So what’s this “Teal” organisations thing?

There has been some major buzz generating about “Teal” organisations.

It started with Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations and has been amplified by other conversations.  One of the example organisations, the Dutch healthcare company Buurtzorg, has particularly inspired people in Europe, and its founder/CEO Jos de Blok is a regular speaker on the topic. Further boost to the volume has come from the skeptical media attention for Zappos.  But then that is to be expected with a high profile organisation trying something new.

And while Laloux’s book is a brilliant start, it can be only that, and if we are to make good use of the opening he is creating, we had better understand what else is required on the journey to teal organising.

Frederic Laloux’s book is inspirational, filled with stories and well-pitched to appeal to people with integral mindsets, supported by a foreword from the great Ken Wilber himself.  It uses the general progression from Amber through Orange and Green as its framework for examining organisational change, and presents the emergence into second tier and Teal; as the book’s strapline says, it’s a guide to creating “organisations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness.”

However there is a perception or assumption that Frederic’s book also presents the whole Teal picture/worldview.  And I believe this is causing people to have oversimplified perceptions of what introducing Teal into their organisation will require.

That is not a criticism of Frederic’s book.  He has a particular message, and an inspirational task that would be lost if the book had attempted to become an implementation manual.  The book is what it needs to be.

Nor am I criticising Laloux himself.  He is not an integral theorist.  He is not steeped in Graves’ theory nor Spiral Dynamics.  He is using the high-level picture of stages of human development, and taking the colours as a useful mnemonic for his readers to work with.  It is a brilliant start, but it can be only that, and if we are to make good use of the opening he is creating, we had better understand what else is required.

Our complex world requires integration

Yellow-Teal (2)The concept of “Teal/Yellow” comes from a theory of developmental stages in which it is the seventh in a sequence that took humanity from its first hunter-gatherers (Beige) through tribes (Purple), (Red) warlord bands, towns and cities (Blue), to a technological-industrial economy (Orange) and the human-oriented response of modern social democracies (Green).  The roots of that sequence are in the work of Prof. Clare W. Graves and they arise from many years of deep research into how people think, how they define their priorities, and how these evolve as their life conditions evolve.

In 1974 Graves described his view that humanity was preparing for “a momentous leap”.  His research led him to predict that the shift between stages 6 and 7 would be different in character than all previous transitions.  The complexity of the world would require an integration of all the first six stages in order for the seventh stage to address the highly complex, interactive and interconnected world that was on the horizon.  This is the edge that we are now living on, witnessing and working with.

This means that Teal/Yellow is not an entity or a stage in itself.  It rests on the integration, balance, health, blend and articulation of all that preceded it.  And this is where a challenge has arisen.  Questions are arising that Laloux’s book does not address explicitly, and while he understands them, his readers may not.



Paying homage to Green

The Green stage of development is magnificent.  It led us into the exploration of who we are, individually and collectively.  It birthed psychology, anthropology, and sociology.  It began the dissolution of some paralysing Blue/Amber structures and countered the excessively materialistic (both financial and scientific) emphasis of the Orange mind-set.  It taught us about diversity, inclusion, and consensus.  It cares about the environment and challenges materialist blind spots.  Green is co-operative, team-oriented, and accepting; it reawakens the human bonding that has been reduced in varying ways by all of the stages since Purple.  During the Orange stage, alienation and loneliness become key human themes; twentieth-century novels are filled with these themes. Green redresses this imbalance.  It’s the Gravesian pendulum between “I and We” in full swing back from “I” to “We.”

Teal/Yellow is the next stage in human consciousness after Green. It arises out of both the strengths and weaknesses of Green.  Green loses sight of the Orange potency that built a world that can support more people in higher material standards, and in greater connectivity and mutual awareness, than ever before.  Green, as discussed, dislikes hierarchy and its emphasis on consensus can make it unable to embrace any structure.  It can also be confused about what consensus is, thinking that “our way” is “everybody’s way.” While tolerant of race and gender differences, Green can be intolerant of diversity of opinion both within a group and beyond.  In all of these challenges, Green might put emotions and feelings first.  It might be so concerned to love the sinner that it fails to deal with the sin.  It might put people so far above organisation in priority, focus, and concern, that the organisation itself loses viability.   The pendulum can swing too far.

Distinctive qualities of Teal

If we are not careful, Teal/Yellow can look, in presentation, like an advanced form of Green. It is essential that we grasp the distinctive quality of Teal/Yellow:

  • It is functional and pragmatic. It does not cease to care about feelings, but it will not lose sight of the needs of the whole by denigrating other aspects of existence.
  • It is systemic, and demands the structural awareness that we previously developed during the Blue/Amber stage.
  • It demands the material underpinning that was the strength of the Orange stage.
  • It sees the need for individuality to be expanded as part of our collective expansion, not suppressed in a search for equality.
  • It understands how to embrace the equality of human value without making anybody less than they can be.

