An Altruistic Organization of Work ? From the mechanical model to the organic model.

Matt Laloux1

As the world is becoming more and more complex and uncertain, many people share the feeling that our system is unsuited to our aspirations, whether individual or collective. If the health context has accentuated this intuition of breathlessness in our structures and lifestyles, it has also revealed the importance of the human link and our interdependence.

Numerous studies have shown that the companies where it is good to work are those where the quality of human relations are the best. A survey conducted a few years ago by the OECD asked respondents to rank in order of importance the ten factors that contributed most to their well-being. Wages came in 6th place. The most important factor was again the quality of human relations. Isn’t it benevolence, consideration for others, cooperation, solidarity and other altruistic values that make us satisfied with our relationships with others? The pursuit of selfish happiness is doomed to failure. Everyone loses: we make life miserable for those around us and make our own life miserable at the same time. Altruism, on the other hand, leads to a win-win situation, allowing the double fulfilment of the good of others and one’s own.

The quality of our life at work is therefore an essential factor in our life satisfaction. However, the rigid and highly hierarchical structure of companies often leads to professional burnout. It is the burnout of employees, often trapped between a superior and sometimes other people they manage, with little room to maneuver and very little room to express their creativity. It is also the burnout of bosses, under the weight of their responsibilities. Frédéric Laloux worked for several years in a large company and came out of it deeply dissatisfied. He dreamed of an organization that was more like a living organism than the gears of a machine. He wondered if there were not companies in the world that functioned in a very different way, without hierarchy in particular. To his great surprise he found a dozen companies with several thousand employees that operated without a boss, based on the model of self-organization, including ten thousand nurses in Holland, a company producing car parts in northern France and a fruit-picking company in California. From his experience and reflections, he wrote a remarkable and very successful book “Reinventing Organizations”.

Self-organization does not mean chaos. “Just take the most complex system, the human brain, for example, which self-organizes itself as an individual develops, without there being a “control center” in the brain. Just as in a living organism, within self-organization there are decision-making processes for all aspects of work life, but the entire system is based on cooperation, consideration for others and respect for their special abilities. Altruism is cultivated by training one’s mind and, in the same way, new methods within the company must be adapted, reviewed, adjusted to listen to each person. Like an organic structure, altruism at work develops naturally as soon as we place it at the heart of our motivations. (1)

The Covid-19 crisis is a call to order and a warning in the face of the much more serious challenges that the climate crisis is already generating and will generate more and more if we do not do what is necessary. But it also opens the way for us to profoundly change our pyramidal models based on the myth of a human nature motivated solely by selfishness. The work of economist Ernst Fehr (2) in Zurich shows that we are in fact naturally willing to trust others and cooperate. The work of evolutionary scientist Martin Novak (3) at Harvard has shown that cooperation has been much more creative at the heart of evolution than competition.

In the face of the weariness of the working world, the loss of trust of citizens and the responsibility of our companies in the destruction of our ecosystems, altruism can no longer be considered a noble and somewhat naïve ideal; it is, more than ever, a necessity.

Altruism is essentially the intention to do good where compassion is the wish that the other be freed from suffering and empathy the ability to enter into emotional resonance. We are all the plaything of diverse emotions. Everyone fears suffering and aspires to happiness. Today’s management underestimates the importance of emotions (although they play a role in all our decisions), and does not take sufficient account of motivations other than self-interest, namely altruism and solidarity. This is why our professional environments are often sources of stress, conflict, insecurity and malaise instead of being places of fulfilment through work.

In the same way that we devote time and energy to acquiring skills during professional training or when learning a musical instrument, we can develop our qualities of caring, altruism and emotional balance with perseverance and patience. Mindfulness training allows us to develop the potential for inner peace and freedom in everyone. The more we develop these fundamental qualities, the more resources we have to face the hazards of life and to open ourselves to others.

An altruistic state of being allows us to consider situations from a more open perspective, to look at them from different angles and thus to make the most appropriate decisions. According to the economist-philosopher Serge-Christophe Kolm (4), the advantages of generalized reciprocity and authenticity are multiple. Information that is naturally shared instead of being monopolized or concealed promotes efficiency, productivity, transparency, and thus trust. Thus, altruistic motivations enable cooperation, which increases efficiency. Reciprocity leads to more justice in the distribution of resources and benefits. Justice, in turn, fosters reciprocity, and a virtuous circle is set in motion. We can see that there are mutual benefits for the employer, the employee, the producer and the consumer.

So how do we proceed and influence this dynamic of altruism at work, particularly in Covid’s time? The spiritual path can help cultivate true altruism and increase our compassion; but it is also possible in a secular way since we all possess a spirit that can be our best friend as well as our worst enemy. Mindfulness can be developed through mindfulness training techniques such as meditation.

To find out more on the subject, you can watch a LIVE exchange between Frédéric Laloux and Matthieu Ricard (in French) on February 23, 2021 at 7pm (CET) >>>

Karuna-Shechen, the humanitarian organization founded twenty years ago by Matthieu Ricard, also tends towards an evolutionary structural model. To discover testimonies of the members of the organization, please read this article >>>


(1) Ricard, M. & Singer, W. (2016). Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience.

(2) Fehr, E., & Gächter, S. (2000). Cooperation and punishment in public goods experiments. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 980–994; Fehr, E., Fischbacher, U., & Gächter, S. (2002). Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms. Human nature, 13(1), 1–25.

(3) Nowak, M. A., & Highfield, R. (2011). Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Simon & Schuster.

(4) Kolm, S.-C. (1984). La bonne économie. PUF, p. 109.