Managers often feel personally affected by resistance they experience at work. As a result, managers and their organisations could find themselves trapped in a negative systemic pattern. Systemic patterns are self-reinforcing processes of action and reaction. When change processes stagnate, the same patterns seem to repeat themselves. A manager’s emotional response to resistance constitutes an important obstacle to seeing these feedback patterns and overcoming them. In this article we show how this mechanism works.
A systemic pattern is a positive or negative self-reinforcing spiral of action and reaction. The behaviour of change manager A evokes the behaviour of group B (or vice versa), which in turn evokes the behaviour of group C. This again reinforces the behaviour of change manager A. Typical for systemic patterns is that participants find these feedback-loops difficult to recognize and name. They are too much part of the problem and are too deeply involved. The case study below describes a simple example of a systemic pattern that occurs in organisation S.
Ton is part of the change management of organisation S. More and more often he asks himself how he should approach the many rumours doing the rounds. Informally, board employees discuss their likes or dislikes about the changes taking place. The employees of his department also join in enthusiastically. They are piqued because Ton only informs them officially (mostly much later). What gets to him most is that his employees accuse him of hiding things that they then get to hear from colleagues. Whilst transparency is one of his pet subjects. Ton becomes increasingly despondent. The irritation of employees reinforces this feeling. What bothers him even more is the fact that recently he was disrespectfully told to shut up while people made fun of him in his presence. He realises that he is responding by providing less and less information. There is much he no longer tells anymore, seeing that it is too late to be of any use. As a result, his employees become more and more irritated and he increasingly withdraws.
Where does the problem lie? Like most managers, Ton responds emotionally to resistance and is personally affected by it. When making interventions his personality is involved in the process, thereby creating a personal pattern in response to resistance. In Ton’s case, this means that he feels increasingly despondent and withdraws from the relationship. In response to this his employees resist, become increasingly irritated and act disrespectfully towards him with increasing frequency. This response by employees strengthens Ton’s resistance and his response reinforces the resistance of employees. In this way, the resistance expressed by both parties constitutes the basis of a systemic pattern of passivity and aggressiveness. This pattern bogs the situation down. It not only causes Ton to respond in the way he does, but also prevents him from being able to look objectively at what is happening.
It is crucial that a change manager like Ton becomes aware of this pattern and is helped to transform the pattern into a positive one. These conditions determine whether the change process can be completed with success or whether it will stagnate.
Systemic action-response spirals often seem to manifest in similar ways. I base this observation on our work with organizations where we apply a systemic approach to stagnated change processes. This approach is based upon organizational psychodynamic theory, as described by Campbell (1991 and 1994), McCaughan, Palmer (1994), Kernberg (1998) and others. We repeatedly come across the same systemic action-response spirals. These seem to be based on one of the following three core patterns.
Pattern (1) where the change style is characterized by powerful leadership
Pattern (2) where the change style is characterized by building support
Pattern (3) where the change style is characterized by interaction.
All three of these patterns can develop into a negative but also in a positive spiral. A negative systemic pattern appears to increase resistance. A positive systemic pattern promotes a willingness and commitment to change. In this article we explain this by discussing an interactive systemic pattern (pattern 3) based on an actual case.
Organisation Z was established a number of years ago as the outcome of a merger of four different organisations. Bram (chairman of the board) uses a consensus style to promote integration, mutual trust and broad support. He is deliberately reticent in promoting his own point of view and during board meetings he always asks for the opinions of others in a deliberate way - during both the development of policy and the implementation of changes. Bram notices that (as a result of this habit) a practice has gradually developed, where board decisions could easily be changed. For example, when new issues come to light during the implementation phase.
This ‘changing of decisions’ seems to happen more and more often. As a result, it gradually becomes a habit to retract decisions that have already been taken. In turn, the directors notice that board decisions are not taken so seriously in the directorates. More and more often, the middle management (and also the employees) seem to assume that the implementation of policy will not proceed at such a pace. Every now and then, the directors also feel considerable annoyance about the consensus system as this has a stifling effect on new policy.
This leads to a call for more (powerful) leadership by Bram. He takes it personally and rewards this by displaying his decisive (directive) side, which tends to be authoritarian. Even policy that was created in this way does not seem to be successful. In fact, so little discussion took place that the plans prove too abstract and difficult to implement. This again causes unhappiness in the board, with the result that Bram yet again falls back on the old consensus system of decision-making by the board. This soon leads to unhappiness again and another call for more (powerful) leadership by Bram. A systemic pattern has been created.
The example of Bram is one of three patterns we’ve found where change processes have stagnated. Initially, Bram’s extensive participation results in a positive spiral of growing mutual trust, integration and broad support for a shared vision. The possibility that decisions that have already been taken could be retracted during the implementation phase also contributes to the commitment gained. After all, one cannot predict everything in advance.
However, Bram sets no limits and decision-making gradually becomes an open-ended process. He fails to be mindful of decisions taken earlier and has no decision-making framework to support him. Bram fails to intervene, takes no decisions and remains receptive to new ideas. As a result he is swept away.
