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Systemisch leiderschap: uitzoomen in plaats van inzoomen

Systemic leadership: zooming out instead of zooming in

Just like the previous article about systemic leadership this is another story from the work floor. We’ll describe a case and continue by shining a light on it from a systemic perspective in order to find out what is (possibly) happening in the undercurrent.

Some time ago, Marion, team leader of a group of internal advisors, contributed an issue during a peer coaching session. She told me that Claire, one of the team members, had reached out to her asking whether she could be transferred to another department. Claire had passed sixty and couldn’t keep up with the technological developments in her current department, which frustrated her. She’d heard that the other department had a vacancy for a much more suited position in which she wouldn’t have to struggle so much.

Marion understood Claire’s arguments and openly agreed with her that this would be a win-win situation, both for Claire and for the team. She also appreciated the fact that Claire was so proactive as to present a concrete idea. Both had a good feeling after the conversation and it seemed that there was nothing that stood in their way. Marion enthusiastically went to her manager Leo to inform him that she was going to arrange the transfer for Claire. So far, so good…

Unfortunately, Leo didn’t respond enthusiastically. First, he came up with a remuneration issue . Marion looked into it at HR and some days later she proposed a solution. But yet again, Leo responded with little enthusiasm and introduced a new substantive objection: there wouldn’t be an immediate replacement for Claire. Marion had a solution to that as well. The same thing happened again. This time Leo suggested that there might be other candidates for the position.

You could tell by the way Marion told this story that she was annoyed: ‘Why was Leo being so difficult, it was an excellent idea, right?!’ I knew that Marion usually had a good work relationship with her manager, which is why she now couldn’t understand why he didn’t just agree with the plan to meet Claire halfway and why he kept ‘coming up with something else’ to sabotage it. By now, the whole situation had put the work relationship between Marion and Leo under pressure. On top of that she also felt guilty towards Claire, whom she had more or less promised that she would get the new position.

What could be the issue here?

When certain problems/symptoms keep occurring in the overcurrent (or pop up in several places in the organisation) we speak of a pattern. In this case, I always use this tool: ‘Once is a coincidence, twice is noteworthy and three times is a pattern’. This situation showed exactly that: objection 1, 2 and 3 by the manager followed each other quickly and there the pattern appeared. In such a case it can be worthwhile to look ‘under water’.

The systemic question I then ask myself is:

  • For which problem is this a solution?

Translated to this specific case:

  • For what are these objections a solution?

You can sense that a question like that is more focused on zooming out than on zooming in. In this specific case, zooming in means looking at the substantive aspects of the issue. Think of the conditions that must be met to qualify for the new position, etcetera. Zooming out in this case means looking at the dynamic between the people involved, which are Marion and her manager.

That is one of the characteristics of the systemic view. So, together with Marion, I looked at the bigger picture and the patterns that it contained: ‘What could be ‘a good reason’ for the constant emerging of an objection?’

The systemic framework that I always consider are the life-giving forces in the undercurrent: order, belonging and balance in giving and taking. In this case I suggested that Marion looked at the possibility of a disruption in the order.

  • What were the positions and the corresponding responsibilities in this forcefield?
  • And where should the actual decision about Claire’s transfer come from?

That was where the crux was, because that decision was meant to be made by Leo. In all her good intentions, Marion had placed herself on the position of her manager. What’s more: she hadn’t even considered discussing this with Leo. In turn, Leo sensed that something wasn’t right and launched objection after objection. These objections were a solution to restore the order between Leo and Marion.

The more frustrated Marion became, the more caught up she became in this pattern and the more arguments Leo pulled out of his sleeve, even though up until now he had enjoyed a good partnership with her. He was also subconsciously ‘sucked into’ this dynamic.

The pattern of making yourself bigger in position and responsibility is called parentification. When I asked Marion whether she recognised this pattern from her family of origin, she became emotional. She told me that as the oldest daughter she was used to taking on many responsibilities because her father wasn’t available in certain ways. Because of this, Marion stepped into his place next to her mother at a young age. This ‘higher place in the order’ had become ‘normal’ and familiar. This pattern regularly repeated itself, and now also in her professional life.

Finally, it is important to point out that these disruptions in the order usually happen subconsciously. Like in this example, people who have become caught up in some kind of pattern from their family of origin often don’t realise this. Until someone begins to understand how this pattern has developed, it all happens subconsciously. Only when they become aware of it, can they learn to make new choices step by step. If they don’t, it’s likely that they constantly make the same kind of mistakes, attract the same situations, partnerships or conflicts. Pretty handy to know as a manager, right?


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