All of this is present in the organisational case studies in Laloux’s book and it is valuable for us to understand how it shows up.

Teal/Yellow does not eliminate Amber.  The challenge as we enter second tier is to replace the old Blue/Amber with something which fulfils that stage’s original function of placing order and boundaries around the chaos of Red, but which also has the built-in intelligence and articulation to support the Orange and Green that have emerged since the predominance of Blue/Amber in humanity.  Structure and process have to be smarter now.

Similarly, we have to replace any dysfunctional aspects of Orange which are incompatible with Green, or which would seek to out-manoeuvre the newer and more subtle form of Blue/Amber.

We need a smarter Orange that is not blind to human or material inter-dependencies.  And not to forget that we still need the Values of bonding and heroic individual empowerment that were present in Purple / Magenta and Red (respectively) to be positively present.  Even the survival stage Beige/Infrared should not be taken for granted.  All six first tier levels are needed.

Self-Management does not abolish hierarchy

One aspect of the enthusiasm for Teal/Yellow is the delight felt by Green in the lessening of Blue/Amber structural hierarchy as well as the accompanying shifts in ownership models and reward models that may lessen Orange influences.  Some people with Green mindset have believed that Teal/Yellow eliminates hierarchy, rather than recognising the more complex and subtle shift in hierarchy that Laloux is describing.

As Laloux stated in conversation with my colleague John Watters –

Hierarchy isn’t abandoned at Teal; what is dismantled is the static form of hierarchy that is in the buttress of the org chart. The goal of self-management is not to make everyone equal, to have everyone having the same say on all the questions. It is really the opposite. It’s to have natural hierarchies, and to have lots of natural hierarchies.”

Teal does not always change the structure, but rather alters the way in which the structure is being operated.

I’ll take this one step further.  Those who do not understand the integration of stages required in Teal/Yellow and don’t understand the fact that include is at least as important as transcend, may view Teal as something separate from all previous stages – as if the world has made a quantum jump to a new state.  This does not represent Laloux’s model and it does not represent anything else about the shift the world is making, when viewed within the Graves/Spiral Dynamics framework.

Operating from this lack of understanding is an error which makes it much more difficult to understand the challenges an organisation faces in its journey to Teal, and also impairs our ability to work within such an organisation or support it in its change process.  People in a Teal organisation do not themselves “become” Teal.

In correspondence, Frederic has supported this point of view.

“So my (simplified for the sake of brevity) view on how people viewing the world primarily from stages below TEAL can work with pleasure in a self-management setting is if it is presented this way:

  • for Amber: here is the new set of rules and structures – clear and consistent. 
  • for Orange: it’s a new game, and here are the new rules. Have fun trying to be the best at the game. 
  • for Green: it’s a new game, where everyone can contribute, where no one’s voice can be denied. 

I clearly see how articulating something like this would be powerful.” 

Everyone must NOT become Teal

Clare Graves is often quoted for his strong expression “Damn it all, people have a right to be who they are.” Many people have made a related mistake in their view that individuals on a developmental journey somehow become Teal and that their first tier existence then vanishes. That perspective is being projected onto organisations, in the expectation that not only will a Teal organisation somehow lose all of its first tier values systems, but somehow all the people in the organisation will also become Teal individuals. This is not how it works. Not only do people have the right to be who they are, they will be who they are, until and unless they choose to change. Many will change very slowly, and many not at all.

Start from where you are

In Reinventing Organizations, we see in the examples, many of the outcomes possible when solutions are found to the first tier problems of existence. Each organisation has done this in its own way, using advice process, Holacracy and many other techniques to deliver Laloux’ three breakthroughs of Teal organizational functioning: Evolutionary purpose, Self-Management and Wholeness. No two organisations are the same. Each started from a different position – some with established history, some like Buurtzorg, from scratch. Each has its own mix of people and its own business conditions.

Is it obvious that the methods used by Buurtzorg could not be transposed to AES or FAVI? I suggest that it should be, and that this points to the questions we would need to ask and the aspects that we would need to know if undertaking the journey elsewhere. Inspiring as the book’s examples are, they are numerically a drop in the ocean and while we can see where they have gotten, we have little knowledge of how they got there.

Each organisation which sets out on the path towards Teal/Yellow/ flex-flow/ conscious/ integral/ meshwork organisational existence, will be unique. Each will start from where they are; each will set its own priorities – what changes to make first. Each will choose what tools and techniques to adopt, and in what order, and each will have a unique experiential journey leading, hopefully, to its individual expression of fulfilling its purpose. The history of company change is in many cases one of finding a technique like Deming or Six Sigma and applying its methods. Here, there is no bolt-on structure. For example, Holacracy might or might not be useful.

