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It isn’t personal, it’s systemic


  • Workers think that senior managers are heartless, arrogant and distant.
  • Senior managers think that workers are childlike, blaming everybody and not understanding the need to get on board with the latest initiative.
  • Middle managers are just too run off their feet to think anything at all.
  • Clients simply feel ignored and undervalued.

If this was just the thinking in a dysfunctional organisation, it wouldn’t be so bad, but the truth is that this type of thinking is commonplace in many organisations, repeating itself in recurring patterns that sabotage the real need to get collaboration flourishing up and down and across the organisation.

When there are problems, people blame individuals’ lack of caring, their incompetence or their difficult personalities as if people’s personal attributes were the source of all organisational problems. In reality it’s not personal, it’s systemic.

Making up stories

People fall into a typical thinking pattern – they observe someone doing something and they take it personally and make up a story to explain why people in other parts of the organisation did what they did. These stories almost never have anything to do with what is really going on and, yet, people react to them as if they were the universal truth. Then they get angry, or disconnect, or they get even. As a result, any chance of building collaborative partnerships across the organisation or with clients and suppliers simply goes out the window.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The work of one of Boston’s favourite sons, Barry Oshry, on organisational dynamics sets out another way of looking at this situation. As a result of his life’s work over some fifty years, we have the key to better understanding behaviour in organisations.

Predictable conditions that generate typical behaviour

The key is understanding that much of the way that people behave in organisations is more a function of where they are in the system than anything else. The problem is that people see the behaviours, but they don’t see the system and so they suffer what Oshry calls System Blindness.

Each part of the system has its characteristics that exert pressure on people:

  • Senior managers live in a world characterised by enormous complexity and accountability. The predictable condition they experience is overload.
  • Middle managers live in a world where they are pulled in a million directions. Senior management asks them to get things done, the workers ask them to look after them, other colleagues from other parts of the organisations try to get their help on the latest initiative. The predictable condition they experience is getting crunched. They are simply run off their feet.
  • The people at the bottom of the organisation have less power than everyone else. They have to live with many restrictions and most often don’t have the information necessary to understand what they are being asked to do. Their predictable condition is disregard leading them to feel vulnerable.
  • The clients just want to get a solution to their problem but all too often they just get passed from one person to the next, their predictable condition is neglect.

Our gut reactions just make everything worse

Human beings understandably will act like human beings. When faced with something we don’t understand, we simply make up a story because we need to give situations a meaning. Unfortunately, the story we make up usually has little to do with what is really going on and can lead to actions that make the situation worse.

  • The typical reactions of senior managers are to just keep taking on more, thereby just becoming even more burdened.
  • The typical reaction of middle managers is to slide in between the people at the top and the people at the bottom and take on their problems leading them to become even more crunched.
  • The typical reaction of the workers is to take on the victim mentality and just blame “them”, thus making themselves even more vulnerable.
  • The typical reaction of clients is to stay aloof and hold their supplier responsible leading to them feeling even more neglected and badly mistreated.

First understand other people’s worlds and think differently

Oshry believes the key is seeing the organisation as an organic system and understanding that people’s behaviours are largely determined by the forces that the system places on them. Once we decrease System Blindness, senior leaders, middle managers, workers and clients will realise that they can apply different strategies and behaviours that will counteract the negative pressures that the system places on them.

If we take into account what it is like to be in the other person’s world, then the reactions we will get will be totally different. This will change attitudes, produce behaviours that make the system more efficient and increase collaboration.

Increased collaboration across the organisation unleashes creativity, makes the organisation more agile, creates a better work environment and above all, improves service to clients. An ideal result all around.

Fortunately, Oshry developed experiential simulations that makes the system visible, thus making an enormous contribution to the field of organisational development. In these simulations participants live and feel the tensions that the system produces and physically see how the system operates. Once people see that it’s not personal, it’s systemic, they become hopeful, then capable of changing the dynamic and achieving collaboration right throughout the organisation.

To learn more or to register your interest in our upcoming 3 Day course on Organisational Leadership – please click here.


Best wishes,
Doug McEncroe

About the author: Doug McEncroe is a Consulting Director, Leadership Development at the Stephenson Mansell Group. He has designed and implemented leadership development solutions in 150 Fortune 500 companies in 23 different countries through the company he founded in 1990 in Spain, where he lived for 25 years. As a senior consultant for Ashridge Management College, he delivered their Open Leadership Development Program for eight years and also carried out many organisational change and leadership development projects for CCL, Accenture, DDI and Mercer/Oliver Wyman right throughout Europe. 

Doug is the author of Leadership: The Slow-Cooking Way, a book about his experiences in developing leadership development solutions in Europe.


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