Collaboration: the hidden dynamics of belonging

Complex change
24th March 2017

There are few work places these days where collaboration isn’t on everyone’s lips. Or at least on the horizon. Individuals and teams are brought together for a variety of reasons. To reduce duplication, improve services, promote sustainability and in some cases, to ensure survival.  But leading merged or integrated teams is probably what gives leaders the most headaches.

Bringing people from different backgrounds and philosophies together in a shared endeavour is often laden with factionalism.

In previous leadership roles I was often left perplexed when teams would move in an agreed direction of change only to spring back to where they had been a few weeks earlier. Like releasing the stretch on an elastic band. Ping!

Something had the system in its grip, but what?

As a coach and facilitator I work with leaders who are navigating complex change. Health and social care is one such example where they are working together to create a new landscape of integrated services. It’s a complex business.

There’s a tendency to focus attention at the level of the individual or the team when things get stuck. But sometimes ‘difficult behaviours’, conflict and repeating patterns are actually manifestations of something amiss in the system.

Coaching and facilitating with the system in mind

A systemic approach can help illuminate and settle some of the hidden dynamics that get in the way. Bert Hellinger, the father of systemic constellations, identified ‘natural orders’ within human systems. His work originated in family therapy but the approach translates well into an organisational context. These natural orders are principles that we intuitively ‘know’ about human dynamics but are so commonplace that we tend to overlook them as potential impediments to progress. These are Time, Place and Exchange.

I reflected on ‘Time’ in a previous post. In this blog I focus on ‘belonging’ (place) in seeking to understand some of the difficult dynamics that can arise when individuals from different backgrounds and philosophies are brought together.


The need to belong is one of our deepest human needs. Our sense of belonging, shaped by our family of origin, influences how we show up in subsequent systems, whether in a work or leisure context. We have a loyalty to our ‘tribe’ and to join another we must relinquish some of the norms of the group we previously belonged to if we are to belong anew. It’s a pattern that’s repeated throughout our lives as we journey from junior to senior school/higher education and onwards through our adult years.

We will all have experienced the disconnection and readjustment associated with changing jobs. In my formative years as a trainee nurse, I had a new placement every three months instilling in me an adaptability that, in retrospect, I’m grateful for.


Letting go of patterns of behaviour can engender a myriad of emotions, including guilt. These emotions may be more intense if an individual’s identity is central to what they feel they are turning their back on. It’s this sense of divided loyalty that can be a source of conflict in new teams of disparate individuals.

John Whittington sums it up thus:

“Each system is governed by a conscience that is created as a result of all the people and events that have belonged within it…We sense when we are acting in or out of alignment with it. When we act in alignment with the conscience group we feel ‘innocent’ and when we step outside it we feel ‘guilty’ in relationship to it”.


Some people are able to handle the guilt and move forward whereas others struggle to live what they may see is a disingenuous ‘double life’ and get stuck.

None of this is new of course. But perhaps lesser known or understood is how to illuminate these system dynamics and intervene to ‘settle’ them.  This is what I was grappling with when I discovered John Whittington’s work on Systemic Constellations.  I wanted to understand how best to work with teams in such circumstances.

Systemic constellations 

The systemic constellations approach taps into the implicit knowledge in a relational system. Much of what we ‘know’ is held bodily, as in our ‘felt sense’. Unless you’re adept at tuning into what your body is telling you, this knowledge isn’t easy to access. It’s usually beyond conscious awareness.

During a constellation, which can be in a group setting or 1-1, clients are supported to access this implicit knowledge.  They create a living map of the system and explore their relationship to each of the elements. This mapping allows difficult dynamics to show themselves. Once brought into conscious awareness they’re easier to deal with. Importantly, they have the potential to change the conversation to a deeper level and free teams of the stuckness that may have been bedeviling them. The approaches are equally helpful when used proactively in preparing the ground for change.

For further information on systemic coaching and facilitation read John’s book.

. It’s fascinating.  For more ‘bite sized’ reads you may prefer to log on to his website.

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