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Working in Organisations

Aug 17, 2007
Open Systems

At the worst of times companies can look and act like badly functioning families: dictatorial, patriarchal, rigid and uncooperative. The staff are de-motivated, communication is poor, growth is slowed and team-spirit is non-existent.

Like the Patriarch in a family who says, "Something needs to be done around here", someone in the company usually calls for a "Culture Change" or some similar course of action in order to address a potential or actual decline. Structures are shaken up, mission statements are issued, new communication avenues are created. It gets frantically busy for a while, people are energised, sent on courses, empowered; and then they are expected to behave differently. So far so good.... but pretty soon it all goes back to the way it always was, if not worse, and no one quite understands why.

"Culture Change" cannot be imposed. It must grow organically out of the current needs of both the company's needs and the needs of the individuals in it. We see this as moving from a "closed" or poorly functioning system to an "open" or well-functioning system. A closed system has stuck, negative and unchanging modes of communication; an open system has flexible, evolving and positive forms of communication.

Systems

What do we mean by "system" in this particular context? A system is any self-contained entity or unit made up of interconnected elements or parts, e.g.: a company made up of many departments is a system; each department is a subsystem; and the company itself is a subsystem of all similar companies and the economy in which it resides; which in turn is a subsystem of society.

In a system the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and a system functions through the interaction of each part to each other part. No one can really act in isolation without it affecting the whole.

The concept of systems was originally developed by studying systems in nature, but approximately 40 years ago biologists began to make the connection that families operated as systems as well. It was seen that any one member of the family who had a major problem that wasn't being dealt with (such as alcoholism) would negatively impact on how the entire family functioned no one in such a family would be unaffected. Through our experiences in the corporate world, we have become more and more aware that the whole concept of systems work is directly related to companies and how they operate.

What is of importance in looking at this from a corporate point of view is that all systems must stay in balance and will do anything to stay in balance. If a system is closed, everyone in the system will consciously or unconsciously collude in keeping it that way (just like ignoring or colluding with the alcoholic in the family). If anyone comes along who tries to break the mould they won't last very long or they will eventually capitulate (albeit resentfully) to the status quo.

The Closed System

A closed system operates out of inflexible, stuck, negative rules designed to maintain an unchanging status quo. It is dictatorial, controlling, perfectionistic.

In a closed system people don't talk to each other. They second-guess each other and make assumptions. They gossip, take sides and keep secrets. They are quick to blame other people and slow to take responsibility for mistakes, so there is minimal accountability. People argue without getting anywhere. Conflict of any kind is usually avoided and people will not confront a problem even when it is glaringly obvious. On those rare occasions when there is open conflict it usually doesn't get resolved to everyone's satisfaction because people get stuck in having to win while making the other person wrong and needing them to lose.

As in a family, people get stuck in having the same arguments over and over and never getting anywhere. Individuals stay entrenched in their intractable positions and the most people are willing to budge, if at all, is by agreeing to disagree. While that may look reasonable on the outside it doesn't actually move things forward and it keeps problems at arms length.

That's why problems can fester away for years beneath the surface, with suppressed angers and resentments never being voiced or addressed. But because a system must always be in balance, whether its functional or dysfunctional, those angers and resentments will be expressed covertly. This might take the form of undermining other people's positions, backstabbing, spreading gossip, not passing on information, being obstructive.

Senior management are inaccessible: phone calls aren't returned, e-mails aren't answered; people are in meetings all the time. Personal needs are, for the most part, sacrificed to the needs of the system, which usually means that everyone operates with a degree of low-grade anger and frustration. Stress levels increase enormously.

The Open System

An open system functions in a flexible, honest and fluid way. Therefore, it is always changing as the needs of the company and the people in it change. The company functions through good communication which means being direct and clear, giving people information, setting up structures which involve the consulting process both up and down the hierarchy and most importantly, accountability.

Differences are acknowledged and accepted rather than trying to get everyone to fit in. Feedback is positive and actively "feeds" the person receiving it. People are encouraging, supportive and motivating to each other through recognition, affirmation and stimulation.

For a system to deal with change as it occurs, it must be open, stable and secure without being fixed and rigid in its structures. There is a balance between autonomy and efficiency. There are good boundaries where people express their needs, expectations and requirements so that everyone knows where s/he stands.

The workplace can become an enjoyable, creative place to be, rather than feeling like a prison. People can have fun and can feel as though they are contributing to the well-being of the company and their own well-being.

Focusing on seemingly intractable problems from a systems point of view can reduce many problems to manageable size and provide simple yet highly effective solutions.
About the Author
Jo Ellen and Robin run Impact Factory a training company who provide Organisational Working, Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Communications Training, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching for Individuals.
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