The unwritten rules
A healthy organisation is one in which everyone knows they have an equally safe and respected place in the system; their skills and contributions are acknowledged and included. It’s one where the contributions of those who have left are remembered in a particular way; a way that allows those who remain and those who leave to flourish. There is a balance of giving and receiving that limits stress and burnout and an appropriate distribution of work and reward. People want to stay and bring their best selves to their role, they feel safe and know they belong. There is flow and people work with clarity and ease when organisational health is present. This level of organisational vitality is achieved by leaders who understand the hidden dynamics of systems.
However, accidental or deliberate violation of the organising forces is a very common cause of inertia, conflict and resistance to change. Unhealthy organisations create unhappy and demotivated staff whose loyalty is hard to access or maintain. These people become entangled in the system and it can become harder and harder to thrive. There are frequent dismissals and high levels of political in-fighting. Staff don’t trust the leaders and the inappropriate use of hierarchy and authority as power becomes the norm.
While it’s easy to blame individuals for these kinds of organisational dynamics it is often something in addition, something in the system. This ‘something’ is a product of the system’s own story and all the events and people who have belonged within it. Where the history meets the organising forces which sustain or limit all systems, there are dynamics – but these dynamics can be useful indicators and so also become the source for positive change.
This short introduction to a substantial topic introduces some of the key principles and practices when we look at organisational life and leadership through a systemic lens.
Although everyone knows that it’s not true many leaders – and their followers – try and act as if the organisational chart is a true reflection of the actual hierarchy and authority in the business. In fact organisational systems are much more complex than that and consist of multiple layers of relationships, sub-systems, hidden hierarchies and loyalties which are never spoken but are embodied.
Organisations are complex networks of relationships, of interdependencies and hidden dynamics, motivations and intentions. Unlike the organisational chart they are non-linear and vary depending on their origins, intention and history. Culture emerges from this mix and so is rarely affected by ‘culture change’ programmes unless the systemic truths and patterns are taken into account and respected.
“Our traditional view of leaders – as special people who set the direction, make the key decisions and energise the troops – is deeply rooted in an individualistic and nonsystemic worldview. So long as such myths prevail, they reinforce a focus on short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic forces.”
MIT Sloan School of Management & Society for Organisational Learning
Something in the system
Many different leadership styles as well as team and organisational development interventions help build relationships, create peak performance and influence change. However, on some occasions they may miss information, dynamics and resources held within the organisational system, so the benefits are not as effective or do not endure.
In many cases the underlying dynamics remain; in others the problem or inertia moves around the system and re-emerges in a different individual, team or department. As a result individual leaders, teams and whole organisations become caught up and entangled in complex patterns, which slow the business down and cause difficulties in culture, leadership and team performance. There is something in the system and when that’s the case only a systemic perspective and methodology will have any impact.
“All behaviour, no matter how challenging, makes sense when viewed in the context of the system to which it is an act of loyalty”
“To understand is to perceive patterns.”
From hero to zero
When, as a leader, you don’t function in the way you’d expect given your skills and experience – then you can ask yourself if you may be entangled in dynamics that emerge from the system as it attempts a dynamic balance. These attempts create entanglements and inertia in individuals, teams and the wider system.
So, your leadership exists in a context that is wider than you, wider than the teams you lead and are in, wider than the area of the business for which you are responsible. There is something else going on in organisational life. Something in the system.
However the culture of individualistic leadership – the hero leader – is seductive and can support people in their belief that they are ‘powerful’ enough to overcome systemic issues and dynamics. They can appear to be very effective in the short term, especially in a crisis, but that solipsistic approach never endures in the longer term.
Leadership that acknowledges and includes the organising principles of systems and works in service of the whole, creates a very different organisational culture and dynamic.
The problem and the choice
- We already know that an organisation is a system of interrelations, interdependencies and overlapping loyalties, motivations and needs. We know that it is non-linear, it varies pending context and economic environment and that ‘culture change’ doesn’t always change the underlying culture.
- Less well understood are the hidden non-variable forces, which sustain and influence systems. It’s the understanding of these forces and the dynamics they create that offer something in addition to different leadership models and ideas about high functioning teams. Something beyond individual and team profiling or developmental models. Systemic coaching and constellations offer access to an inherent wisdom in systems and provide a methodology to apply it in contemporary coaching.
