How you are, how the world is – this is the irreparable.
(Giorgio Agamben)

In his small, but philosophically very dense booklet The Coming Community, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (also see the German blog entry on state of emergency) elevated the irreparable to act as a symbol of being itself: »The irreparable is neither an essence nor an existence, neither a substance nor a quality, neither a possibility nor a necessity. It is not properly a modality of being, but rather it is Being that already always gives itself in the modalities, is its modalities. It is not thus, but rather is the thus

In the business world, this notion sounds strange, and not only so because the sentences cited above are not quite the style typical for management literature. Taking something that is defective, broken, damaged and blemished as being the symbol of true being? That sounds not only strange, but simply stupid. Every client would complain about an irreparable product and have if repaired or replaced. However, business is not only about products, but also about the people who make the goods. I think that for people in business, irreparability is relevant in two ways: Firstly with reference to the topic burnout and secondly with respect to establishing a positive culture of dealing with mistakes.

Regarding the first point: As long ago as in the 1990s, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (he has been mentioned before on this blog with reference to rhizoms) gave an enlightening sketch of the current state of our society. He called it a control society, which follows on from the previous disciplinary society in his view. The disciplinary society of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century disciplines its citizens in »enclosing milieus«, which use rules and regulations to clearly define what is allowed and, more importantly, what is not. The control society, on the other hand, is a delimited society, where in everyone is potentially allowed anything under the paradigm of freedom and independence; yet the individual is directed by means of »ultra-rapid forms of free-floating control«. The individual receives subtle suggestions to continuously have to make something of him- or herself.

In the disciplinary society, people taking on a new role had to »start again at nothing every time«, and they therefore »never stopped starting«. People in the control society »never finish anything«, wrote Deleuze. There will always be further aspects of performance that can be optimized and there will always be further possibilities of education and training that have not yet been used … The failure to make full use of one’s own potential is considered a deadly sin in the society of control; apple watch and self-tracking bracelets are its new status symbols. Byung Chul Han (who has also been introduced on this blog as a proponent of story-telling) followed on from Deleuze when he identified this excess of positivity in the society of control together with the simultaneous lack of all (negative) boundaries as the original reason for the burnout phenomenon. We are not strained by pressure from above, but by home-made pressure from inside.

When I suggested that we meet the new challenges of the VUCA world with VUCA-AIKIDO, I introduced the basic stance clarity, outlining a competence I consider vital: »I know (my) limits«. In a VUCA world that produces a control society as defined by Deleuze, which lack boundaries to the point where people are driven into burnout by their excessive yearning for self-optimization, it is essential to know how to set boundaries. In this context, it constitutes a boundary to admit to imperfection and permit oneself not to be perfect. By granting yourself shelters of irreparability, you are enabling yourself to confidently deal with the subtle demands of the control society: You will decide where to invest the time and resources that are available in order to become better. You will also decide where to remain less than perfect, to stay as you are. This does not mean asking for less application. It means to give one’s best in selected areas without having to be perfect in every realm.

Regarding the second point: Businesses that work in production necessarily focus on quality (as well as the dimensions time and cost). Faulty products are rejected and not brought to sale. The more bearing the product has on safety, the greater the focus on quality, of course. This treatment of the product often also reflects on the treatment of people. This means: the more bearing the product has on safety, the more importance is given to the need to agree, the insistence on process compliance, status orientation, etc. in the company culture. Focus on a perfect product often produces perfectionist people in companies.

Add to that our cultural and religious historical background, which also places behavioral faults into an existential context. The great sociologist Max Weber showed the close links between Christianity and our modern economic methods even in the early twentieth century. The way mistakes are dealt with in companies can also be interpreted in this light. In Christianity, a behavioral fault is easily considered a human fault: a sin and therefore a barrier to access to Christian paradise. In analogy, companies are quick to question their employees’ right to be in the company when they have made a mistake. The search for a »guilty party« is often more important in businesses than the attempt to fix the mistake. Take Giorgio Agamben’s plea for irreparability as a counterpoint to this culture: »Without refuge and nonetheless safe – safe in its being irreparable.« True being is what it is: real, faulty and blemished.

I am of course not calling for carelessness or deliberate sabotage; my aim is different. Stability and security are lost in the VUCA world. It is therefore an entirely predictable consequence that the error rate will increase. This enormously increases pressure on perfectionist individuals in a company culture that is focused on continuous optimization. At the same time, experimentation is the only way to find out what will and what will not work in a VUCA situation. And experiments sometimes fail. In a VUCA situation, it makes sense to act first in order to then be able to make a fast judgment on whether the actions were helpful or not (see Dave Snowden’s Cynefin approach for complex and chaotic realms, as outlined previously on this blog). I believe that in a VUCA situation, a mistake is one thing above all others: a valuable informant! Mistakes help adapt behavior accordingly and to improve without attaining perfection. That is why I believe that openness for experiments and valuing mistakes as opportunities to learn are important elements of the basic stance intuition in my suggestions on VUCA-AIKIDO.

