What happened when I chose to believe that every organization has within it the blueprint for its own optimal health and balance
When I began working as a consultant, it was with a commitment and desire to make things better for people and the organizations in which they worked. I was idealistic and wanted to make a positive contribution. As I began to learn and work in the field, I was taught to look for the problems that existed within people, organizations, and teams. I learned to work with many tools and develop interventions that helped me put my finger on “the problem that needed to be fixed,” and then create ways to “fix” them. Along the way, I took on attitudes and beliefs, mostly implicitly, that helped me to quickly see the problems presenting themselves in the world.
I used to pride myself on being able to go into a new setting and through perceptive questions and good observation clearly find the areas of dysfunction. At the time, it felt rewarding. Along the way, my language became laced with the language of dysfunction. My perception too was drawn to all that was NOT, as it should be.
I remember feeling powerful as if by seeing what I thought was wrong, meant that as a consequence I knew the solutions. Looking back, this perspective gave me the sense of being just that bit “better” than my clients. It took me out of contact with the complex and paradoxical reality that was present and instead gave me a great filter through which to simplify things and gain what felt like some level of control and dominance over an uncertain situation. Yet, the more I became experienced the more I felt that something was wrong.
The problems were never ending and most of the solutions created the next difficulty. This was tiring and demotivating, not only for me and leaders in organizations with whom I worked but also for all the people who were affected by the changes that kept being brought upon them. This was often accompanied by talk of how people were just somehow not “good enough” either their psychology, their processes, the way they see the world, whatever it was somehow there was always something just a bit off.
I began to notice the effects that came from this way of seeing both on myself and others. After a while, I identified some predictable patterns of behavior this way of working seemed to elicit.
- Becoming resigned to the idea that things will never work well, and everything is window dressing.
- The feeling that humans don’t know how to work together and therefore organizations will always have large parts that are dysfunctional.
- Becoming cynical and protecting oneself from the actions taken in what seemed like an endless run of faux cures.
- The behavior of non-engagement and passively (passive aggressively) accepting what is happening so the change process could be over and people could go back to what they were doing.
- Separating from whatever the challenge was at hand by becoming an expert at describing and analyzing to the smallest detail of everything that is wrong as a way to defend from trying something new.
None of these attitudes were helpful in addressing the real issues people were facing, and they usually worked counter to finding solutions. In addition to that, it bred a sense of passivity and disengagement in people. I felt like the work I was doing as a consultant was shooting itself in the foot.
To change what you reap, change what you sow.
When I came in contact with the approach called Genuine Contact™ (GC), I was surprised at first that it was so explicit about the beliefs that form the foundation upon which it is built. Honestly, I found it uncomfortable to see so much transparency and was much more used to the beliefs being implicit, and certainly not put into phrases and expressed directly.
Yet by this clear statement of beliefs, I was challenged to examine the beliefs and attitudes that made up my own worldview in a more conscious way. One of the beliefs that I found particularly tricky was is:
Within every organization lies the blueprint for its unique health and balance.”
The first time I heard this I thought it was naïf. It flew in the face of all I had understood up to then and presented a too positive view of the complex and tricky world of organizations. Yet, the more I worked with GC, the more I realized the value of engaging with this belief, to try it on as it were as I worked with my clients. It is not that I took this on mindlessly, I began to feel curious, and then made a conscious choice to see what would happen if I acted in my work as if this were true.
Thus began a long journey of learning the impact on the outer world of shifting my inner world.
The first step in my exploration was To consciously look for the signs of this unique and healthy blueprint hidden within organizations.
In engaging with client organizations, I began to become curious about what their unique health looked like, and where was it hidden. I started to look below the surface more, remembering that often signs of health may not be obvious. I drew from other areas of experience, for example, when your body is ill often the healthy reaction is to become sick. Fevers, and sniffles, and vomiting are the body’s ways to overcome a disease. I also remembered how in many group situations the people who are being rebellious or ‘acting out’ can, in reality, be the healthy members of a system who are still trying to make the system better. In family systems therapy it is often said that the child that the parents bring to the therapist with the complaint that they are rebellious are often the most healthy members of the family. Sometimes, of course, the same signals can literally indicate a lack of health, so taking time to examine what is actually taking place becomes deeply important. By looking for health, I started to open my curiosity and more importantly to engage in a different, more humble way of engaging with my clients. I saw the value of exploring with them, as opposed to exploring about them. It became harder to pinpoint one cause or one group or process on my own, and it became obvious that it was necessary to look from different perspectives and to engage with the knowledge within the whole system, not just the knowledge I thought I had about them.
A second step was to consciously reflect upon and then build processes that would encourage health
If hidden within each organization there is a healthy blueprint that can be engaged, then it becomes important is to find ways to encourage it to appear. This meant placing much more attention than I had ever done before on the conditions in which my work would take place. If I wanted to find out what health looked like, I had to invite a situation where health could “show up.” If you want to relax, it’s good to do so in a room that is not filled with sirens.
I began to see the importance of focusing on the context in which I was working, and the context I was influencing. It meant that I needed to focus much more on the setting, what I now call the container within which people will meet to address their challenges, is designed. This shifted part of my work from focusing primarily on content and process to also focusing on setting, environment, and design of the space. I saw how this is vital to helping health emerge.
In planning a meeting, training or an event, depending upon what outcomes are desired, I started to create processes where the outcomes determined the time necessary, instead of pushing content into a set time. Doing less, or even doing nothing is better than trying to do something that can’t be done in the time given.
I also started to get interested in making sure that the physical space is receptive to our human bodies and minds. Is there enough space for everyone? Is there access to a window or to being outside? Is the lighting good, is the space clean?
It also deeply influenced the design of my meetings and helped me see the value of using the two GC Meeting Methodologies — Whole Person Process Facilitation and Open Space Technology. Both methods are designed to create a setting where people have maximum freedom and choice to participate in the way they feel is right for them. These methods also depart from the perspective that the diversity of perspective, education, experience are assets to collective knowledge instead of problems that need to be managed. When I accept people as they are, without looking for what is “wrong” in how they interact with others, miracles of connection happen and I continue to be humbled and surprised by how people engage and find solutions to challenges that are infinitely more elegant than anything one person, no matter how smart, could devise.
Looking for signs of health has changed me and through that has changed the outcomes of my work. It has not changed the challenges my clients have faced. The most profound change has been in the patterns of behavior that I see arise when I work in this new way:
- Increased sense of engagement with the organization and desire to make things “work” well.
- A resilient attitude toward change, as if saying, we can get through this together.
- People speaking up, sometimes in anger and frustration, expressing their passion and desire and commitment to their organizations and the work they do.
- Perhaps most importantly, a sense of curiosity about one another’s views, about the situation, about possible solutions, instead of a drive to analyze or to “fix”. This brings about a more robust and authentic exploration and leads to better solutions.
I have been deeply moved by being challenged to confront the implicit assumptions of my work. Transparency about beliefs gives me the freedom to influence in ways I had never expected. By choosing to work in alignment with beliefs based upon supporting health and balance in organizations I am more effective in assisting people to create such organizations. The impact has been profound, and I believe it is highly worthwhile no matter what your beliefs to spend the time to bring them to the surface and then to live by them and watch what results and benefits emerge.