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A framework for understanding organisational dynamics
People issues in the workplace can often be confusing, unpleasant and stressful to all concerned. Most of us have experienced situations where we have worked with a colleague who has a reputation for being ‘difficult’; or colleagues who seem to be in constant conflict with each other; or a team that is not functioning well and yet we don’t really understand why.
Often, our natural tendency in these kinds of cases is to identify a problem person or persons and then a range of potential consequences ensues. The problem person is avoided, blamed, ostracised, warned, sacked or, in many cases, tolerated from a distance and talked about behind his or her back. A more positive outcome is that the person is offered development opportunities, but what happens if the identified person is not the only cause of a problem?
In fact, in most situations, it is rarely one person(s) who is causing problems for others, even though it may often seem that way. Behaviour in organisations is multi-determined and complex and we need ways of examining and understanding dynamics that allow for this. This paper discusses a four levels framework that provides a useful perspective that is systemic and, more controversially, teaches us that we are more responsible for what happens in our work groups than we would like to believe.
Level One: The Individual or Intrapersonal Level
The individual or intrapersonal level views the source and solution to people problems or behaviour as residing in a person. This level emphasises the person’s personality, skills and competence and little emphasis is placed on others or how the person relates to others.
It involves cause-and-effect thinking, potential blaming and placing the responsibility for a problem on one person.
For example, complaints about a senior manager, describing her as punitive and harsh may lead to mandatory coaching sessions or even counselling to remedy the causes of her behaviour.
Level one thinking is a natural tendency in us and we can probably think of situations when we have been quick to identify one person as the main cause of a problem we are facing. There may also be valid individual issues involving the person and he could well change his behaviour after coaching, counselling, being warned or given feedback to raise his performance. However, organisational life is rarely this simple and we can often do a disservice to the person concerned and end up not really dealing with the deeper issues that are contributing to the problems we face.
Level Two: The Interpersonal Level
The focus of the interpersonal level is on the quality and types of relationships between people. Taking an interpersonal level perspective, the punitive senior manager, in the previous example, needs to look at her communication style and develop better skills in listening and giving feedback.
Again, there may be a valid case for raising this manager’s awareness of her style and for developing her interpersonal competencies, but as we go to the next level, we will see that there are often more complex issues involved. The interpersonal and the individual (intrapersonal) levels are limited and yet, tend to be the most common ways people view people issues.
Level Three: The Group-as-a-Whole Level
The group-as-a-whole level is where the behaviour of groups or teams is seen as a social system made up of the sum of its parts. At this level, people’s behaviour can’t be simply explained away by a person’s unique personality or style, but is viewed as a synthesis of, and interaction with, the group’s life and mentality.
To explain this more fully, we need to understand the nature of groups and the effect they have on group members.
Groups, by their very nature, elicit strong ambivalent feelings.
Jacques1 claims that adults in institutions or group settings often use infantile coping strategies to cope with overwhelming ambivalent feelings. The different task, technical, social and environmental demands of organisational life can raise tension and anxiety levels in all of us to varying degrees.
As human beings, it is natural to want to feel comfortable and we cope with feelings of tension and ambivalence by unconsciously ‘getting rid of’ the feelings, traits and roles that we don’t feel comfortable with or don’t want to identify with. It is this unconscious pattern shared by group members that provides the substance of group life. In this way, group members are considered connected to each other by an unconscious tacit alliance that allows each group member to use other group members as objects to express parts of him or herself.
Projective identification is the term for the psychological mechanism whereby people find a person in the outside world who will serve as a vehicle so that they can modify their image of themselves, but vicariously experience a part of themselves in someone else. Projective identification simplifies one’s emotional life. A common example I have often experienced in teams is when one team member is the ‘outspoken, critical’ one who stands up to the boss and demands answers and higher standards. The rest of the team seem content enough to let the person take this role and be identified as a ‘troublemaker’. In fact, it almost appears as if the team members secretly enjoy watching their colleague go out on a limb while they remain silent. While their colleague takes this role, they don’t have to risk their jobs or comfort levels to speak out about their own dissatisfactions.
This example raises two points. One is that group members are ‘called into’ roles that provide some kind of service to the group. In a way, the group-as-a-whole has unconsciously distributed and divided the different ‘expressive, cognitive, instrumental, mythical and reparative elements2 among its members. These various roles, in part, help to manage anxiety and the ambivalent feelings of wanting to belong and not wanting to lose one’s identity, often found in group members. All roles serve meaningful and purposeful functions. Projective identification helps to get the work done.