- There are many useful frameworks for analysing, diagnosing and developing individuals, teams and organisations. Many can make a positive impact; some appear to resolve the issues. However, when symptoms, patterns and behaviours reoccur, or when they appear elsewhere in the system, then the problem has only temporarily settled or been moved – not resolved.
- Some issues, organisational challenges and behaviours have their roots in the system and lie beyond the reach of many ways of looking and working.
- Inertia in individual, team and organisational development journeys, limiting behaviour patterns in teams and the erosion of energy and flow in organisations require a system-orientated intervention and methodology.
- The problem is that system dynamics don’t get resolved by raised levels of ‘emotional intelligence’, or better self-management by the leaders. Teams don’t start functioning at their best when they are facing inertia or conflict because they know their team profile or have been on an away-day. These things can make a difference, in particular because they open up a bigger conversation, but they make little difference if there are systemic forces at play.
- System dynamics don’t respond to assessments of personality type, goal or objective setting or a new strategic plan. Systems are not affected by the team profile or whether there’s a particular conflict model being applied. System dynamics are beyond rational intervention and require something else. System dynamics need to be addressed by systemic interventions.
- At the organisational level many CEOs and senior leaders believe that communication is the key influence on organisational culture. It certainly has an effect. But communications make little difference if there are other forces at play in the system. In fact communications that ignore underlying systemic truths and dynamics can make things much worse.
Something in the system
- Leading in any organisational environment can feel like trying to guide a shoal of fish and there are multiple theories and ideas on how to do it. Few take account of the forces at play in systems or offer practical ways of applying that understanding through coaching interventions.
- When leaders or teams don’t function in the way you’d expect given their skills and experience then you can ask yourself if there is something else that’s preventing them from functioning fully.
- When leaders and teams go slow or get stuck they may be entangled in dynamics that emerge from the system as it attempts to reach a state of coherence and dynamic balance.
- Systemic coaching and constellations offer a way of supporting that process and liberating individuals and teams from system entanglements.
- So, we have a choice when working as a leader, coach or organisational change consultant. We can work at the level of the individual, the team, or the organisation yes – but we can also choose to work, simultaneously, at the level of the system.
The ‘Ejector Seat’ syndrome
When one or more people leave an organisational system in an unhealthy way – not being acknowledged for the contribution that they have made and/or not been alowed to speak their truth – this sets up an invisible loyalty in many of the people who remain, even when they agree with the deciscion. The system will attempt to re-member the one(s) who have been excluded.
This kind of systemic loyalty disrupts and distracts, especially when the force used to eject people from a group is strong and excluding. This is because what organisations exclude from systems attracts the energy out of the system towards it. Until those who have left have been honoured for what they gave and been able to keep what they learnt, the attention of those that remain will be unfocused and partly outside of the system.
For example, a head of division is excluded by the board and talked about in a negative way. Their contribution, even though it may have not have been enough, is not recognised or respected. Stories about them are negative, or they are not talked about at all, as if they were never there. The organsiational leadership attempts to ‘forget’ them and expects others to do so too. A little later, another individual is recruited – often with great fanfare – and put in the role but, despite their long experience and great competence, they struggle to perform or find their role authority. Further, they start experiencing some of the painful or limiting dynamics that the previous incumbent experienced.
After a while they may leave, or be asked to leave. All patterns repeat themselves until illuminated and resolved, so the feelings and system dynamics will repeat no matter how many people are replaced and asked to occupy the same role.
This phenomenon is known as ‘the ejector seat syndrome’ where a new recruit, often at a senior level, is asked to occupy a role which, systemically, has not been vacated fully. This is a problem in the system, not so much the individual. No system will allow a member to be excluded without requiring compensation and will balance out the right of belonging that has been denied. This dynamic occurs around individuals and groups of individuals but also as a result of excluding difficult events. Whatever is excluded or kept secret has a profound effect on individual leaders and their teams.
“Given the linear thinking that predominates in many organisations, interventions usually focus on symptomatic quick fixes, not underlying causes. The result is only temporary relief and it tends to create still more pressure later for further, low-leverage interventions.”
