The Yin and Yang of Organisations

As within, so without.

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I’m involved in setting up a new organisation within the SEEDS ecosystem. ( I wrote about SEEDS last week, and it seems I succeeded in conveying my excitement, but may have lost some folks with the details. Fear not — I will be unpacking various aspects of SEEDS over the coming weeks, and hopefully all will become clear.) Initiating a new organisation — with its own unique culture — raises a lot of really interesting questions, including something I am really passionate about: the need for yin/yang balance.

This is something I have thought about a lot, and wrote about in my doctoral dissertation. When an organisation is setting out to generate social change, it is important that it should be the change it wants to see in the world. (Same goes for individuals setting out to generate change.) There has to be integrity between what it is saying and what it is doing, or it just doesn’t work. (See what I wrote about As Within, So Without, and my all-time favourite leadership story, about Christiana Figueres.)

So, because SEEDS is all about regenerating our ailing ecosystems and communities, reducing economic inequality, and building the brave new regenerative civilisation, it feels absolutely crucial that it develops a healthy balance between yin and yang. If you believe, as I do, that our current problems of environmental degradation, oppression, and inequality, spring from a mindset of domination rather than equality, in which men dominate women, rich dominate poor, the Global North dominates the Global South, and humans dominate nature (or attempt to — we never really win, because the laws of nature always win) then we need to grow out of the unhealthy yang pattern of domination, and evolve into healthy yin cooperation. (Note that there are also healthy yang patterns, and unhealthy yin patterns — I’m certainly not demonising or denigrating the yang, as you will see below.)

I’d like to emphasise that, even though in Chinese philosophy yin is the feminine principle and yang is the masculine principle, yin does not equate to female, and yang to male. We are all a blend of yin and yang, and the yin/yang concept encompasses far more than simply gender traits. Yet again, I am going to reference the wisdom of the late, great Bernard Lietaer, from whose work this graphic is derived.

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One thing to note is that yin and yang are not absolutes — as with so many things in Eastern philosophy, everything is relative. So something might be more yin than another (water is more yin than fire or earth) but something is not intrinsically yin. It’s all about the relationship between the two polarities.

Also important to note is that balance is crucial. Too much yin would be as bad as too much yang. The sweet spot lies in the interaction and complementarity between the two. We don’t expect never-ending summer, nonstop daylight, to be perpetually awake, or to be always breathing in. Each element needs its complement. Humans and the rest of nature have rhythms and cycles, and we ignore them at the peril of our health and wellbeing.

And finally, I’d like to emphasise that this is not about attempting to sit forever at the Golden Mean, Aristotle’s sweet spot on the spectrum of a virtue — neither too much of a good thing, nor too little of it. Yin/yang is about the dynamic, creative interplay of the two poles. Nobody would be happy with a world where it was forever twilight, we were forever half-asleep, or everybody was halfway between male and female (now there’s a weird thought).

So, to go into a bit more detail on this graphic…

Competition / Cooperation

If we look to nature for inspiration, we see the interplay of competition and cooperation. Trees compete for light in the forest, and alpha males compete to lead the pack, but there are also, everywhere, examples of intense cooperation. Did you know that lichen, which looks so mundane and uninspiring to most of us, is actually a magical alliance between a fungus and an alga (or sometimes a cyanobacterium)? The fungus can’t produce its own food, so it uses the sugar produced by the alga’s photosynthesis, while the fungus allows the alga to colonise places where it couldn’t otherwise survive. (See the British Lichen Society (who knew?!) for more on this intriguing relationship.)

In the human world, competition has accelerated innovation — for example, the Space Race put a man on the moon (although we could debate whether this might have happened sooner if the USA and USSR had collaborated rather than competed). The Olympic Games inspire athletes to ever greater heights of achievement. Yet cooperation has been essential throughout human history, and is hardwired into us in the form of the feelgood hormone, oxytocin, that rewards us for behaving with care and empathy. We need both competition and cooperation in order to thrive.

