“In Order to Live the Potential of the Digital Age We Need to Grow Personally.”

Social entrepreneur Joana Breidenbach is pioneering self-organised work structure in the digital transition era.

Joana Breidenbach is a social entrepreneur and co-founder of betterplace.org, Germany’s largest fundraising platform for social projects.

She is also the co-founder of betterplace lab, a ‘think and do' tank researching how digital technology can be used for the common good, as well as the author of several books, most recently New Work Needs Inner Work, a manual for how to implement a self-organised structure into a team or company.

Tarn spoke with Joana at the Emerge Gathering 2018 about the importance of self-organisation in the digital era and the characteristics of ‘new work' culture.

Joana was photographed at bUm Berlin.

Joana at bUm Berlin, a new work and events space for non-profit organisations and socially committed actors in Kreuzberg.

Tarn: Before this interview began we were talking about this phenomena we call ‘inner work’. What is this, and when did it become important for you?

Joana: To me, inner work is about exploring your full self in order to have a more meaningful life. About nine years ago I became friends with a meditation teacher through a project I did with betterplace. I was just really impressed with his vision and what he stood for, so I signed up for a 10 day vipassana retreat… it was quite a hardcore way to jump into it, but I’m an anthropologists by training and wanted to do some field research! I had the most phenomenal experience, and it convinced me that meditation is not just some esoteric and new age-y thing. I just wanted to learn more and more about it. At the same time, my children were leaving home so I had this gap in my life to do something different. That’s what I’ve been doing quite intensely since then, besides my normal day job.

Tarn: And how did this reflect in your social change work?

Joana: In the first few years, I kept my meditation practice and my social change work fairly separate. After a while I couldn’t ignore how much this practise of contemplation was helping me to expand my competencies at work. That’s when I became much more outspoken about what I did for myself in the meditative and personal growth space, and started to study how outer change - especially digitalisation - and inner change are really complementary. We’re living in a world where there is a lot of outer change happening but we haven’t really grasped that in order to live the potential of the digital age we need to grow personally. We need to grow into a different culture.

Tarn: What was the response from others when you started to use terms like ‘inner world’ and ‘personal development’ at work?
Language that is commonly used in the spiritual scene doesn’t bridge very well to the realm of power.
Johanna: I work in a lot of fields - like politics - where people are still quite conservative. When I talk about my ‘inner experience’ I can often feel some awkwardness in the air. I don’t mind this now that I’m more grounded and less dependent on what others think of me, but I am very aware that we need to craft a new language to make this more accessible to mainstream society. Language that is commonly used in the spiritual scene doesn’t bridge very well to the realm of power, and I’m very interested in power and how it might be used for social good. My mission is to get those in positions of power to expand their awareness of life, to give them that allowance to dive into themselves and access that much larger piece of life which is available to all of us if we look deep enough.

Tarn: Do you think there’s a particular reason why these conversations are happening now?

Joana: We always hear this reference point of Brexit, Trump and the growing ecological crisis. I think these things have caused a lot of people who were previously driven by a very narrow perspective of achievement - often money and power - to become more self-reflective and realise that their own actions are creating externalities that are harming wider society. The society that their children are growing up in. I think there is a growing sense of social responsibility across many different sectors, for example in digital leaders from the large digital companies. At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily imply that they are doing what we would call ‘inner work’. That might be the next step.

Tarn: You do have companies like Google doing things like meditation programmes. Do you see this as a positive step?

Joana: Yes… but at the same time I’m very much dissatisfied with how it’s being done. It’s often all about how to be a more efficient employee, a better worker. For me, a deepening humanity might be the total opposite of that -- it’s about having more empathy for other sentient beings, taking a different perspective on your job or even quitting all together because you feel that what you are doing is not contributing to the common good.

Tarn: I was speaking to a meditation teacher recently who said that a lot of the high power people he works with actually end up quitting their jobs. We were discussing how this could have a negative affect in that they aren’t on the ‘inside’ any longer to make the positive changes that are needed.

Joana: Yes that’s an issue! But what you can see with a gathering like Emerge, for example, is that many people - consultants, entrepreneurs, CEOS - are coming together and talking about inner work. I’d like to see more people creating new companies, institutions and movements with this aspect in mind. I feel we are definitely onto something. 

