There are two interesting perspectives frequently brought into conversations regarding human systems:
- When a problem occurs, look to the system, not the individual.
- When a problem occurs, look to the individual (the system is not considered).
My perspective is that neither of these options is satisfying—or rational. They are extreme positions.
A number of years ago I took a graduate course on work and community—a topic that is very important to me because I believe that work is a path we walk toward greater individuation and maturity. I found it frustrating that all of the readings for the class seemed to be focused on the system as a complete control over the individual: the individual was always a victim of or served by the system—more often a victim, really. It has been my observation that there is a relationship between the individual and the system, but that they affect each other. The system is not necessarily the dominant party, and individuals can change systems, though it takes skill and, often, courage and persistence.
Perhaps one of the reasons I think this is that I have lived all of my life in a democracy, even though the quality of that democracy may be debated. It must be acknowledged that organizations are not typically democracies, but our participation in them is a choice. We have options. We are free to choose another place to work. The focus of this blog is the workplace, so we’ll confine this discussion to that level of system.
There have certainly been times in my career, especially earlier on, when I did not see my options. And, I did not realize that I have some part in the systemic contexts I spend time in. Seeing the options and recognizing that we are relationally “mutually co-arising” is a very powerful thing for any person to do. The challenge is, once we see the options and recognize that we are participants in our own reality, what do we do about what we see.
Certainly, one of the things to do is to look at the system as clearly as we can. When something seems to be going wrong on a team, or in a work group, we might ask:
- How do the parts of this system (the people, policies, and physical and cultural aspects of the work environment) affect one another and help create this problem?
- How does the organization and interaction of these aspects of the system tend to create or constrain the behavior that emerges in this group or team?
- When things go wrong, how can I focus on causes within the control of myself and other participants in this system rather than finding something outside the group or team to shift the blame to?
So many of the change efforts afoot in organizations today not only require a tipping point of participation in a given work community, but also a plethora of personal choices to make personal changes. How we are in the system matters. The choices we make in our individual actions matter. The way we enact our choices are the expression of the quality of our integrity.
When we create change in ourselves—become the change we want to see—we inherently affect the systems of which we are a part. When we talk about why we make the personal changes we make, we can cause the ears of the system to perk up a bit.
Choosing to point to the need for systemic change and to reach out, model, and advocate or educate for that change is an act of leadership that anyone can participate in. As leaders have known throughout time, how you advocate or educate matters. As someone said to me recently “I love gunning down sacred cows, but one must plan how such is done so the herd does not turn and trample you.”
In the post “The Leader’s Job is to Help the System See Itself” my working assumptions did not include the notion that the individual leader is a victim of the system. Rather, this person is more in the category of an old world “seer.” Seers were people who had clear insights that could help others understand themselves or their current contexts more clearly and cause them to move to action if action was required. They were often mutually co-arising with the communities for which they acted as seers, though sometimes they came from outside the community.
Such seers could not have done their work if they believed they were controlled by the system, though they were influenced by it.
My working model of a relationship between the individual and the system with each influencing the other stands me in good stead these days. My colleague’s metaphor of the sacred cows is quite apt and has prompted me again to think about the skill required to introduce change.
In some organizations where the power-over dynamic is strong, the hierarchy is deep, and the bureaucracy is complex, it can seem so much easier, indeed, a wise act of survival, to submit to the system no matter its deleterious effects on oneself and others. There is a cost for that. The cost is loss of integrity because having seen the corrupting forces around us for what they are, we are making a decision to support them―those same forces that also harm us. And, we generally take these behaviors, consciously or unconsciously, home to our families and out into the community.
Humankind has had to address the power of the system many times in its history. Often, change has come about with bloodshed—literally through military means or figuratively through corporate restructurings and layoffs not uncommonly called bloodbaths. It’s time we learn a new way.
Gary Hamel’s 2003 HBR article “The Quest for Resilience” makes an ample case for pursuing resilience and constant adaptation (change) as a means of putting an end to organizational bloodshed. It’s worth a read.