MIT Sloan School of Management & Society for Organisational Learning
Systemic issues require systemic interventions
Many senior leaders believe that communication is the key influence on organisational change and creation of a vibrant culture. However communication makes little difference if there are other forces at play in the system. In fact communications that ignore underlying systemic principles and dynamics can make things worse.
As described above system dynamics don’t get resolved by raised levels of emotional intelligence, or better self-management by the leaders. Teams don’t suddenly become high functioning when they are facing challenges or conflict because they know their team profile or have been on an away-day. These things can make a positive difference, but they make little lasting difference if there are systemic forces at play. Individual, team and organisational challenges and behaviours which have their roots in the system lie beyond the reach of many ways of looking and working. Systemic issues require systemic interventions to illuminate and resolve them.
So, how do you as a leader identify a systemic issue, as opposed to one that can be resolved through individual personal/professional development?
Here are a few examples:
- When things feel stuck
- When there is unspoken resentment or guilt and linear solutions don’t resolve
- When the source of the problem, or the solution, is hard to find
- When the same pattern repeats itself
- When there are things left unsaid and ‘missing conversations’
- When conversations go round and round, back to the start, even though a resolution has been offered and accepted
- When there is high turnover of staff
- When people are not talked about after they leave
- When people say one thing and do another
- When individuals or teams struggle to occupy their role authority
- When there are high levels of political in-fighting, rivalries and defensive behaviour in between teams, departments or divisions
- When you wish to restore flow and vitality to the organisational system
“When a team experiences difficult conflict it is possible it is enacting a conflict on behalf of the whole system. Only when we enlarge the problem context to include the whole can we hope to find resolution for the team.”
Berlin School of Economics.
Organisational system health is a sense of vitality in both the human and commercial dimensions of a business, and is predicated on a number of things being aligned; on a number of organising principles being acknowledged and attended to.
In a healthy system everyone who has contributed is acknowledged and the history of the system is spoken about, including all the difficulties. Roles are created in service of specific needs. There is a balance between what people (and business units, divisions, countries etc.) give and what they receive. Everyone feels safe and able to relax into their own authority and will apply it, willingly, for the good of the whole system.
Organisational health is possible when the underpinning principles of systems are taken into account in the recruitment, retention, organisation, leadership and departure of individuals and teams.
The ordering forces of systems
From research, countless constellations and direct experience, systems seem to obey certain naturally occuring ‘ordering forces’ or ‘organising principles’ designed to maintain their integrity, balance and health. When systems are aligned with these natural forces work, leadership and business flow. The ordering forces are not ‘rules’ or ‘laws’, but when leaders and their advisors ignore them, or when they are not attended to, the system experiences inertia, resistance, stuckness or defensiveness and confusion.
These kinds of symptoms are usually indicators of the hidden dynamics that emerge in groups when the balancing forces are ignored and so are referred to as systemic issues. It is for these kinds of issues in particular that a systemic perspective and systemic constellations can add value. This way of thinking and of leading can also be used proactively to help support the most effective and healthy organisational development, team dynamics or individual performance.
✣ Those that came first have a systemic precedence over those that follow. Founders and the founding intention need to be acknowledged first, then everyone and everything else.
✣ Joining an existing system without respecting what came before – the founding principles, the staff, their contributions and any significant events in the history – damages the flow of leadership and organisational vitality.
✣ Key learning: A system will always attempt to balance a right to time precedence that has been denied.
✣ The organising principle of place is that everybody and everything that belongs in or to the system has a right to a safe and respected place. If and when they leave their contribution is acknowledged as well as the real reason they are leaving.
✣ This allows organisational health to build and for those that have left – or been moved to another unit or reporting line – to leave or change their relative place in the system with respect, thus allowing everybody to move forward with fresh energy, clarity and a sense of psychological safety in role.
✣ This is not to say that leaders need to constantly look back or at those who have left. Quite the opposite. The past needs to stay where it belongs: in the past. But it will only do so if it is first acknowledged and included. In this example, once you acknowledge place and their contribution in that place the person can leave and both they and the system are free.
✣ Key learning: The system will attempt to ‘re-member’ someone or something that has been excluded until they/it has been fully acknowledged.
✣ The organising principle of Exchange is designed to maintain a balance of giving and taking that keeps the system healthy and in flow. In the example above, the exclusion of a person sets up an imbalance. It can be balanced by acknowledging what has been contributed or learnt as a result.