Having-Doing / Being

Yang is the active principle — creative, busy, and doing-oriented. Yin is relatively chilled and patient, the wintertime of rest and composting to yang’s summertime of growing and blooming.

Some organisations alternate periods of more intense activity with periods of reflection and integration, sometimes based on the lunar cycles: the waxing moon from new moon to full moon for expansion and experimenting, the waning moon from full moon to new moon for integration. Activity is happening in both phases — just a different kind of activity. This rhythm allows workers to synchronise on pushes and pauses in a sustainable way — and even to plan vacations for the yin part of the cycle, so they can step away from their work and allow some subconscious processing to happen while they lie on a beach.

Volatility / Sustainability

Change is the only constant, but a high level of change can be exhausting. Equally, as some people are discovering during Covid, too long with nothing much changing can be stultifying. I’ve heard the phrase “Groundhog Day” many times over the course of the last year. As with the doing/being pair, we can appreciate unpredictability and steadiness all the more when we experience the contrast with its opposite.

Some companies (think Silicon Valley startups) are extremely yang — grow fast and sometimes turbulently, get famous, cash out within 5 years. Others are the Steady Eddies of the corporate world, although they tend not to grab the headlines. So-called “chaordic” (chaos + order) organisations attempt to straddle the line to get the best of both worlds — operating at the creative edge of chaos, while trying not to fall over it. Tony Hsieh of Zappos was one who fell off.

Technology / Interpersonal Skills

This article reveals the shocking news that women have a “comparative advantage in tasks requiring social and interpersonal skills”. Gosh, who’d’ve thought. (The same article points out that one key driver of the uneven sex ratio in management at most companies is our inability to distinguish competence from confidence. Again, I doubt that this would come as a shock to any woman in the workplace. But I digress.)

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In the Netflix series, Inside Bill’s Brain, Bill Gates of Microsoft fame admits that, to the tech entrepreneur, everything looks like a nail to technology’s hammer. As I suspect Bill would freely admit, he is not particularly in touch with his yin side. Luckily, he has Melinda to fill in the yin blank for him. As they talk about their philanthropic work, they both say that they complement each other well. He might be talking about the nitty-gritty design details of self-contained toilet systems, while she’s pointing out that the cubicles need to be big enough to accommodate a mother and child.

Bigger is Better / Small is Beautiful

Bigger is better. So is faster, stronger, harder, higher, louder, brighter… more, more, more. And look at where that’s getting us — planetary overshoot. Or, indeed, planetary overshot. This is not to disrespect Bigger is Better. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t. As with all the above, the point is balance, and our current economic model with interest-bearing loans has no tolerance for small is beautiful. The greater the interest, the more the economy has to grow in order to feed the insatiable appetite of compound interest.

In the context of work, we all want to feel like we matter. And in big corporations (and I worked for two — Accenture and UBS) it was very hard to feel like I mattered. I was a very small cog in a very large machine, and the more generic/plug-and-play I could be, the better. Another Brick in the Wall just about summed it up.

The new organisations allow people to be themselves, to be unique, and to self-organise into circles where there are genuine relationships of trust, understanding and mutual respect. Many have written about this, including Frederic Laloux, Margaret Wheatley, and even four-star US General Stan McChrystal.

Expansion / Conservation

You already know what I think about attempting infinite growth on a finite planet — especially growth that has tended to make the rich richer while income in real terms stagnates for the majority. (And if you don’t know, see my blogs on Overconsumption — Must, or Madness? and Prosperity Without Growth.)

Having said that, expansion is not necessarily bad. I’m all in favour of expanding the rights, incomes, and standard of living of people in developing countries. But expansion always and everywhere needs to be balanced with conservation, to make sure that expansion now does not come at the expense of the wellbeing of future generations.

Hierarchy Works Best / Egalitarian Works Best

Haha. I am smiling/grimacing at this header as I type this. I have spent long hours this week contributing to the formation of a new Decentralised Holonic* Organisation within the broader SEEDS ecosystem, and there have been times when I have yearned for a good old-fashioned hierarchy… with me at the top, naturally. 🙂 And that is the problem with hierarchies — they may seem like the fastest and most efficient way to get things done, but mostly they benefit the ones at the top, while the vast majority buckles down to things they would rather not be doing. (See the perennially depressing Gallup data on employee disengagement.)