Pick ‘n Mix

Teal is co-arising with a raft of approaches – Presencing and U-lab, for example – and a range of authors opening up the pathway – Meg Wheatley, Peter Senge, Dee Hock, among many. These are supported by many views of leadership: inspirational, evolutionary, conscious, resonant, and more. There are valuable insights into how we think in terms of emotional intelligence, spiritual intelligence, and polarity management, and more insights arriving all the time. The underlying, less visible forces – the “invisible dynamics” – are being revealed in systemic constellations and Deep Democracy. Day after day I find myself meeting with practitioners who have developed their skills in multiple approaches of these kinds.

The Journey to Teal

The tier-two integration into Teal/Yellow functioning/operating is assisted when we are able to recognise how these dynamics are represented in both people and organisations. In practice, it is unlikely that an organisation will even think about the journey to Teal unless it already has a significant portion of Green in its thinking systems.  However, those higher systems may be more strongly present in the decision-makers than in the organisation as a whole.

The widely publicised example of Zappos, which paid employees to leave, might have been the right solution, but you might at least question whether greater anticipation of the difficulty could have opened the door to a less drastic response. The ability to scan the organisation in order to determine the Values profile of the whole, and of component teams and groups, could be very helpful. It is also possible to scan the organisation for its readiness individually and collectively for change.

There are many principles which come into play when we know what we are starting with. If the conditions conducive to change are not yet established, we might begin to address those conditions before starting the change itself.

Knowing, as we do, that a system is typically only capable of moving half a stage (e.g. Orange to Orange/Green) from its current centre of stage-gravity enables us to pitch the next step in change at an appropriate level.

Knowing the colour make-up of a team helps us to see who would embody the qualities of the next stage in such a ways to be the most capable change leader.

Knowing the Values we are presenting to about possible changes, helps us craft messages that are most effective for the audiences concerned.

These suggestions skim the surface of what is possible when we use the deeper intelligence that sit within the evolutionary journey that Laloux’s book describes.  Teal is naturally emerging, but considerable support for the organisational journey is needed if it is to succeed, and to sustain in its new form.

Here at Future Considerations, we are exploring this new territory with clients who are either firmly in the “teal” world, or just dipping a toe in the water. If we can help you on your journey, please email me:

Jon Freeman is an Associate of Future Considerations and specializes in systemic organizational redesign in support of conscious, values-led and purpose driven culture change. He is also a Spiral Dynamics trainer and practitioner, and author of “Reinventing Capitalism”: How we broke money and how we fix it, from inside and out.

This blog is an excerpt of a more comprehensive article written by Jon for Integral Leadership Review


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6 responses to “So what’s this “Teal” organisations thing?”

  1. Robin alfred says:

    Thanks, Jon. Very well put reminder of the need to include not just transcend and to honour all the different ways forward that are needed and inevitable.

  2. Jules Fell says:

    Thank you, Jon, this is a masterful summary that makes a complex subject very understandable. The uniqueness of each organisational transformation journey demands that consultants/practitioners really grasp the idea of transcend and INCLUDE and can support each organisation to find their own way. I truly welcome your clarity.

  3. gregorylent says:

    you cannot have a teal organization without it being composed of teal minds

    if you try, you better have in house methods for raising the level of consciousness of the employees … and i am not talking about information or awareness, but the fundamental frequency of the consciousness experienced by each member … think “enlightenment”

    it’s the future .. but not yet

  4. Bonnitta Roy says:

    Just for the record. At one of his events in New York City, I asked Laloux what was the relationship between the developmental psychology research that uses colors as a shorthand for levels of development and his use of the word “teal” to describe organizations. Laloux replied that there was absolutely no correlation, except he was using the colors as a metaphor for developmental stage transformation in organizations. He did surmise (just a quip of his) that such companies must be led by teal (ie. develpmentally assessed individuals at a higher stage of development) — but those of us who actually work with adult development know it is impossible to guess, without doing the test. So…….

    • Karolina says:

      so… Well, this sound tricky, unless we forget about it all and concentrate on bringing more awareness to our 121 actions and being. In that perspective, in its “dailiness”, it seems much more easier. Actually, this is something we can all crack on with.

  5. Andy Thesen says:

    Hi Jon. I’m part way through the book and finding it very exciting because I was thinking of writing a book on my organization, a 27 suite hotel in Antigua with 100 employees. I’ve no doubt that there are parts of the organization that operate in Teal but we have a few Ghengis Khan type supervisors around so it seems like we have the full spectrum Fortunately the senior management operate in a Teal manner. I haven’t yet worked out how to integrate these different styles since this nomenclature and theoretical perspective is all new to me. I found your article a bit heavy going to be honest but would be interested in your thoughts.

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