Escaping the Iron Cage


I hear increasing challenge being levelled at the capitalist system and I think this is really encouraging. There are many conventions in our lives that have become so engrained in our culture that we are unable to even see them – just like a fish unable to see water as it knows of nothing else. It seems as if we are beginning to notice that we have swallowed capitalism and consumerism to such a degree that many of the precepts of it have become invisible, taken-for-granted ideals.

The knock-on impacts of this blindness are distributed throughout our understanding of how to be in the world. The unspoken definition of a successful life becomes what we consume – the more the better – and material growth becomes a necessity to fuel this need, but also starts to feel a basic human need in its own right. This shows up in our organisations in many ways, from an obsession with setting targets and key performance indicators – ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ – to a drive for efficiency and specialisation, splitting ourselves up into expertise-based silos or prizing growth in financial terms above all else. It’s not a healthy or whole way to be.

This is a system that wants people to play small (even if the rhetoric says otherwise) where the ‘best people’ are reliable cogs in the machine – doing what is expected or asked of them and no more. We have seen a rise in apparently more human or people-centred narratives in organisations, and yet often these approaches remain imbued with the same limiting mindsets. We have become interested in ‘engagement’, yet have turned this into an industry of survey measurement and competitive rankings, where the very essence of belonging and connection is destroyed by dissection and statistical analysis. The capitalist way of thinking turns even apparently open ideas, such as values and purpose, into instruments of control and compliance, with endless descriptions of ‘acceptable’ behaviours or the need to ‘all get aligned’. Most of this work is done with good humanising intentions, but the hidden conventions are strong and exert their influence insidiously.

So, while language has begun to change – the focus on engagement and empowerment for example – the underlying conventions and mindsets subvert many of the practical outcomes. Worse still, the rhetoric can alleviate the need for more substantial change – we are all taken in by the emperor’s new clothes. This is not a new problem. In his famous 1904 work on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber wrote, “the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage”.

Our work at Farleigh Performance is to free people from this iron cage – it is a mission of liberation. This is not Neo in the Matrix being dropped out of the system to join a merry band of freedom fighters, though this does undoubtedly happen for some. It is about raising consciousness of the nature of our challenge and seeking to create contexts in which people stay in the ‘machine’ and begin to explore new ways of being.

This is essential work – perhaps the essential work of our time – as we are trapped in a double-bind. We need today’s system to work well to support our economies and the social fabric built around them. For instance, restrict the supply of oil (for example, through the war in Ukraine) and a cost of living crisis emerges that hits hardest those with the fewest resources. This means, on the one hand, we need to continue to work as we are. Yet at the same time, continuing to do so threatens us with potential extinction-level events in the future. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t – a double-bind.

Our response is to be working with today’s organisational problems as a means to both bring about improvements in the current system and simultaneously building capacity and capabilities for people to explore alternatives – to begin to challenge and subvert the ideas locking them into a set of deadly behaviours. We do this by approaching today’s problems in ways that increase individual agency and accountability, and build deeper and wider relationships all in the context of seeking a truer, higher sense of purpose. The increasing complexity and uncertainty in our environment is making this essential work, as we are being driven to confront our hidden assumptions simply because the usual approaches are no longer good enough. This has enabled us to work with organisations exploring questions of purpose in a way that is opening up more creative thinking, more challenging of convention, or simply more wildness and less control.

Agency, Relationship and Purpose combined form a cocktail that is developmental. That is, they raise consciousness and enable greater complexity to be navigated. Adult Development Theory provides a map to guide this, though it too has to be held lightly so as not to become another set of labels that diminish and control. In complex systems everything is connected, as Gregory Bateson declared, “it is never just that and nothing more”. Therefore, a focus on individual change alone isn’t enough. We also use today’s challenges to consider the wider organisational context and how collective processes or assumptions can be nudged to support this liberation of the individual. We also support organisations to see and act in the wider ecosystems of which they are part. This is all done knowing that nobody can be in full control, and our work is to create the conditions in which performance, engagement and joy have a better chance of emerging, more of the time.

We do this by holding all of these ideas clearly in mind as we work with our clients’ presenting challenges and responding to with many of the ‘solutions’ they expect – team development, leadership, culture and so forth. We cannot fully escape the double-bind, so we have to hold both parts – the need for performance today and to radically change in the future.

In this way, we use today’s problems to build tomorrow’s capabilities.