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Re-energizing The Soul of OD

by Irv Rubin, Ph.D., Edited by Anita L. Lawless

Introduction/Key Themes

My objective in this article is to build upon two foundational principles of transformational change, borrowed from another ‘helping and healing’ profession—health care. Namely: First do no harm and heal thy self.

As OD practitioners, let’s take an honest look in the mirror and ask ourselves, as a profession, two key questions:  One, in what ways might we behave that could inadvertently cause harm resulting in unintended negative consequences to our clients and to ourselves?  Two, where might we have to ‘heal ourselves’ as a pre-condition to facilitating the transformational change we seek?

Hard earned wisdom and encouragement from dear friends and colleagues to “write about your agenda, about what makes you angry/triggers passion”—and the loving support and editorial skill of my soul mate—have contributed to what will be “one man’s opinion/answers” to those two questions.

The key themes in this article, therefore, will focus on my interpretation of OD’s natal purpose, its raison d’etre. The roots of this interpretation flow from the hearts, souls, minds and experiences of some of our founding fathers—the likes of Ed Schein, Doug McGregor, Warren Bennis, and Dick Beckhard, to name just a few. These roots have been nurtured and shaped by a half-century of experiences, and learning from untold numbers of students, clients and friends.

As a result my agenda rests upon three core beliefs.

  1. Organizations are merely the context within which we have chosen to practice our passion.
  2. The underlying, fundamental purpose of OD was and still is something much bigger than facilitating the production of ‘better quality, more profitable widgets.’
  3. Re-energizing our soul will enable us to better achieve our reason for being.
If you find that my agenda is one you share, or aspects of it trigger what you know to be a sign of your own passion, then you can dig into this article, and then access references and recommended resources for a deeper dive.

Values and Concrete Behaviors

Two people can share identical, espoused values and have dramatically different ways of manifesting those values. [A] At the end of the day, what we do—how we behave— carries more weight than our espoused intentions. A persistent failure to keep behaviors congruent with values is unhealthy and can contribute to the dis-ease of the organization’s soul and that of its employees. Here’s one OD example of this challenge.

The probability of your never having heard of, participated in, and or facilitated a “leadership development” program, I venture to say is zero. The probability you’ve had the following experience in one of those programs is well above zero. During the session, a participant makes a comment like; “I wonder what my spouse would say about my “Rolling my eyes when someone is bothering me.”  “Needing to control conversations.” Etc.  The resulting non-verbal fidgeting, smiles, or anxious spontaneous laughter from the group tells you a nerve has been touched. I have lost count of the number of times a participant has saddled up to me at a break, eyes darting quickly to ensure that they’ll not be over-heard, and announced sheepishly: “You know, this ‘stuff’ will really help me at home…too.” To which I silently say “Thank you God!” for another person voicing a value-driven concern we— as OD practitioners—seem not to address vigorously; there is no fundamental difference between being a good leader and being a good human being. I believe it and I believe our founding ‘OD fathers’ believe it too.

I further believe that if we, as OD practitioners do not espouse this value we have the responsibility to change how we describe the consequences of our work to our clients. If our interventions are intended to ‘strengthen the health of organizations’ then we are ethically responsible for alerting our clients and ensuring that they understand that the more successful this leadership development program is, the more you may experience ‘side effects’ in other areas of your organization and your life.

My belief that such mixed messages can often inadvertently characterize our OD behavior, like any personal agenda worth its salt, is selectively reinforced every time I hear certain familiar comments that immediately trigger my passion, my agenda. “Let’s be ‘professional’ and ‘let’s not get ‘personal’ about this” or “I have some feedback for you, but I don’t want you to take it ‘personally’.”

It is personal and inevitably so and by design! Being a complete and good person should be super-ordinate to being a complete and good professional, not the other way around.  Until all ‘human capital assets’ (itself an intriguing de-personalized characterization) are replaced with robots, everything we do or say is personal.