✣ This requires leaders to acknowledge contribution and effort, even if it wasn’t enough. This may require leaders to say to those who must leave “Thank you for what you were able to give the organisation. We will use it well.”
✣ The need for this very simple kind of acknowledgment of what’s been given and what’s been received is not well understood in organisations. As a result many have pockets of stuckness and people who under-perform because they have become entangled with the resulting dynamics. When these ‘missing conversations’ don’t take place they act as a brake on the surrounding system.
Key learning: The system will attempt to balance the need for exchange if that has been diminished or denied.
As above, so below
Many leaders and leadership teams expect those who report into them to act in a way that they have prescribed whilst not acting that way themselves. This is so common, despite contemporary thinking and knowledge that it doesn’t create effective, safe or generative organisations. People feel they are being asked to live a lie and the tension can become very challenging.
Like so many of these dynamics, this is a mirror of the family system. Not just in the sense that it reminds those who come from family systems where the parents behaved in a way that was different to the way they expected their children to behave, but simply that if you want to understand the psychological difficulties of a child you should always start by looking at what’s going on with and between the parents.
Organisational health will not emerge where the leaders of the system behave in one way and expect the staff or business partners to behave in another. A systemic perspective can be useful here in supporting the leadership to see the pattern without judging them as ‘bad’, simply to show them and let them decide if they wish to change.
Sometimes it’s enough to know that all patterns repeat themselves and so if you would like your staff to behave in a particular way you will need to behave that way yourself first.
Constellations to support health
A constellation is a facilitated three-dimensional map of an issue – that uses people to represent its parts – which creates fresh information and insight. As part of the search for greater organisational health a constellation, or series of constellations, can be very useful to diagnose, to identify fresh paths to resolution and to identify hidden resources.
Although a constellation may, from the outside, appear to be simply a spatial representation, constellations add value because they draw out a systemic awareness which is otherwise unavailable to leaders, their coaches or consultants. The purpose of a constellation is to restore the integrity of the whole system, to restore a systemic coherence that supports the flow of leadership through the system. In this way the work also gives coaches, consultants and leaders the ability to get in touch with their own inner coherence and so enhance their own presence and performance.
- A constellation is a methodology that provides diagnosis and paths to resolution for complex and stuck issues in individuals, teams and whole systems
- A constellation is a facilitated mapping methodology for illuminating the source of issues and providing fresh paths to resolution that had previously not been found or thought possible
- A constellation is an event, it changes something in the client and the system. The picture of resolution is internalised, catalysing deep change
- A constellation uses a certain kind of specific language to acknowledge what is and to express unspoken truths and complete missing conversations
- A constellation will also show when change is not possible in the system
A facilitated constellation is a living map of an inner unconscious image that taps into the field of information that exists between and around us all. In some leadership development programmes you learn how to use your physical self, your body, to project and convey authority and leadership. But you can also use your body to find out what you really think – because the body is an instrument in itself. The split between ‘mind’ and ‘body’ is artificial: we are one being, one whole system in which all parts are connected to all other parts. So you will have an opportunity to let your body speak its mind in a constellation.
When you stand in a constellation you pick up information from that place in the system that would otherwise be unavailable. This phenomenon which is called ‘representative perception’ is so effective that it offers a completely new insight into leadership and organisational life.
Eugene Gendlin said that ‘…the unconscious is the body’ and he talked of our ‘felt sense’ when we allow ourselves to access the embodied knowledge we all have. The methodology of constellations allows us to do this in a careful and respectful way.
The dynamics identified in this short article can cause inertia and other difficulties in organisational systems. However, they can also shine a light on the hidden patterns and so be a source of system-level resolution. If you see the source of the original difficulty then you can find a path to lasting resolution.
The need to belong has to be seen and addressed for enduring resolution of complex dynamics. With compassionate systemic intervention leadership can flow through the whole organisational system.
This subject will be explored in much more detail in the forthcoming book ‘The Whole River Flows’, due to be published in January 2020.
This article was authored by John Whittington
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or workshop constellations process. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the authors continue to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.
Links and further resources
Reading and links with a systemic perspective:
A systemic perspective is one that takes the whole relationship system into account and and is underpinned by an understanding of the human need to belong, the hidden loyalties, repeating patterns and entangling or resourcing dynamics that arise as a result.