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The Importance of Transforming the Self in Change Management

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar January 21, 2024

To create a progressive workplace, you need to change your organization and yourself. But most people focus on the organizational part and forget the personal part. Let’s explore how self-transformation can help you succeed in your change journey.

Go back in time

To get to the nut, we must first go back a couple of centuries, to the time of the French Revolution. We know about the guillotines, the Storming of the Bastille, the declaration that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights”, and the rise of Napoleon.

We know far less about another revolution that happened in Germany around the same time. This one changed the way we thought about ourselves.

The Jena Romantics

The Jena Romantics were a group of independent thinkers who lived and worked in Jena, a quiet university town in Saxe-Weimar, central Germany. About 1798, this band of intellectuals gathered in Jena, inspired and intrigued by the upheavals in France. The nondescript town swiftly became a hotbed of revolutionary thinking and grand ideas.

The names of some live on: Goethe, Schelling, Fichte, Hegel, Caroline Schlegel, Novalis, Alexander von Humboldt, the Schlegel brothers August and Friedrich.

All these and more were attracted to Jena by the unusual working methods of the university. Its professors and lecturers enjoyed far-reaching freedoms, unlike any of their European counterparts.

It may have been the time of the French Revolution, but the much-vaunted ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were still that: ideals, rather than reality. These were days of absolute power, kings with divine rights, and tyrants of all stripes.

Notions of free thought and free speech were anathema to many in Europe at the turn of the 19th Century — but not to those gathered at Jena.

Explore the limits of freedom

The Romantics gravitated towards freedom, and began to explore its limits. Their bohemian lifestyle — radical thought, a love of literature, scandalous love affairs and fierce feuds — brought them notoriety that spread beyond Germany’s borders. Rightly so, because their work has shaped our sense of place in the world.

In her book Magnificent Rebels, Andrea Wulf describes the Jena Set as rebels who were neither soldiers nor politicians, but a group of free-thinkers, writers, poets, philosophers, and scientists whose unconventional lives were experiments in vivo.

They set about discovering the power of the self, and the true nature of freedom. Through their intense, introspective and communal study, they fused poetry, philosophy, science, and the arts.

The Jena Set put the self — Immanuel Kant’s “ich” — front and center. All of us, they stressed, are free. We all have free will, and the right to self-determination. The power of individuality was being born — and so was the self-reliant individual.

From this perspective, any successful transformation towards a progressive organization starts not with something external, but with something deeply internal: the Self. 
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The self must be free

The most radical Jena thinker in this regard was perhaps philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. His understanding of personal freedom was built on foundations set by the French revolutionaries. But Fichte went one step further. He declared the Self the supreme ruler of the world.

The self posits itself, Fichte reasoned, and therefore it must be free. Following this line of thought, the self becomes all-encompassing, an archetypal principle. Everything — including limits to freedom — was brought into existence by the Self.

Fichte’s arguments equipped the people of a changing world with self-determination and free will. If we can decide on our own actions, went his reasoning, we’re free to act and behave as we choose.

But Fichte, like Kant, made an indivisible connection between freedom and morality. Without one, he argued, the other was not possible.

The self and its moral obligations

The Jena Set greatly influenced Western cultures with this bold central placement of free will, letting it define who we are and what we are capable of.

In non-Western cultures, other perspectives prevail. In these contexts, the self is seen as a node in a network of relationships, from family and friends to colleagues and ancestors. This self can be viewed as a tree, with relationships as the roots. Without your network, without your roots, you are nobody.

Even the Jena Set at times wondered whether we are as self-determined as we assume. They maintained that personal freedom is intimately interwoven with moral obligations.

The freedom to choose how we act should elevate our behavior above the base instincts of appetite and emotion. Ignoring our moral duty may result in guilt, shame, and anger; we all have an inbuilt idea of right and wrong. Go against that inner compass and feelings of failure, or breaking some form of trust, can result.

The ultimate decision is ours alone. But, just as we can do whatever we choose, so can others — and watch out for pandemonium if everyone exercises that right.

Selfishness versus selflessness

The Jena Set saw a full life as a negotiated equilibrium between rights and duties, and a responsibility to future generations.

They pondered how to achieve this: Should we think of ourselves, or consider others?

Of course, these paths are not mutually exclusive. The right environment, and the right group, can bring balance.

Fichte believed that selfishness was unusual, because of the social contracts we agree to — including those we make with governments and the companies that employ us. Our consent is implied by compliance with the regulations and conventions of the workplace, and of society.

This works only as long as we feel free, and trust one another. These frameworks should be subject to negotiation, not brought in at the drop of a hat. There must be discussion, voting, followed by a gradual process of implementation.

In a crisis, though — think Covid — change can be swift. Pandemic restrictions shone a light on the discrepancies between individual rights and the protection of others. Some behaved selfishly, some were selfless, but there can be no definitive right or wrong.

It’s down to individual evaluation and judgement.

Differentiation versus integration

These ideas may be as old as the French Revolution, they’re still a hot topic in management theory.

The late Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his bestseller Good Business, evaluates the simultaneous presence of two discordant but similar processes — selfishness and selflessness, for example — as differentiation and integration.

