On becoming an organization

Carl Rogers, congruence and double-loop governance

In 1961, the psychotherapist Carl Rogers compiled three decades of papers into the book On Becoming a Person. While the main frame of the book describes his client-centric approach to psychotherapy, how he arrived at this and what he learned as a practitioner, many of the articles—which read very much as blogs do today (and were unpublishable in the scientific journals for this reason)—link this frame to other human endeavors. In particular, he looks to education and personal relations in organizations.

His main therapeutic process involves the psychoanalyst as a person, developing her own personhood by becoming more congruent (more about this in a minute) and then using this congruence as a communication tool to open up the client to the process of becoming more congruent. The therapist is really only someone further along the same road to becoming a person.

The process of becoming a person, of achieving more and wider congruence, and so having fewer and fewer defenses, brings the client to a better life, with less tension and fear, better communication with everyone, and new opportunities to explore each moment fully.

Congruence happens when one’s real self (the one we all start out with—all infants are congruent) fully resembles one’s ideal self (the one we acquire from interactions with others). The lack of congruence leads to the need to defend the ideal self every time the real self behaves differently, or when people respond to the real self instead of the ideal self. The real self becomes hidden and, indeed, often unknowable; which forms the reason for therapeutic intervention. The therapist’s more advanced facility with congruence allows her to be less threatening and so to tease the client’s real self out from the shadows, to where the client can repossess this and model their ideal self on their real self. Once they do so, they no longer need to be defensive and they also can speak more honestly from their own minute-by-minute experiences. They communicate better and, in their interactions with others, create the same therapeutic situation they had experienced.

For Rogers, building congruence creates a positive feedback that will foster better communication in an organizational setting; communication where honest reactions and unedited information can lead to more reliable outcomes. These outcomes build more trust into the subsequent situations, which also help all involved become more congruent as persons. The opposite is true for incongruent communication, which leads to fixed limits on what can be said, a growth of miscommunication, an increase in emotional stress, and overall dissatisfaction with the interaction environment. Rogers’ “Tentative Formulation of a General Law of Interpersonal Relationships” (Rogers 338-346) reads very much like a Web 2.0 manual for creating a high-trust, flat-management start-up company in 2012. He was 50 years ahead of his time.

Rogers’ general law maps directly onto double-loop governance, with the real organization being the first loop, and the ideal organization being the second loop. Instead of hiding the ideal organization behind the intentions of the founder, or top-down rules and regulations, double-loop governance makes the ideal organization available to every member. Each member has the same view and purview of the rules and roles, the values and the vision of the organization, and also an obligation to make these congruent with the everyday activities of the organization.

The notion that your organization can also be a therapeutic setting where members can learn to become more congruent may seem peculiar. Remember that the interactions are really a series of conversations between two people. Your organization is only setting the circumstances where members can communicate effectively. We all remember meeting people whom we knew were open and honest, trustworthy people. We tend to forget that when and how we met them framed their ability to reveal themselves and so help us learn. You can make your organization a place where each member can become more a person. In return they will make your organization a better place in which to get things done.


Rogers, Carl R. (1961) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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