis of Laloux’s 100,000-year history is made on the basis of a single psychological study conducted in New York, in the 1950s with a sample of size around 1000 people (it would probably be a fair assumption that most, if not all, these people were white).

The only actual “evidence” for the “evolutionary history of organisations” is historical behaviour shifts. That is, yes it’s true that we went from hunter-gatherers to agrarian societies, that the industrial revolution happened and so on. But these behaviours are treated as actual evidence of the “evolution of human consciousness” when they are in fact a description that doesn’t explain anything. It falls on Laloux to provide some (any?) evidence for the “evolution of consciousness” that his entire book rests on. This he does not – because no such evidence exists.

What is in fact being proposed here is a new “theory” of consciousness with no scientific basis, or rather one that only a handful of New Age theorists accept. This move has very unfortunate consequences as there are sound reasons why such a theory is not more widely accepted. A quick look at the literature reveals an extremely complex and difficult debate that is far from over. It feels to me that navigating the complexity of this field would require particularly qualified guides.

Laloux unfortunately papers over the deep controversies and lines of enquiry that surround evolutionary psychology in even its more sedate academic forms such as represented by Dunbar. Here’s a taste from anthropologist Susan McKinnon’s book, Neoliberal Genetics,

“This pamphlet shows why, from an anthropological perspective, they [evolutionary psychologists] are wrong about evolution, about psychology, and about culture. I make five basic arguments. I maintain that their theory of mind and culture cannot account for either the evolutionary origins and history or the contemporary variation and diversity of human social organization and behaviour. More specifically, I demonstrate that assumptions about genetics and gender that underlie their theory of universal psychological mechanisms are not supported by empirical evidence from the anthropological record. I contend that not only their premises but also their evidence is so fundamentally flawed that their science is ultimately a complete fiction. I argue that this fiction has been created by the false assumption that their own cultural values are both natural in origin and universal in nature. And finally, I observe that this naturalization of the dominant values of one culture has the effect of marginalizing other cultural values and suppressing a wide range of past, present, and future human potentialities.”

Now here’s the thing, I’m sure a number of evolutionary psychologists and biologists would say that the most complex of human behaviours – including organisations – can be explained in evolutionary terms but how they can be explained is far from obvious. It might require some fancy footwork, perhaps deployment of epigenetic theory or eusocial theory, or some other cutting-edge evolutionary notion, I don’t know. In other words, it is, at least ermm in theory, possible to construct an evolutionary theory of how human organizations develop. In practice it would be very hard, requiring a deep familiarity with the edges of biology and evolutionary psychology. Laloux unfortunately displays no such familiarity.

The problem of context

This raises the fascinating question of Laloux’s own cultural values and how they play out.

As Laloux himself acknowledges (in one of his many contradictory positions), “If we were caught in a civil-war with thugs attacking our house, Impulsive-Red would be the most appropriate paradigm to think and act from in order to defend ourselves.”

The decision to join a tribal militia or Ben & Jerry’s is a decision made on the basis of context and not on biology. Does my “level of consciousness” really make me look at the two choices in front of me (corporate job at Unilever or tribal mafia?) and lead me to pick tribal mafia? Does the fact that I’m allergic to bureaucracy tell you something about what “stage of development” I’m at?

Behaviours are context-dependent, and not necessarily dependent on a state of consciousness rooted in biological realities (even as they may be a function of biological realities – for example unconscious epigenetic reactions).

A constant use of an evolutionary frame also provides the contentious impression that our “organizational” behaviours (how the Catholic Church is organized for example) are somehow linked to our biology. I mean, they might be, but once again the point is to say “how,” rather than simply make the claim as if this were an obvious, uncontested truth.

If the decision for what “paradigm” to operate from is therefore a contextual decision (and not a genetic predisposition), then it makes no sense to normalize Teal as a destination. If, for example, most businesses are operating from an “Orange” mindset, then does that not make the context for business “Orange”? What should one’s operating paradigm be when being “attacked” by the competition? Why should “Teal” behaviours be more “fit” for the context of business? Is the context in China or India the same as in Europe? What behaviours are more appropriate for operating in a Chinese or Indian context? Does it make sense to have a workplace that’s open to animals in the Middle East?

If Laloux is seeing “Teal” as some sort of meta-context for our times, then what can we actually say about it? The only thing we could legitimately say is that our times are getting more complex. Situations of high complexity are situations of great fluidity, the opposite of stable situations. And in situations of high-complexity we cannot cut-and-paste prescriptions across contexts. Laloux’s stance towards context is essentialist, that is, he treats it as a stable and non-complex thing that just is. There is no sense of how context changes or the processes by which different contexts come into being. Prescriptions offered without any contextual guidance is a glaring example of this essentialist stance.

Laloux seems to be saying, “we are all living in a Teal world and so we should aspire to Teal consciousness.” That way, we have the option of “drawing on” Red or Orange but not the other way around, so Teal is better. (I imagine an Incredible Hulk-like transformation taking place – where a Teal person turns Red and goes berserk). This harks back to the idea that each stage of development “transcends and includes” the one before.

The veracity of this claim cannot of course be tested – but it conveniently allows for someone at the “highest” stage of consciousness to “understand” a lower level but not the other way around. (Or far worse, that anyone objecting to the theory is simply told they are operating from a lower level of consciousness, which is why they don’t get it.)

The problem of ethnocentricity

This is where the plasticity of language aids the argument (or rather, betrays the argument). Part of the fuzziness of the argument comes because “consciousness,” “paradigm” and “worldviews” are all conflated with “behaviour.” If each “stage of development” is a “paradigm,” as Laloux indeed sometimes refers to them, then according to philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (who coined the phrase “paradigm shift”) different paradigms are incommensurable ie it is impossible to “be” more than one “stage of development.” This would imply that “transcend and include” doesn’t make much sense when dealing with different paradigms. And if each stage of development is a “behaviour” then the question of what drives or generates that behaviour is far from simple.

