The Evolution of Social Life

A few years ago, I read a book on the history of science.  When I read a book, I often discipline myself to reduce the book to one word.  It took me two weeks to come up with the word.  My first thought was the term evolution, yet it did not feel just right.  Finally, I ended up with the word life.

When I went to the dictionary, I was surprised see a vagueness in the definitions.  Life tends to be defined in one or two ways.  Life is existence or being.  Life is animation, a system that is energized.  Later it occurred to me that the two orientations are reflected in personal purpose.  Sometimes I live reactively, my only intention is to survive.  I seek to solve problems to maintain my existence.

Other times I live more proactively.  I orient to a higher purpose and seek to contribute to a greater good.  In this case I live differently.  I feel I am connected to something bigger than myself.  Making the contribution revitalizes me.  The more I give myself away, the more energy comes.  The energy also has an enlightening effect. I seem to have an expanded sense of consciousness, learning, and influence.

In a recent talk at the University of Michigan, I reviewed my work on the competing values framework.  Then I linked the model to the work of Otto Scharmer.  In dealing with consciousness, learning and influence, Otto uses four categories that perfectly fit the four quadrants of the framework.

Four Levels

Level one is unconsciousness.  Thinking is based on past knowledge and habits.  When a disruption occurs, it is denied.  The “I” is well within the boundary of the self.  The disruption is not engaged.  There is little response and little learning.  The actors choose to live in the past while the external changes continue to evolve.

At level two, the disruption is engaged.  This is called the ego level.  The actor opens the mind and tries to logically solve the problem.  The thinking is objective.  The “I” moves to the boundary just inside the self.  The “I” looks out on the external world.  There is thus a separation of self and others.  The independent mind engages in an I-it analysis.  The analyzer is seeking to act logically upon the disruption.  At this level of consciousness and social connection, learning derives from debate.  In this objective, competitive orientation, the best idea wins.  We all spend large amounts of time operating at level two.  In fact, we spend much of our lives moving back and forth between levels one and two.

Disruption can lead the actor to level three. It is a contrast to level two, a transformative leap.  The personal boundary becomes open and I-ness turns into we-ness.  The actor opens the heart, as well as the mind.  In a meaningful connection the actor honors and connects with the other.  Learning derives from dialog.  In this dialog people feel safe to fully share.  In the process, they come to more fully understand the other and they come to more fully understand themselves.  Diversity becomes inclusion.  The perspective of the other and the perspective of the self are integrated in a larger system of understanding.  A relationship forms and the common good of the relationship becomes clear.  Self-interest and the collective interest can become one.

At level four the actors open their will.  Because trust is so high all the actors operate within the common good, the actors explore disruption with their increasingly united minds and hearts.  With increased confidence and capacity, they can move to real intent, the willingness to do the right thing together.  They become a high functioning learning system, a dynamic whole aware of their possible contribution to the larger dynamic whole in which they function.  With enhanced courage and capacity, they are willing to do what the future is calling them to do.  With the integration of diverse minds, they enter a state of collective generativity.  A new social order emerges.  Here many conventional differentiations are integrated including the past and future.  The energized collective can bring past knowledge and habits to the present moment and integrate them with an emerging future.  Adaptations draw resources from outside the system.

At levels one and two we see the conventional patterns of social order.  At levels three and four, we see unconventional patterns of social order, we see the emergence of social excellence.  We see systems that are highly animated, full of life.  In such systems we also tend to thrive.


  • What managers in your career have best represented levels one and two? How animated were their units?
  • What leaders in your career have best represented levels three and four? How animated were their units?
  • As you answer the above two questions, what do you learn about social excellence?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

One comment on “The Evolution of Social Life

  1. Fabulous entry and perfect for the times we are living in. If we let fear dominate, we will stay at level one. If we have a bit of bravery we will maybe get to level two. The positive future of our society resides in levels 3 and 4. Let’s find the courage to move into the levels. Clearly the great revealing of how dysfunctional our current society is, facilitated by covid-19, should suggest that we are way over due for transformation and a big leap into our stall evolution as a society.

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