Seeing Systems

When you start to see that your organisational dramas (see this recent post) repeat themselves in organisation after organisation you can also start to see that your difficulties are often not so much personal as they are systemic.

Another way to say this is that what you might think is the problem with Dave or Jill or Aggrey or Sue (or with yourself) is often being brought about by the wider system in which everyone is participating and not simply by the person themselves.

We are not used to looking in this way.

We blame Jill, who is in a senior position, for being aloof, distant, and unresponsive to our needs. But all the while Jill is experiencing her own position as overwhelming – caught between her personal accountability for the organisation and all the problems others keep on bringing her.

We blame Aggrey, who is in a middle position, for being unable to respond to our reasonable requests for information or support or action. But in order to respond to you he needs the cooperation and response of others. All the while his experience is that of being pulled in opposite directions by the demands of his bosses and the demands of the people on his team.

We blame Dave, who is a team member, for complaining that he is under-resourced, while missing that Dave is experiencing the vulnerability and uncertainty that comes from others deciding what work he will do, or even if he will have any work at all.

Jill, Aggrey and Dave are experiencing the archetypal difficulties that come with being in a hierarchically ‘top’, ‘middle’ or  ‘bottom’ position. And we judge them, mistakenly, with archetypal and personal judgements, which misunderstand their situation.

We come to believe that for anything to happen they must change and that until they do we must wait and put up with it. While we wait for them to change, or demand that they change, we reserve the right to complain. We don’t see the particular difficulty their positions bring, and we don’t see that our very complaints are part of the problem.

Our complaints assume the difficulties we experience at their hands are personal, and that the solutions to them are personal too (which is to say that Jill, Aggrey and Dave simply need to get their act together, buckle up, and do what we need of them). But much of what we’re experiencing – and much of what Jill, Aggrey and Dave are experiencing -is systemic, which is to say it’s being brought about by all of us. Until we see that, we’re trapped in a cycle of judgement and blame which asks the impossible of our colleagues.

The first step required to get out of this drama is compassion – which includes finding out what the world is really like for those whom we find troublesome.

The second step is seeing that we keep these systemic difficulties going through the stories we tell about others, and that there are many alternatives to the stories that are most familiar to us.

When we find and act upon stories that account for people’s actions more accurately than our usual blame and judgement stories, many possibilities for connection, responsiveness and partnership open to us.

For a wonderful, articulate and very practical exploration of all this, I can’t recommend Barry Oshry’s book Seeing Systems highly enough.


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