Success is no longer defined in financial terms alone but as an alignment between life and livelihood, between monetary gain and wellbeing. There’s a softer, more difficult to measure, side to success. The data’s very clear that when employees’ lives work, their work works.

The ancient Taoist concept of yin and yang is helpful in articulating the equanimity between striving for workplace excellence and productivity (yang), and supporting creativity, rejuvenation and dignity (yin). There is no such thing as absolute yin or yang. There is always at least a little yin in the yang and vice versa. That’s why the yin/yang symbol has a dark circle in the light area and a light circle in the dark one. For thousands of years, Taoists have taught that the physical world is a constant swing between yin and yang. Balance between the two is an ideal but it’s literally impossible.

You’d die if your body hit pinpoint homeostasis. Breathe in, you’re more yin; breathe out, more yang. Yin and yang are dynamic, relativistic terms: you might be more yin (kinder, gentler) than your boss but more yang (goal and fact oriented) than your friend. Even at rest, a yin state, our hearts and lungs are pumping, a yang activity. Men are generally considered more yang, women more yin; but the terms transcend gender because they distinguish qualities. The visible is yang, the invisible is yin.

While there is no absolute balance point, the healthiest cultures develop equanimity between yin and yang, allowing the proverbial pendulum to swing both ways. On a personal level, it means balancing movement and rest, feminine and masculine, goals and feelings, creativity and productivity, work and play. Accordingly, happy people and progressive cultures have always sought out diverse vantage points in order to bring forward the most universal solutions possible. The most successful indigenous tribes spent what would seem to most of us to be inordinate amounts of time in careful consideration of their aim toward the greatest good for the whole.

We’ve been in a yang-ward spiral for millennia, characterized by predominantly male religious and political leaders, ever expansive militarism, and a profit-at-any cost mentality that supports a poisoned planet, starving children, and a level of  violence that drains an outrageous percentage of our resources. We have yang-itis! Just like electricity needs positive and negative poles in order to spark, and just like we need day to turn to night, it’s time to swing yin-ward away from the path of extreme yang dominance.

There is social movement all over the world that indicates that the pendulum is swinging more yin-ward as values for things like well-being are receiving higher valuation in workplace and civil cultures. For the first time in history we are capable of declaring that all kids eat and go to bed safe and warm. As more and more people are feeling that it’s time to get off the rat wheel of perpetuating the yang imbalance that keeps hungry kids in their place, more and more studies are showing the extraordinary financial gains that result yin-ward swings. For example, Forbes Magazine’s “Best Companies to Work For” tend to beat the Standard & Poor’s Index by 600%

So what does that have to do with personal success? The extremely yang dog eat dog ethic is giving way to the more yin understanding that all boats rise by the same water. The Golden Rule, which every major religion has a version of, says it all. “Treat others as we, ourselves, want to be treated” is a good starting place. We also need to do the opposite – treat ourselves as we think everyone else ought to be treated. In other words, when we do what it takes to claim our personal yin territory for enhancing relationships, being creative, recharging our batteries, and participating in thriving work environments, we do our part in creating a world that simply can’t stand for the pervasive cultural static of yang dominant messages like “buy, buy, buy,” “be afraid,” “quarterly profits rule,” and “numbers trump wisdom.”

Taoist philosophy suggests that a yang imbalance would necessarily cause, or at least reflect, a culture bereft of heart and soul, i.e. a yin deficiency. And so there is an emergent collective urge for yin-izing  that’s leading to more and more companies providing child and elder care, flex time, and support for personal growth and creativity – all of which reflect more yin values.

It’s not an either/or – there are times for yang things like goals, rules, action and productivity, and there are times for yin things like brainstorming, self-development, open-ended targets, anecdotal input, and co-creative processes. It’s no accident that socially responsible companies that are  triple bottom line conscious (for people, profit and planet) tend to perform extremely well in terms of profits, share prices, stakeholder loyalty, innovation, teamwork and more. When yin intangibles, like values, are maintained in dynamic equanimity with yang business practices, sparks fly.

by Dr. Joni Carley
Author: The Alchemy of Power: mastering the invisible factors of leadership


  • Dr. Joni Carley

    Values-Driven Leadership & Cultural Development

    Dr. Joni Carley, author of "The Alchemy of Power: mastering the invisible factors of leadership,"  applies her expertise in values-driven leadership and cultural development at the United Nations where her activities include Vice Chair of the UN Coalition for Global Citizenship 2030 and Advisor and Senior Fellow at NonViolence International, New York. Her Advising and Consulting practice serves private and public sector leaders by helping them create values-driven systems. Joni uses data-based methodologies to support development of transformative ideas into inspired actions - ensuring that activities are measured and managed in in such a way that they effect deep, systemic, quantifiable change.