The A to Z of OD: X is for eXistential; Y is for Ybema

OK, I cheated. But if iNtuition can begin with an N in Myers-Briggs terminology, then eXistential can begin with a X, ok? Also, thanks go to the inimitable Perry Timms for suggesting eXistential for the A to Z of Organisation Development.

eXistential philosohpy

Existentialism is a philosophy of thinking and being that puts the experience of human beings as individuals as its primary consideration. As conscious beings, independently acting, individuals have freedom to choose how to be. Rather than following some doctrine (e.g. religious) or prescribed, pre-determined path (e.g. parental injunction, “you should become a doctor”), people have the freedom to exist how they choose. This reveals their true essence, which they can codify for themselves as they go along as their own set of beliefs and values.

It follows that people are defined by their past and how they choose to be in the present. The future is unwritten. This tension between the past/present and the unknown future creates anxiety (aka ‘existential angst’). Imagine you are standing at the edge of a cliff. There is nothing to stop you throwing yourself off. You could just lean forward, and let go …

Existentialism suggest this anxiety is due to the world being absurd – anything might happen to anyone at any time. It follows there is no deeper meaning to life and as such existentialism is somewhat anti-religious, perhaps even anti-science (it is certainly anti-deterministic and anti-positivist). The tension between freedom to act and anxiety that anything might happen is what defines the existential being. It follows that people are not rational beings. You might just choose to throw yourself off that cliff, metaphorically at least.

For example, if you are working somewhere you don’t like because you need the money, you might choose to do something career-limiting and get yourself fired, or walk out. Rationally, you need the money. You’ve metaphorically thrown yourself off the cliff. Why? Because you are acting authentically. You have freedom to choose, to act as yourself, to create your own values. Your freedom to choose takes precedence over the anxiety it might cause. You are responsible for your own actions. Living life authentically is a core theme of existentialism.

Implications for OD

Organisations are human systems – people coming together to achieve some defined purpose. They are just like individuals, in that they exist first and define their essence later, they act authentically according to that emerging essence (in theory at least), and they are responsible for their actions and are anxious about achieving their future vision.

  1. OD is neither a science nor a religion

If individuals have freedom to act, then the organisations they form do too. Do not try to make OD a science or a religion. It is a process to help organisations become more effective at authentically pursuing their purpose. The organisations must choose their own path through that process.

  1. Align values

People exist by living their lives and in so doing, reveal their own values. Organisations exist through their actions and by so doing, reveal their values. As we saw in V is for Vision and Values, this means organisational values are real, not designed. It also means the OD practitioner can help individuals and organisations by helping people see the alignment between their personal values with those of their organisation. If people are not aligned with their organisations, they might as well throw themselves of that metaphorical cliff; arguably, it would be better for the individual and the organisation.

  1. The past is unwritten

Look to the past to get a deeper understanding of the present, before defining the future. Until everyone has a common understanding of why things are the way they are today, then defining any future vision is only half the story. This approach balances past, present and future. Not only is the future unwritten, but until it has been explored and understood, the past is unwritten too. Use it to help define the essence of the organisation through how it has chosen to be and what it has learnt about itself along the way. See also OD thought leader Sierk Ybema below.

  1. Organisations are anxious too

If people are battling with freedom in the face of an absurd world, then so are organisations. Anything might happen at any time – competitor response to a commercial organisation, Government regulation, economic meltdown, political unrest, etc. The OD practitioner’s goal is to help organisations first survive and then thrive in an uncertain world.

  1. Organisations are not rational human systems

If people are not rational beings, it follows organisations (as human systems) are not rational either. You will already know this if you’ve ever come up against a highly-charged political atmosphere in an organisation with personal agendas, for example. Organisations are well-advised to allow emotions into their everyday routines. The OD practitioner must be able to work with power and politics and allow emotions in. One OD goal is to improve the emotional capability of organisations.

  1. Let people be responsible

As OD practitioners, we cannot impose decisions onto our clients. We are there to allow others to take responsibility, to define their own path and to live it authentically. We must allow managers to manage, leaders to lead and people to be responsible.


OD practitioners are existential beings. We act authentically, according to our self-defined values. These values have emerged through our practice. We are responsible for our actions (not our clients’ actions) and we too are anxious about the future.

We face that cliff edge every time we are with a client. Anything might happen at any time. We must be prepared to risk the relationship so we can take our client to the edge of their best thinking about who they are, where they have come from, what they have learnt, where they are going and how to get there.

OD thought leader: Sierk Ybema

Sierk Ybema is Associate Professor for Organisation Sciences at Vrije University, Amsterdam. He researches and authors articles on citizenship, organisational change and cultural identity.

One particular aspect of his thinking surrounds past, present and future and aligns very closely with my philosophy of OD: to espouse a brighter future, I believe the OD practitioner must have a good understanding of the present situation. Inherently this involves understanding the past, how the organisation got to where it is today and what is has learnt about itself along the way.

One aspect of the (cultural) past is to consider organisational nostalgia. Ybema suggests organisational nostalgia is both psychologically and politically motivated to oppose change. This is in stark contrast to what he terms managerial ‘postalgia’, a “burning desire … to go forward, inspired by discomfort with the present”, typically espoused by managers proposing change.

“Nostalgia is mythmaking aimed at romantically reconstructing the past, edited with hindsight.” Conversely managerial postalgia is typically expressed rationally; emotions are hidden, the implication being that emotions are bad, hence nostalgia must be bad. The ‘nostalgics’ and ‘postalgics’ are both attempting to “appropriate the present”.

By recognising both these opposing positions, the OD practitioner can build a case for change by taking a different perspective; revealing rather than denying the nostalgics’ emotions, and hence managerial postalgia can be transformed into mythmaking that portrays change as a “heroic adventure”.

Rather than taking the postalgics view that the present is bad and we must only look forwards, I believe the best approach to OD is to link past, present and future. By reviewing the past to get a better understanding of the present before envisioning a future vision and facilitating organisations to make the journey towards achieving it.

Recommended reading: Ybema, S. B. (2004). Managerial postalgia: projecting a golden future. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 19(8), 825-841.

Next time in the A to Z of OD: Z is for Zeitgeist

Posted in Organisation development and tagged , .