I may have to stress once again here that I do not want to praise what is known as minimum performance or to demand less achievement in business. Instead, I want to support companies in establishing a company culture that allows the employees to realistically do their best without having to be perfect. I am convinced that this is the healthier and therefore also the more sustainably successful method of doing business.

I think that the use of strokes from transactional analysis is a useful model for the establishment of a high-performance company culture that still accepts the individual’s irreparability. The founder of transactional analysis, Eric Berne, described the establishment of a trusting environment that fosters achievement as early as the 1950s. Interaction with others and attention from one’s fellows is a basic need for every human. Indeed, research and reports have shown for centuries that humans literally die when these two basic needs are not met. Berne defined a »unit of attention« as a stroke. When we meet, we exchange strokes with every »hello« and every nod of our heads. And when we start a conversation, this exchange of strokes continues …

The word stroke has a double meaning that is important to this context. It can connote an act of kindness when giving a caress, as well as a negative action in the sense of a blow. In analogy, strokes that are exchanged can be positive or negative. All messages and actions that signal »I like you« send positive strokes. Conversely, all messages and actions that signal »I do not like you« send negative strokes. Another very important aspect of the stroke model is the difference between conditional and unconditional strokes. Conditional strokes are focused on the other’s actions, behavior and performance. They always also include »because-information«: I (don’t) like your behavior, because you are (not) doing this or that. Unconditional strokes, on the other hand, are focused on pure being. They relate to the person themselves, their essence and existence and are therefore much »stronger« than conditional strokes are. Unconditional strokes like »I like working with you!« or »You’re a real idiot!« (both without a »because« of any kind) have a much greater effect than conditional strokes like »Good work!« and »This was a mistake!« do.

In correlation, there are four kinds of strokes that people in companies exchange:

  • Unconditional positive strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person that I fundamentally value them as a person and do not question their work in the company in itself.
  • Conditional positive strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person what I value in their behavior and which aspect of it they should maintain.
  • Conditional negative strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person what I don’t like in their behavior, what could be improved.
  • Unconditional negative strokes: All messages and actions that show the other person that I fundamentally do not like them as a person and generally question their work in the company.

This list in itself may already show which stroke behavior can establish a trusting yet at the same time performance-oriented company culture: unconditional positive strokes (1) build fundamental trust in oneself and others. They are the most important basis for a valuing company culture, yet in my experience they are also the most neglected ones in companies. When I give the others in the company the feeling that they count as human beings and that their workplaces are safe, I fundamentally raise their motivation to perform. This sets up the basis on which conditional positive strokes (2) can establish confidence: I make the other person aware of their strength and what they should keep doing by giving feedback. Conditional negative strokes (3), on the other hand, foster self-criticism and are the basis for learning development: I give the other person feedback on where they have the potential to improve and what I would like to be different – giving them a basis on which to change their behavior. (The exchange of conditional strokes are familiar to many who work in companies as feedback. It is therefore useful to use the familiar rules of feedback: I-messages, concrete examples, focus on attentive behavior, …) Unconditional negative strokes (4) should be avoided in all instances. They result in nothing but destruction of confidence and trust in the other person, in frustration and demotivation.

In this context, I want to stress one thing above all others: When a criticism is being voiced, it is vital that the person being addressed understands at all times that the criticism is levelled at their behaviour and not at their person. People are too quick to »hear« strokes that are intended to be conditional and negative as ones that are unconditional and negative. The most sustainable way of avoiding this is to send out enough unconditional positive strokes. This experience appears to confirm the following rule of thumb: The more unconditional positive strokes I send out, that more »severely« will I be able to demand performance without disencouraging my employees and losing their trust.

Managers and employees often report that unconditional positive strokes are in too short supply in companies. This is probably due to the circumstance that they are generated via “waste”, albeit in a positive sense of in-waste-ment, a concept I have sketched out before: giving a partner attention without an agenda, taking time for conversations about non-business topics, investing in community-building, »sense-less« activities, … This in-waste-ment produces a lasting feeling of value and fundamental trust. This brings me back to the beginning of this text: Unconditional positive strokes also include the recognition of the other as an irreparable being. Giorgio Agamben, again: »Seeing something simply in its being-thus – irreparable, but not for that reason necessary; thus, but not for that reason contingent – is love.« Translated into the context of companies, this reads: »As (imperfect and blemished as) you are as a human, I value you. Let us find out together how you can do your best in the company …«

The stroke model is more than a mere guidance for behavior with others. It can also be a useful tool for putting yourself in perspective. Giving oneself enough unconditional positive strokes reinforces anyone’s own confidence in (work and private) life.

To accept oneself and others as not perfect and then making the best of that: this may sound like sixties romanticism. Yet in my experience, I receive the most attention from managers and employees in my workshops when I present the stroke model. This reflects how relevant this topic is for companies. I am utterly convinced that those companies that fundamentally recognize their employees’ irreparability and have confidence that they all do their best will be the most successful companies in the VUCA world.

Johannes Ries