How do you avoid touching the tripwire that creates relational conflicts especially in sensitive change situations?
Some conflicts in teams are difficult to avoid but by becoming attuned to the ordering principles that govern human systems you can recognise when there is the potential for difficult team dynamics. These principles are Time, Place (belonging) and the balance of Exchange. You’ll find more about the hidden forces governing systems from John Whittington’s illuminating BOOK.
Viewing the issues within the context of wider system dynamics enables you to act with intention to settle things at an earlier stage than might otherwise have been possible. A liberating alternative to being stuck in a relational quagmire.
I remember my first unit manager role in the NHS. My predecessor had been in the job for almost a decade and was scheduled to leave a few months before the unit was to move to new accommodation. The relatively stable context of her tenure was significantly different from what I was faced with. Every aspect of service delivery was turned on its head during and for several months after the move to the new accommodation.
I felt inadequate as a leader. I sensed I was being compared unfavorably to my predecessor. As it happens we went on to become an award-winning team but it took many months for me to settle into my role as the leader.
Reframing the same situation using a systemic lens, it’s apparent that way the changes were handled and communicated disrupted the hidden forces that govern human systems. It wouldn’t necessarily have mattered how effective a leader I was, the system was so out of alignment that the difficult dynamics would have tripped me up in much the same way. In my naiveté at that time (almost 30 years ago) I would have violated the governing principles by not acknowledging or even seeing the need to honour what and who had gone before.
My predecessor represented stability and familiarity whereas I represented uncertainty, discomfort and discombobulation. By taking forward the organisational objectives I couldn’t help but trigger the invisible tripwire which, in this case, was a hidden loyalty to my predecessor and the location that marked the physical boundary of belonging in that system.
The hidden forces governing human systems
In the example above, the team’s sense of place (belonging), one of the three governing principles of human systems, originally described by Bert Hellinger, had been severely disrupted. Like a tattered old teddy bear their previous accommodation represented cosy familiarity.
These feelings of insecurity, for the most part, would have been beyond the team’s conscious awareness. Instead, the emotions swirled under the surface and emerged periodically in difficult dynamics such as team conflict and recalcitrance which would stymie progress.
While I would have understood the needs of staff at a superficial level, I did not have the systemic knowledge, wherewithal or indeed the language to intervene to help settle the resulting dynamics. The new accommodation was going to be better for clients but organisational objectives are often at odds with the natural order of human systems.
Arguably, when leading change it’s almost impossible not to disrupt these natural forces. While the conscious goal of the organisation is to deliver its business, the unconscious goal - if we take the Hellinger view - is to preserve the status quo. The past is always present and we have to find a way to honour and lay to rest what and who have gone before. Missing this or skipping over it will almost always lead to repercussions.
Attuning to the field
Now, as a coach and facilitator, most of the leaders I work with are leading change or being affected by it in some way. The issue of belonging comes up time and again in many different guises. Loyalty to national, professional and organisational identities are particularly strong and even fidelity to a particular methodology or a guru’s philosophy can prevent sign-up to a new mission or way of working.
Margaret Wheatley is particularly scathing about simple processes and techniques that become the specialised knowledge of a few experts creating a dependence on them. Followers become invested in and defined by these methodologies but, as she observes, the downside is that “we forget what we bring to the party and act like meek students of difficult methods”.
Ouch! So, while belonging is one of our deepest human needs it also has its shadow side. Forward movement requires us to relinquish some of the norms of the group we previously belonged to. Letting go of patterns of behaviour can engender a myriad of emotions, including guilt. These emotions will be more intense if our identity is central to what we feel we are turning our back on.
It's this sense of divided loyalty that can be a source of conflict when teams are facing change. There’s no way around it; we have to be prepared for a degree of personal discomfort if we are to move forward and grow.
Collaborative ventures, organisational mergers and service redesign initiatives are hotbeds for issues of belonging to emerge. Surfacing these hidden dynamics with clients helps them reframe the situation. It’s humbling to bear witness when clients realise that the problem they’re facing at work is not all about them. It's the roots of some hidden system dynamic or other that's tripping them up.
When you become attuned to how the governing forces of time, place and exchange show up in various situations you have the choice of a different kind of conversation.