One implication of looking at organizations as systems and seeing interrelations between various elements is that we have to see ourselves as part of the system. No matter where we are in the organization, we are having an impact and playing a role in the system’s dynamics. Yet objectively recognizing our own contributions, especially when they are not as constructive as we would like them to be, is extraordinarily difficult. One reason for this is simply the complexity of even small systems. Another reason it’s hard to objectively see ourselves in systems, I think, is that just because we are human, we are subject to a variety of cognitive biases, including the self-serving bias—a predilection to attribute successes to our own efforts and qualities and to blame failures on external factors, such as all those other people who make mistakes. A related tendency, confirmation bias, is to only take seriously evidence that supports our existing opinions and overlook or disregard anything that might call our beliefs into question. Complexity and our own blindspots guarantee our individual views of a system will be limited.
Peter Senge, a leading thinker regarding systems (mentioned in my previous post), suggests that to explore organizational systems, we need to be committed to “real learning” and to be prepared for the possibility that we are wrong. Seeing systems requires the difficult work of exploring our own assumptions and mental models. Senge emphasizes the need to “triangulate” and bring together people who see different parts of the system to create a collective picture that is more detailed than any one individual can provide.
I have had the good fortune to work with leaders who were open to feedback and willing to examine their own roles in system dynamics. For example, I met with the founder and Executive Director of a nonprofit organization and her senior leadership team to discuss the possibility of my working with two staff members who were in conflict with each other. The leadership team was forthcoming in response to my questions, and it quickly became clear that there was an ongoing pattern of conflict in the organization. Although the tension was centered on two particular individuals at that moment, it seemed like there was always some conflict going on with different people at different times. It appeared, therefore, that there were factors in the organizational system itself that seemed to foster ongoing conflict.
The action plan we created involved both work with the two individuals currently at odds and with the organizational system as a whole. Working together with a colleague, Heather Berthoud, we gathered perspectives from all staff regarding their experience in the organization. A series of workshops and discussions led to a shared vision for working together, improved communication, and greater clarity about how to prevent and resolve ongoing concerns. One key to promoting systems change here was the courageous and open involvement of the leadership team, especially the founder, who came to see how an underlying factor in the ongoing conflicts was competition for her attention. With our coaching support, this leader considered her own contributions to the system's dynamics and made significant changes, which included increasing the leadership responsibility of others and redefining her own role so that how the organization worked better matched the progressive vision she had for it.
I will further explore the challenge of examining one’s own participation in an organizational system during a free webinar, “Seeing Systems to Better Address Complex Organizational Problems.” Please join me on June 1 at 1:00pm EDT. [Update: The webinar recording is now available.]