Tarn: What’s your vision for the future - how do you see things developing as we move forward?
We are in a transition from an industrialised nation state based world, to a digitalised, global world.
Joana: The vision I aspire to is that more people start to understand that we are in a transition from an industrialised nation state based world, to a digitalised, global world. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we can put new practises, structures and business models in place that respond to this change. In general I’m an optimist when it comes to digital technologies, but in order to rise to this challenge we need more people to develop skills like multiperspectivity, empathy, listening and good communication. We already know how to build these skills, using meditation for example, and a lot of organisations are already starting to do this. That’s a really positive move, but it’s just the first step.

Tarn: How have you responded to this in your own company?

Joana: In my company we work as a completely self-organised team with no boss or management. We also peer negotiate our salaries.

Tarn: That can’t have been an easy transition to make.

Joana: It wasn’t! We’ve learnt a lot in the past four years since we’ve been on this path to self-organisation. It’s not something you can change in one weekend workshop. What we learnt is that you can’t just throw people that are used to one system into another because the old system gives people a lot of security. At first, people were disoriented and fearful because they had to make important decisions themselves — there was no boss to shield them. We came up with a slogan: ‘working with less hierarchies needs inner work’ because self-organisation requires every individual to develop their inner capacity to cope with uncertainty, make forceful decisions and deal with conflict. Skills that are necessary and useful for life anyway. Personally, I found that I need to be able to understand myself more, not just how I think, but how I feel physically and emotionally. If I don’t have this clarity inside of myself then I just feel confused and dizzy and from that place I can’t make good decisions. I am fascinated by this very practical need for inner work in companies that are moving away from hierarchical models to networked models.

Tarn: So is this something that you see going mainstream, or is this only happening in a very niche area of business?
Employees are burnt out and discontent, and it’s not because they are inherently unmotivated or not taking enough self-initiative.
Joana: Right now I think a lot of German companies are experimenting with different models in some way or another, we are seeing a shift in both small companies and large corporates. They are realising that employees are burnt out and discontent, and it’s not because they are inherently unmotivated or not taking enough self-initiative, it’s because this inner aspect is being ignored. One of the major learnings we had was that in order for self-organisation to work, everyone needs to be able to bring their full selves to work. This doesn’t mean you display every weakness you have, but there needs to be enough information in the room in order for a fluid team to make good decisions. If you’re in a team and they don’t know that your mother is ill and this is keeping you up at night, how can that team function well and make decisions together? For me, the inner work aspect is just about knowing each other better in order to collaborate better. I feel like we have established a certain vocabulary around vulnerability and showing up as a whole person but it’s not really informed by what I would call deeper principles of life. It’s often just buying into this fairly consumerist culture of wellbeing. As a society we’re not very good at preparing people for the realities of what it means to be a whole person at work.

Tarn: So is this what you are talking about when you talk about ‘new work’?

Joana: Yes, I think that ‘new work’ would be defined by the reduction of hierarchies, having no fixed job descriptions and a much more fluid, ad-hoc working environment. For me it is also very much a change in attitude, moving away from looking at businesses as machines, to seeing them as organisms, where things evolve and there are constant, subtle changes in how the organisation works together, instead of a rigid system.

Tarn: Why do you think the transition into new work is important for the digital era?

Joana: I would say because it’s more responsive. A flexible system can absorb shock much better and it’s better positioned to respond quickly. We need this now. A good example is looking at how social media management currently works in hierarchical organisations. If a company wants to send out a tweet then the person who drafts the tweet has to go through an approval process before sending it, which doesn’t really reflect how networked culture works. In a self-organised structure the person who is responsible for social media can just get on with it. So for me, it has to do with being faster and enabling people to have more authority and freedom. Instead of being the recipient of orders, people are asked to expand and follow their own motivation and interests, so they are going to be much more innovative. It expands everybody’s playing field.

Words by Tarn Rodgers Johns
Tarn is the Lead Editor of Emerge. Raised in the UK and based in Berlin, she is driven by curiosity and an incessant but largely unsatisfied desire to get to the bottom of everything. She is interested in psychology, human creativity and the changing world around us.
Photos by Agata Guevara
Agata Guevara is a visual artist based in Berlin. She is interested in using documentary and conceptual photography to capture the human condition. Her long-term project, IN LIMBO, documents the lives of former-FARC fighters living in transition camps across Colombia.