[*Holonic means a self-organising system of nested entities, e.g. I am an entity inside a sub-group inside a group inside an organisation. Wikipedia has more information.]

Recognising that people generally perform better (and feel better — both mentally and physically) when they are happy and fulfilled, a new generation of organisations is decentralising decision-making and giving people the autonomy to work in the intersection of what they can offer and what the organisation needs. This can feel chaotic (especially in the early days of such an organisation — and trust me, I know of what I speak!) but as time goes on people naturally congregate into groups sharing an aligned intention. Sociocracy attempts to blend the best of both egalitarianism (decision-making is a group process, with every voice heard) and hierarchy (each group has designated roles, including a Leader). This video, by Sociocracy for All, is a great 18-min introduction to how sociocracy works. Seems promising.

Central Authority / Mutual Trust

Central authorities came into existence for a reason. A great example is railway time. Before 1840, there wasn’t a standard national time zone for England, which you can probably imagine caused chaos, confusion, and not a few near misses on the railway lines. We wouldn’t want to go back to every community having the liberty to determine their own time zone. (I determined my own time zone when I was on my boat, rowing across multiple time zones in the course of crossing an ocean… but I was a community of one, so Boat Time caused no problems.)

But it’s not practical or desirable for central authorities to govern everything. In the UK there was (and continues to be) a growing resentment of dictates handed down from Westminster, apparently oblivious to the local needs of people in the North, West, or rural areas, and (to radically over-simplify) this is what led to the devolution of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in 1998.

The ideal, of course, is to govern based on mutual trust, but given the high sensitivity of humans to perceived unfairness, and the fact that there will always be someone who spoils things, there need to be some guiding principles. The seminal work on this was set out by the Nobel Prize-winner, Elinor Ostrom, in her principles for avoiding the tragedy of the commons. All eight principles are important, but my two favourites would be: to ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules; and to build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system — what Alan Watkins has called crowdocracy, and which is also a feature of sociocracy (pictured below).

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It seems clear to me that the last few thousand years have been dominated by the yang principle, and that a shift is now starting to happen. Shifts like this are rarely smooth. Those who have thrived in the yang culture will not be happy to lose power and authority as the old structures give way to greater equality of wealth and influence, and some will fight fiercely to preserve their privilege.

But if this world is going to work for the many, and not just the few, including all sentient beings and not just humans, then the shift is necessary and, indeed inevitable.

I used to ask myself how change happened — top-down, or bottom-up? Now I realise that I was still caught in the old yang mindset, and a yang system of change cannot produce balanced yin/yang outcomes. If change is going to happen everywhere, as it needs to, then the change has to come from everywhere, at all levels of the system. So it naturally follows that, as we at SEEDS are creating this Decentralised Holonic Organisation, I have to maintain my own yin/yang balance — for example, by stepping back from the time-sucking vortex of Discord messages to spend time out walking in nature, or writing in my journal, to pause and reflect. I also have to support and nurture balance in any interactions that I have — on every call, in every Discord message, in every document. And we have to weave this concept into every aspect of the work we do, because our organisation is in turn a microcosm of the world, and if we can’t get the balance right within ourselves, what hope do we have of creating greater balance in the world at large?

Other Stuff:

TEDxStroud: the new date for our livestreamed event is now confirmed for 21 stMarch. Eight amazing speakers, livestreaming across the globe! Tickets are on sale on Eventbrite.

Go Reflect Yourself: a podcast interview I did last year with Heather Crider — check it out!

And finally, a link to a video that I really enjoyed, and I think you might too. Daniel Schmachtenberger on How Not To Go Extinct (less than 6 mins). Seems like generally a good idea, in my view.

Originally published at on January 22, 2021.

Former management consultant who stepped out of the ordinary to row oceans solo. Currently writing at and

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