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Organizational Alchemy Part 4: Understanding True Nature

There is an old Greek saying that my mother reminds me of on occasion – “you don’t really know someone until you have eaten a sack of salt with them”. In the old days, a sack of salt was a huge burlap bag of salt, so as you can imagine, there would be a whole range of emotions and situations that would come up if two individuals were to take on such an endeavor. However, in experiencing that wide range of behaviors together, one would really understand the true nature of the other.

Last week we explored the world of interactions and catalysts. It is easy for us to observe major reactions and to mistakenly use them to generalize. However, in taking the time to understand the subtlety and nuance in reactions and how a little more or less of something can alter the properties of a reaction ever so slightly – this is where the real magic happens. Alchemists found that metals behaved differently in the presence of mercury, sulfur, or salt. The key finding being that certain properties of certain elements are accentuated or dampened when in the presence of other elements. A careful study of these relationships not only give the alchemist a deep understanding of a material’s static properties (as discussed in Part 2 from a few weeks ago), but also a deep understanding of it’s true nature and variability under a wide range of stimuli.

Today, there is an emerging field within biology called toponomics that seeks to understand the laws that govern spatial networks of biomolecules in cells and enable coordinated actions. This comes from the observation that different elements behave differently depending on the other elements around them. Beyond the molecular level, the implications for our teams is equally fascinating – i.e. that we as individual have a multitude of characteristics and some of those characteristics become more prominent or more strongly expressed in certain types of company. For example, although I am physically the same person when with my friends, when at work, when with my family, etc., there are different aspects of my personality, technical knowledge, and role within the group dynamic that manifest themselves in those different situations – same person, different expression of characteristics.

This is the next key skill set that the master integrator needs to explore for meaningful organizational alchemy: understanding the true nature of things. In order to get there, we must explore a few key questions:

What influences expression of various traits?


The characteristics of each situation trigger the expression of certain traits. A technical problem requires that a team express their technical skills. It also suggests that by acting and speaking in a more technical or professional way, highlighting past technical accomplishments, etc. one would enjoy greater credibility and influence. In a situation where the problem is more strategic in nature, then the skills and traits that exemplify leadership, big-picture thinking, detailed planning become more highly valued. In situations where the focus is more behavioral or interpersonal, then traits such as empathy, trust, insightfulness, and the ability to connect and communicate become more highly valued. The nature of the situation or problem has implications for what traits are desirable and subsequently the importance of the people that possess those traits.

As was discussed in the post several weeks ago on Primal Wisdom Part 1, we as humans are constantly balancing our fundamental needs to: 1) belong - by being similar, and 2) be unique - and therefore special and needed. In our social interactions, these are the two filters that consciously and subconsciously influence what traits we express in a situation. The “need to belong” can show up by individuals feeling the need to be agreeable, blindly supportive or non-conflictual, or withholding ideas or information that may differ from or challenge others – these behaviors are not conducive to building a high-performance team.

However, by providing clarity about goals, process, and roles, the master integrator makes it clear why and how each team member belongs and why they are needed. In addition, by creating a high-trust environment through accountability and validation, the master integrator can move teams members beyond these protective/defensive behaviors toward more openness, constructive debate, and creativity where the various members can begin expressing more of their broader experience, skills, and traits within the team.


There are also factors that influence the “volume” or intensity of expression. One of them is an individual’s level of commitment to the effort or goal. Studies have identified three levels of commitment:

1) Affective commitment where individuals are enthusiastically and passionately committed to a goal

2) Normative commitment where individuals feel morally obligated or indebted to helping realize the goal

3) Continuance commitment where individuals are only doing something because there is no better option available

Each of these types of commitment has implications for how much of themselves they put into that work (i.e. the traits that they choose to express) and how hard a person works (i.e. the intensity of that expression). There are also ways to move individuals from one level of commitment to another.