The negative effect of his behaviour is further strengthened because the middle management and employees of the organisation increasingly gain the impression that 'decisions can be changed easily'. In this way, not only the board, but also the entire organisation feels rudderless. This results in the call for directivity. Bram responds with excess, which leads to yet more unhappiness, which in turn leads to more participation. Bram is incapable of finding the right measure of directivity to limit interactivity. This throws the system into a negative spiral of increasing interactivity, which results in decreasing commitment. In this way extensive participation is alternated with directivity.
Bram’s response to the resistance is emotional. He becomes so irritated by the accusations levelled against him that he responds in an authoritarian and directive manner. This has to do with to his personal pattern. The excessive directivity that he invests in the change process achieves the exact opposite effect to what he had intended. When this is blamed on him again, he again responds emotionally. He falls back upon extensive participation, which in turn leads yet again to a sense of being rudderless. In this way, the self-reinforcing pattern of the cycle is completed. Because of the position of power that Bram holds, his behaviour and the systemic pattern affects the entire organisation. Policy development and the implementation of change stagnate.
Because parties respond to each other in situations such as that of Bram, they work together to strengthen the pattern of action and reaction. None of the parties involved are ‘guilty’. Typically, systemic patterns are barely recognizable to the participants because they are themselves part of it and therefore become ‘organisationally blind’. It is therefore better to analyse and reflect on such patterns with the help of outsiders.
An outsider can not only help someone like Bram to see that systemic patterns exist and that he is being pressured from all sides, but also that, as manager, it is he himself who offers the possibility for exercising so much influence. Another precondition is that managers like Bram feel that such a pattern is an obstacle. Reflection is crucial to overcome systemic patterns. It allows the pattern to be identified. Reflection helps one to analyse what it is that evokes the resistance and which intervention can be made to ensure the same automatic response is not repeated.
How could someone like Bram approach such reflection?
He should learn to recognize the pattern and the dynamics (detached from the persons involved). To help him, he could explicitly ask for feedback from his directors. He could also have a survey done amongst employees and managers. Obviously, he should want to understand how serious the situation is and should be willing to face reality.
He should objectively observe the response of the other party, should ask himself whether (and how) he has himself evoked it and helped to maintain it. He has to become aware of the situation and sense what is happening. But without an immediate emotional (primary) response, without levelling accusations or feeling under attack. Somebody like Bram should be prevented from immediately resorting to (to him) predictable interventions that would be more of the same. For this to happen, a –sometimes-sizable - emotional knot has to be unravelled. And in the case of most managers, this makes a considerable appeal on their capacity to 'hold and endure’;
He should decide whether he wants to overcome the escalating pattern. He should formulate hypotheses about possible interventions, consider them and take action.
One intervention could be to involve the board: Bram will then have to share with them both the pattern and the dynamics and ask them if they agree with his approach to the problem. He could discuss with them their joint responsibility for creating (and preventing) the lack of direction in the organisation. Bram should then work on creating broad support for his decisiveness, if needed. To achieve this, he could come to an agreement with his board about a decision-making framework and the way in which interaction is organised. Bram should then stick to this framework, while he will have to stay alert to apply the correct measure of decisiveness in the process. Both the trigger of directive authority as well as the attitude of 'letting be' will remain a danger to him. Because it concerns his personal pattern, Bram’s directors could easily tempt him into behaving in this way again.
Being trapped in a systemic pattern (as in the case of Bram) leaves managers with a feeling that they are rowing a small boat but making no progress. That is not all. When change managers respond emotionally to resistance, the entire organisation could be affected. When change managers respond by severing contact, by becoming over-confident or distant or by allowing themselves to be swept away, it can further exacerbate resistance in the organisation. As a result, organisations could find themselves stagnating badly. The position that change managers hold provides enormous power to both maintain and overcome these patterns.
Therefore, intervention aimed at change is not only a rational activity. It also demands managing one‘s own, personal response to resistance. To recognize and overcome the limitations imposed by systemic patterns, management is expected to be capable of managing the resistance that change evokes in them personally. The question is whether they can handle the resistance in such a way that is both involved and objective. The paradoxical message is that change managers should feel the (emotion of) resistance, but should then not respond to it in a 'normal' way.
This demands a lot. One should feel something but not act upon it immediately. First reflect on it and/or discuss it and imagine what the underlying causes could be. Be able to take action and dare to do so, but also be able to postpone action when this is better for the process. Managing one’s own (blocked) response to resistance demands the capacity to 'hold and endure’ the trigger-effect that resistance has on one’s own emotions. Drs. Odette Moeskops (1956) is director of RoodPurper b.v. (the Netherlands) and is specialized in designing and facilitating change processes related to strategy, culture and communication.
Campbell D., T. Coldicott, K. Kinsella (1994), Systemic work with organizations, A new model for managers and change agents. Systemic thinking and practice series. - London: Karnac Books. Campbell D., R. Draper, C. Huffington (1991), A systemic approach to consultation. Systemic thinking and practice series. - London: Karnac Books. Kernberg O. (1998), Ideology, Conflict and Leadership in groups and organizations. - Michigan: Yale University Press. Mc Caughan N., B. Palmer (1994), Systems thinking for harassed managers. Systemic thinking and practice series. - London: Karnac Books.