In order to normalize the colour scheme, however, the basis for behaviours have to be framed as responses to our temporal milieu – that is, “Red organizations arises from Red behaviour, which reflects Red consciousness only fit for Red times and…we clearly don’t live in Red times.” Of-course, the boundaries between say an Orange and Green “age” is very hard to call especially in times of increasing complexity. This is especially hard to swallow as Laloux explains that there are plenty of examples of organisations out of time. The distinction between the environment versus biology as the driver for our behaviour is a debate as old as the idea of evolution itself – it’s called “nature versus nurture” and it’s not a trivial problem.

So while we may detect the emergence of a “Teal milieu” a genuine question is, “Is Teal as a milieu a desire or a reality?” and “For whom?” If it’s reality (or an emerging reality) then is it even possible for our Paleolithic minds to overcome our genetic hardwiring? Does “no status markers” in terms of interior design of an office overcome millions of years of status markers in the natural world?

Then if the behaviours outlined here are context-dependent, then what exactly is the invisible context that Teal behaviours arise in? The only hint comes towards the end of the book, when he writes that, “Some academics have devised methodologies to measure a person’s stage of development. Their samples indicate that the percentage of people relating to the world from an Evolutionary-Teal perspective is still rather small, at around five percent in Western societies.”

This snippet, coupled with the fact that all of Laloux’s case studies are all Western tell us that the invisible context that Laloux is operating in is Western (and white and male?).  As I read Laloux, I kept thinking about Peggy McIntosh’s classic paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, where she writes, “My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.””

The unconscious, un-remarked and un-noted ethnocentricity of Laloux’s ideas remind me his training is INSEAD and McKinsey & Co. His schooling means that Reinventing Organizations is coloured with (sorry) instances of “neutral, normative, and average and also ideal” injunctions that “will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’.”

Despite all disclaimers, in this framing there are people who “have integrated a Teal perspective” and those who have not. Anyone who wants to lead or own a Teal organization has to meet some sort of “Teal-test” (What this Teal-test is we are not told). While Laloux is careful not to call those who have not “integrated” Teal primitives or savages, clearly your behaviour categorizes what “stage of consciousness” you have reached.

While biologists would agree that all of us have a Paleolithic mind, the argument being made is that some of us (5% in the West to be exact) have somehow, in the last 100,000 years evolved a whole different mind. At one point in the book Laloux describes the Herculean struggle required to shift one’s “consciousness” to a higher level. It sounds like a particularly buggy piece of software painfully upgrading itself. This book would be much more interesting if he took his argument to its logical conclusion and actually documented the stories of the 5% Übermensch who walk amoung us.

Teal is definitely not the new black, it’s the new white – or rather the journey to get the rest of us “colours” to Teal, the new white man’s burden. Imagine just for a moment what would happen if in the colour schema proposed here, Teal was actually called White? Ouch.

The boundaries between what constitutes individual behaviour, individual consciousness, worldviews, organizational culture, and a historical milieu all blend seamlessly into a chain of proximate causes – one directly causes the other. This intellectual sloppiness here is staggering. The linkages and relationships between these very different things represent, in many ways, the holy grail of understanding the human condition. Yet Laloux writes as if these relationships are well understood and uncontested. (Which, of course they are for some New Age philosophers.)

The ideas in this book represent what Laloux believes, they reflect his own cultural values and his own ethnocentric prescriptions for what it means to be a healthy organization. There would be absolutely nothing wrong with presenting the ideas as such, but unfortunately they are presented as a normative and neutral truth, as the rational-scientific product of human evolution aligned with the natural laws of “living systems.” That’s a pretty outrageous thing to do in this day and age. (By the way, there’s a word for normative preferences – it’s “ideology”)

Part of the appeal for this sort of argument is its simplicity. Laloux’s argument suffers from some of the same critiques applied to the wider field of Integral Theory, Argumentum ad Wilberiam, “spurious, or at least largely untested, truth claims” and “excessive overgenerlization.” By skipping the finer details, the book, “solves” some of the most complex questions scientists and philosophers of all stripes are grappling with. Despite the hundreds of pages, and tens of thousands of words, the core argument here is very simple to grasp. There are five stages of “cognitive, psychological and moral” development; Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and of-course, Teal. Each gives rise to a particular type of organization, suitable for its particular time. Teal is the newest and the best, here’s what Teal looks like. Go for it.

I suspect that the clean, uncomplicated notions put forward in the book will be undone by context, the actual details of implementation and to a large extent power-dynamics (for example, autocratic “Teal” leaders making “non-Teal” people do things they don’t want to do). In other words, I’m not sure I actually believe Teal even exists. I’m not sure I believe any of the “stages of development” actually exist.

I believe the colour schema is an instrument, a not very accurate map. And like all instruments it appeals to a certain instrumental logic, one that craves a simpler world  and shies away from complexity. In my opinion, this cognitive style mostly serves to distract from the important questions of who we are and what type of organizations we want to be creating.

While there may or may not be merit in the many prescriptions that Laloux offers, it’s very hard to get to them. The intellectual trick at the heart of this book means the core of Laloux’s practice is buried under many layers of good intentions, New Age beliefs, and polemical spin. It’s all very unfortunate because the question at the heart of Laloux’s book is a timely one. Alas, we will have to look elsewhere for a convincing exploration.

(Thanks Eric Eisenstadt, AJ Pape, Sean Legassick & Mia Eisenstadt for feedback & comments!)