  • Association/Disassociation: The first step is making sure that individuals know understand the bigger goal and how their specific role fits into in the greater context (i.e. association), then they will at least some level of normative commitment (because they have a part to play and others depend on them). Without this clarity, they may feel disassociated and unengaged (continuance commitment).

  • Inspiration/Disappointment: The second step is demonstrate how their individual contributions have directly helped with realizing the bigger goal so that they can be get motivated, inspired, and ideally passionately committed to the collective goal (affective commitment). Without this validation, they may feel disappointed and resort to simply doing what is expected of them (normative commitment).

The work of the master integrator is to assess the inherent levels of commitment within the team and through enabling association and inspiration (and managing any disappointment or disassociation) find ways to strengthen the collective commitment of the team. If done effectively, they will voluntarily get much greater effort and more meaningful results out of the team.


Another factor that influences the level of expression is the how aligned an individual’s identity is with the role that they are playing in a team/organization. Each of us has multiple aspects to our identity; some of us have many different aspects that we juggle (e.g. Rafael is a structural engineer, football fan, fisherman, father, history buff, brewmaster, etc.). Some of us have relatively few aspects (e.g. Cora is a business unit leader, mother, and coach). There are ways that these different aspects of one’s personality can be conflicting or competing (and therefore take energy away from other aspects), but there are also ways that they can be complementary or reinforcing. The difference lies in how well an individual integrates the various aspects of their identity with the task at hand. The example of Rafael above will likely not be putting in long hours at the structural engineering office because he has to balance that time with his family, watching football, fishing, reading historical fiction, and working on his latest batch of home-brewed beer. However, if he creates a football fan club at the office and encourages others to get into home brewing, then he has found a way to reinforce and integrate various aspects of his identity and the same effort can now accomplish multiple goals. Cora’s example may be better integrated from the beginning. If she views her mission in life as building and developing a great unit that is successful, then no matter whether that she is working in her business unit, family unit, or sporting team unit, she is strengthening the same skills and reinforcing the same underlying aspects of her identity. When she is brought into a team, she has the potential to bring and leverage her entire experience and enthusiasm toward the collective goal.

The work for the master integrator is to understand the different aspects of the team members and find ways to help them integrate their various identities with the goals of the team. Sometimes this is not so literal (e.g. creating a football fan club within the office) but rather it can strive toward helping that individual tap into the experience and talents that show up in that aspect of their identity and apply it to a different setting (e.g. how can the team leverage such an individual to help the team get excited and motivated to “win”, create a sense of excited competition, and celebrate).

How can we leverage this insight in our teams?

In our teams and organizations, we often do not take the time to really get to know each other beyond a professional context, so how can we develop this deeper understanding of our individual true natures so that we can collectively work toward transformational outcomes?

There are various assessments that can give us insight into different aspects of an individual’s true nature, but they only shed light on a little more of the full picture. For example Myers-Briggs gives us insight as to how we see the world and make decisions, FIRO-B provides insight as to our orientation to interpersonal relations, TTI provides insight as to why and individual is motivated to action, Strengthfinders provides insight as to how individuals operate in their “flow” state, PRF-E shows us the relative dominance of various personality traits, and the Belbin Team Role Report provides insight as to the role that we play in teams. There are many more, but this is just an example. When you look at these in aggregate, you start to really get a sense of a person’s true nature in a broad spectrum of situations. A skilled master integrator can leverage these assessments to shorten the learning curve amongst the team and help expose the broader nature of each individual so that they can be engaged more fully.

However, there is no substitute for actually getting to know someone, really connecting with someone in a genuine way, taking an interest in who they are as a (complete) individual, and finding ways that they can leverage their authentic self in pursuit of the team’s collective goals. This is where we really begin to understand the true nature of things and the greatness that is possible. This is where we really begin to understand the true potential of alchemy. It is not the surface observations, but the subtle observations that reveal the magic - that is where we really turn “lead” into “gold”, but we’ll explore more about the actual “magic” of alchemy next week.

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