Every time an executive justifies an organizational action or decision with a mea culpa—“That’s just business!”—aren’t they reminding us that it is an accepted fact in the world of business that good business and good living are different? Aren’t they reminding us that virtually every organization is keeping two sets of personal responsibility accounting books? What do we, as OD practitioners, do or say when we hear our clients voice such beliefs?

If we truly believe that human compartmentalization is the ‘cost of doing business’—then let’s own up to a few things.

  • The ultimate ideal of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy—self-actualization—may be central to personal development but, because my being a person is secondary to my being a professional, it has no place or is of limited value in organization development.
  • The ‘side effects’ warning noted above needs to begin to acknowledge the unquestionable and documented physiological and psychological consequences of spending the majority of one’s waking hours in organizational cultures that explicitly and or implicitly encourage splitting our ‘person-ality.’  Doing so dampens and causes disease of our souls.

If we can accept this is where we are, and believe that we need to make a transformational change, then we really have our work cut out for us. Work that will take us back to a pillar, a founding father, Kurt Lewin, placed on our agenda in the 1950s. That pillar is feedback. [B] Without this pillar, clarifying the mixed messages we may have helped to create/reinforce becomes impossible. Without this pillar, half of our claimed identity—development, organizational or individual—is, by definition, unachievable.

When Did Feedback Lead To Dread?

My favorite OD agenda is feedback and the consequences of its ‘bastardization’ that we have colluded in creating and sustaining. [B] [D] [H] Make no mistake about it; recent research on the brain confirms that hearing the word feedback activates exactly the same part of the brain, in virtually identical ways, as being confronted with an ominous looking threat! The roots of this particular axe which I grind at any/every opportunity go back to my days as a Ph.D. candidate and a young professor at M.I.T., and the manner in which Doug McGregor framed our challenge:  “Unless handled with consummate skill and delicacy, the feedback process constitutes something close to a violation of the integrity of the person [and our profession] …leaving managers uncomfortably feeling as if they are ‘playing God.’ Yet…circumstances force us not only to make such judgments and to see them acted upon, but also to communicate them to those we have judged. Small wonder we resist!” 

I wonder what Doug and Kurt would say about the mania we have helped to create with traditional 360s? Might they not see traditional 360s, as I do, as iatrogenic?  Iatrogenic is a medical term referring to the fact that treating a symptom can, and often will, make the root cause worse!

Do we really believe the way to treat the fundamental mistrust, fear, and avoidance of one human being talking to another is to use processes that mirror the behavior of hyenas in the jungle? [D] Is this what we want to communicate what we mean by positive strength-based transformational change? In “aggregating anonymous feedback” are we honoring one of our most intrinsic of human diversities— expressing similar abstract values in quite different behavioral ways? [A] Are we honoring or robbing ourselves of the ultimate human ideal we speak of so often—unconditional love? [E]

If, as I have tried to argue, half of our claimed identity—development—is, by definition, unachievable because of our apparent beliefs and approaches to feedback, what challenges do we face—at least on the Rubin OD agenda—with respect to the other half of our claimed identity—organization?

Organizations: Myth or Reality?

I have come to two personal conclusions about the word organization. One, organizations do nothing. Familiar phrases like, “The organizational policy says…” “The organization has decided to…” “The organization has/hasn’t got this or that program/belief…” are, more often than not, smoke screens. Diversionary foils to distract us from an essential fact—people write policies, people decide, people design systems, people share or don’t share visions, missions, and values. The word organization often allows the fact of personal responsibility to take a backseat.  Individual day-to-day behavioral choices, for which we are fully responsible, concerning what constitute ‘good/bad, safe/unsafe’ actions create what we call organizational culture. Individuals changing their day-to-day behavioral patterns—not pretty placards or verbose value statements—are what create transformational changes in cultures.

Two, organizations are human organisms in every sense of the word. Back to my healthcare metaphor: A hospital, therefore, is a “Patient” in need of care. The quality of care afforded that “Patient,” by people who care for the “Patient” will directly impact the quality of care administered to you and I as patients.