The second point raised from the example of the ‘troublemaker’ is the concept of scapegoating. If a group (or organisation) has had a strong experience of aggression, stress or frustration, excessive projective identification can lead to scapegoating. Here, people deposit unwanted parts of themselves like jealousy, incompetence or anger into a person and then seek to ‘get rid of’ this person somehow. It is as if the group can’t bear to look at what its done or face itself in the scapegoated person. It becomes a shared pattern of denial in the group. Many of us have been in situations where a person has been ‘sacrificed’ on behalf of a group or team and we’ve been left feeling bad about it and yet not clear about how it happened.
Without fully understanding the dynamics of scapegoating, organisations can seek to make sure ‘troublemakers’ disappear without realising that they may be the only vehicles through which the rest of the group can express its contempt or dissatisfaction with a task or leader. So, someone else will inevitably fill the role that is left free after the scapegoat’s absence and the deeper issues will not be addressed.
Scapegoats are unconsciously selected because they have a tendency to be outspoken (as in the previous example), are different demographically, or have a personality that suits ‘patient’ or ‘martyr’ roles. In fact, the roles we unconsciously take up in groups are influenced by our individual identity, the group’s identity, our gender and our personality tendencies towards particular roles. For example, in a mixed gender group3 men typically attribute affective-emotional qualities to women. Women are expected to play caretaking and maintenance roles in groups and men are expected to play task-oriented aggressive roles. It is a sign of maturity when we can allow ourselves and others to play different and, sometimes, contradictory roles.
The Punitive Manager
Let’s come back to our punitive manager whom we’ll call James and view his ‘problem’ behaviour from a group-as-a-whole perspective. James was specifically hired to transform an under-functioning department by sacking a large number of people. He was chosen for this role because he had a tough personal style and had a track record of success in these kinds of roles, i.e., he seemed to have no qualms about sacking people or giving strong feedback. However, James didn’t know that he was entering a team culture where managers did not give straight feedback about people’s performance. In fact, he was actually walking into a minefield of disgruntled staff who were sick of not knowing where they stood in relation to their career paths and had distorted views of their capabilities because they’d never been given honest feedback. It was inevitable that James would be scapegoated by the organisation once he had begun the task he was hired for. He was carrying an ‘assertive and performance focused’ part for his team members.
When managers see people like James as ‘punitive people managers’ or ‘bad’, they risk assessing the whole problem as residing in James, i.e., levels one and two, and may take strong actions against him. Without thinking from a group-as-a-whole perspective, they do not examine the context of the situation or why a group of managers allowed James to be so ‘bad’ or how it may have served the team of senior managers to have James carry the role of the ‘henchman’. Cultural assumptions and norms can be left unexamined or even further reinforced.
In any group situation, it is useful to ask these questions when members seem to be taking particularly strong roles, like being highly incompetent, emotional, caring, responsible, irresponsible, critical, etc. Keep in mind that when a person acts, they are acting not just on their behalf, but also on behalf of the group.
Level Four: The Organisational Level
The organisational level sees problems as paralleling or acting-out a wider organisational dynamic. A parallel process is when dynamics in one part of the organisation replicate sub-group, inter-group, inter-organisational, societal, or global contexts or dynamics.
The organisation that employed James may be experiencing strong pressure from its board to downsize. This company may be within an industry that is under extreme pressure. The board may be threatening to sack the CEO. James may be replicating this dynamic in his dealings with people in his team. As a consultant, I have often found myself getting involved in dynamics that parallel what is happening within a team I’m working with. A colleague and I once found ourselves in conflict over an issue that was related to an organisation we were consulting to. When we reflected on the nature of our disagreement, we realised it was a similar dynamic to one we had already identified within our client organisation.
Walk the Talk
Another common parallel process most of us have experienced is finding ourselves treating others in the same way our superiors have treated us. That’s one reason why the pressure on executive teams and CEOs to ‘walk the talk’ is so critical. Their behaviour models a dynamic that is often paralleled throughout the levels of the organisation.
How do we apply this framework to our daily work life?
Catch yourself complaining about individuals and explaining problems by using only levels one and two. Develop competing hypotheses about what may be happening by giving greater emphasis to levels three and four.
When a team is troubled, ask questions such as what feelings, traits or roles are specific people acting out? How does it serve the group for these people to take these roles?
Finally, examine yourself and what you may be feeling, or not wanting to feel or express. Take more responsibility and encourage others to take more responsibility for what is happening within their teams and organisations. It can make a critical difference to how issues are framed and then resolved.
1 “Social Systems as a defense against persecution and depressive anxiety”. In New Directions in Psycho-analysis, London, 1955
2 Gillette & McCullum, eds. Groups in context, a new perspective on group dynamics, America, 1995
3 Gillette & McCullum, 1995
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