He sees differentiation as a realization that we are unique, responsible for ourselves — and prepared to develop and evolve, while taking an active part in the process.

Integration is the understanding that — unique though we are — we are enmeshed in a web of relationships with others, with our culture, and with our environment.

To have a happy, engaging, meaningful life, we need to be fully differentiated and fully integrated. By striking this balance, we can fulfil our potential.

The Father of Flow

Hungarian-born psychologist Csikszentmihalyi is best known as the co-founder of positive psychology. He is known to many as the “Father of Flow”, and argues that groups of people, and organizations, are affected by these two processes.

His point is that companies that run along command-and-control lines can be defined as “integrated”, but fail to take advantage of specific talents in the workforce in a differentiated way.

He writes: “There’s integration, because everyone knows what they should be doing and how best to collaborate, but keeping good order is expensive and hardly efficient because management needs to keep everyone in line.

“Going with the flow isn’t going to work: this may be differentiated, but it could lead to chaos. Work communities sharing a common goal are held together by self-interest (think differentiation) and common interest (integration). The road to success lies in motivating and balancing differentiation and integration.

This is the domain of progressive organizations. This is exactly what they do.

Being conscious of ourselves

The Jena Set believed that we, as individuals, must be conscious of ourselves. We have to be selfish — or differentiated — in the sense of being aware of, and in control of, our own being and free will.

To be clear, to the Jena Set, being “selfish” meant liberating the self with the intention of creating a better society. In this historical context, that meant one founded by autonomous individuals in control of their destiny and identity.

Extend this thinking to concepts of organizational life, and we can draw a similar parallel. We should aim for enterprises built by members who are allowed to be “selfish”, and whose liberated selves will benefit the business and their colleagues.

A balancing act

For more than 200 years, thinkers have been contemplating such challenges. The Jena Set talked about balancing individual rights with moral duties; Csikszentmihalyi wanted to balance integration and differentiation.

Ultimately, it’s about how well we can balance free will with the needs and expectations of others.

For organizations, that will be defined by the relationships between colleagues, clients, and the community. Stir the Jena Set and Csikszentmihalyi into organizing a progressive company, and we arrive at two crucial questions:

  • Who am I as an autonomous individual?
  • Who am I as a member of the group?

Merely reflecting on such questions requires some serious contemplation, and possibly some transformation, of the self. To understand others, we need first to understand ourselves; this was central to the joint quest of the Jena Set.

Self-reflection and self-examination

Wulf, in her book, writes about Novalis, the nom-de-plume of German aristocrat and polymath Freiherr (Baron) von Hardenberg. He believed that we had to turn inwards to give our best, and to embrace our fellows.

With self-awareness, he wrote, we develop empathy and compassion. We tend to consider the validity of our behavior through self-reflection — which raises questions about values, about what it is to be human, what humans really are, and how they should relate to one another.

Such self-reflection leads to self-examination — which is a virtuous activity.

From this perspective, any successful transformation towards a progressive organization starts not with something external, but with something deeply internal: the Self.

Controlling your own destiny in a progressive workplace might be easier said than done. Freedom, unfortunately, comes with a price tag: more responsibility, more accountability, and — often — more anxiety.
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Freedom requires agency

Important to note, here, that autonomy is not something bestowed on staff by their leaders. The workers, the members of the organization, are responsible for “taking” it.

Again, this is nothing new; Kant had already given the self “agency”. He agreed with self-determination, controlling one’s destiny, provided one can live with the consequences of one’s actions.

It’s critical to forge correct relationships — between yourself and others, between you and your work, and with whatever you recognize as being greater than yourself. A sense of meaning and purpose develops — if you get it right.

Control your own destiny in the progressive workplace

Controlling your own destiny in a progressive workplace might be easier said than done. Freedom, unfortunately, comes with a price tag: more responsibility, more accountability, and — often — more anxiety.

This increased freedom, coupled with increased accountability, responsibility, and anxiety will excite some — and terrify others.

That’s only natural, American philosophers Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block console us in their book Freedom and Accountability at Work. The two Peters argue that anxiety should be accepted, if not embraced, as something natural. Anxiety resides in the workplace — and in private life.

Freedom is a fact

The Jena Set believed that freedom is a fact of existence, and that accountability can’t be imposed, expected, or demanded without it.

Accountability comes from choice, our agency in life and work. It often involves blaming oneself rather than others, and side-lines the excuse that a situation is beyond our control. Acceptance of our personal errors engenders a shared, general willingness for our colleagues to assume their share of responsibility.

Free individuals have no need of excuses or blame. We’re forced to confront anxiety and guilt as part of the deal: when we accept freedom, we accept uncertainty.

Own it

The most important point, the two Peters argue, is that it gives meaning, character, and texture to life. To be accepting is to realize that freedom is a birth right — and the future is ours to create.

We need no longer ask others what we are, or what we should become. Look within. Be selfish. Build your own progressive organization. Don't wait any longer for others, and the external world, to start the change in your workplace.

Own it — all of it. Because, in the end, the buck stops with you.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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