Viewing an organization as a context in which we have chosen to ply our profession, to apply our content, challenges us to step back and to ask ourselves the most existential of self-identity questions: As a profession [and given my own earlier argument ‘profession’ means collection of human beings] who are we and who were we meant to be? At the end of the day, what do we stand for? What is the soul of our profession?

My belief about the answer to this question is rooted in a conversation, to which I was a party, with Doug McGregor over half a century ago. He said:
            “When I talk with CEOs, I hear myself arguing for ‘treating people well’ for primarily extrinsic reasons. Treat people well and you can expect higher productivity, lower turnover, etc. The truth of the matter is I am afraid that if I told them what I really believe they’d never listen to me. Namely, that the reason for ‘treating people well’ is intrinsic.  We are all God’s creations, God’s children. Deserving of unconditional love.” “If,” Doug went on to suggest, “we act from that belief, productivity, turnover etc. will take care of themselves…as a natural result.” [F]

To conclude my agenda, I wonder what would happen to the soul of OD if more of us acted from the belief that OD exists to promote an intrinsic concern for the treatment of people? We have chosen organizations as the context within which to strive for a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. 

If this is our soul and we to “clean up our act,” to bring our espoused values and concrete behaviors into greater alignment, as a natural result our future generations can look forward to a world that no longer lulls itself into the mythical belief that win-lose is a viable option.

We either learn, together, to win-win or we continue to risk the consequences of lose-lose, together.

For in the business of living we are all ‘CEOs.’ [F]

Summary/Change Lessons

Our beliefs drive our behavior. Our behavior shapes our character. Our character becomes our legacy.

  • OD as a profession will go through stages of development that mirror those experienced by individuals.
  • If we as a profession keep doing what we’ve been doing we can expect that our clients will keep getting the same results.
  • To contribute to positive strength-based transformational change in organizations, as is our professed vision/mission, we may have to consider positive strength-based changes in ourselves to close identified and accepted gaps between espoused values and concrete behavior.


[Unpublished references available directly from]

(A) Rubin, I (2014). The Missing “Ism” in Diversity.Honolulu, Hawaii: Temenos, Inc.
(B) Rubin, I. (2014). What’s In A Word? Honolulu, Hawaii: Temenos, Inc.
(C) Rubin, I. (2014). Timeless Leadership Challenges: The Lion King. Forthcoming, OD Practitioner
(D) Rubin, I. (1998) Feedback: The Key to True Collaboration. Health Care Forum Journal. May/June 1998 Vol. 41, No.3
(E) Rubin, I. (2014). Unconditional Love and Direct Feedback: What’s The Connection? Honolulu, Hawaii: Temenos, Inc.
 (F) Rubin, I. (1991). CEO’s: Key Holders to World Peace. Honolulu, Hawaii: Temenos, Inc.
(G) Jamieson, D. Managing Use of Self for Masterful Professional Practice. OD Practitioner Vol. 42 No. 3 201
(H) Rubin and Campbell.  (1998). The ABCs of Effective Feedback: A Guide For Caring Professionals. Los Angeles: Wiley & Sons  

For more information on any of the following, visit

  • The Behavior Minder®
  • A one-hour DVD entitled “Positive Feedback”

Irwin M. Rubin, B.S.E.E., M.S., Ph.D
CEO Temenos, Inc.

Educated in Cambridge, Massachusetts (B.S.E.E. Tufts University; M.S. and Ph.D. Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Received both the Salgo Noren Award and the Institute award for teaching excellence. The first non-physician inducted as an Honorary Member of the American College of Physician Executives. Millions worldwide have used Organizational Behavior: An Experiential Approach (originally co-authored with David Kolb and James McIntyre) Other books include: The ABCs of Effective Feedback: A Guide For Caring Professionals; Having It Both Ways; The ABCs of Win-Win Relationships; My Pulse Is Not What It Used To Be—The Leadership Challenges in Health Care; Curbside Consulting; and a novel Dying For Compassion


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