‘A request is not always a hit song’
A systemic perspective on making a contract
written by Leanne Steeghs and Siets Bakker
When two people meet there is more than just these two people. The systems behind these two people also meet. Each one of us has our own system of origin, the family in which each of us has grown up. However, there are also the systems of your professions, the system of the role in which you meet, and the systems of your organisation(s) that play a role in the conversation.
This applies to advisors, but also to trainers, interim managers or contractors in any form. You are loyal to each of these systems in a different way. These loyalties influence the possibilities and sometimes even decide them. These loyalties virtually always play a role and are extra clear when it concerns a contractor. This is due to the relationship between a client and a contractor. The contractor is autonomous and has knowledge that the client does not have. He decides what to do within the context of the issue posed by the client, but the client is the one who finally decides whether to implement the contractor’s answer.
All kinds of systems play a role when a client chooses and assesses the contractor. To find out which system and which loyalties play a role when giving advice about the assignment, it is valuable to be aware of three different ‘places’. These places are the magical place, the assigned place and the serving place.
In your youth, which formed you into who you are today, you learned all types of patterns. These patterns are natural to you and result from your system of origin. You might have learned to take care of others. In your adult life caring for others then usually becomes a place that you easily take, both automatically and also in the assignments that cross your path.
Siets Bakker: ‘In the summer holidays my sisters and I always went to the pool. The three of us used to bicycle across a four-kilometre dike to get there. As the oldest, my task was to get everyone to and from the pool safely. I made sure the pool memberships didn’t get lost and sometimes we would get some money to buy ice cream. I would be the one to look after the money. As an adult woman, taking or having responsibility is perfectly natural for me. I never lose my keys. I always know where my wallet is. I always make sure that I can look after myself and others. It’s no different in the workplace. When someone asks me to do something, I either accept or refuse the task. If I accept the task I give it a hundred percent. I do whatever is necessary to finish the task even when it goes beyond what’s stipulated in the agreements, for example if it takes longer. I don’t bill those extra hours. I take that responsibility.’
In systemic terms, the place that is closely connected to your family of origin and the place where you feel comfortable is called the ‘magical place’. In the example above it is ‘taking responsibility’. The term ‘magical’ is used because it originates from the illusion that a child can fix whatever is lacking within the family. Children will do everything to get love, attention and security. They are sensitive to what is lacking in a family and will fulfil that part. You grow up with certain behaviour, which feels safe and normal. The behaviour and movements that you make from the magical place feel familiar. You have developed strong behavioural patterns from here. When you behave according to these patterns you feel loyal to the group conscience of your family of origin. You feel comfortable and ‘innocent’ when you act from the magical place. Everyone has these behavioural patterns. They are neither positive nor negative. They are simply there.
Leanne Steeghs: ‘As a child I did well at school and I had a talent for volleyball. I grew up with mottos like ‘never give up’ and ‘always finish what you started’. This was natural to me. I was an easy child. My parents never had to urge me to do my homework, I was always well prepared for volleyball practice and even found the time to play, read or do something creative. My independence was increased when I was selected for the Dutch Junior Team when I was fifteen. From then on I often went off on my own for training trips or international volleyball tournaments. I loved the space and independence! I still enjoy organising my own life. My willpower and ability to begin without being prompted are strong impulses — from the magical place — that I easily engage.’
Because you have spent a large part of your life in the magical place you are very familiar with it. This behaviour is so familiar that it remains easy to engage in as you mature. You have developed lots of your qualities from this place.
In systemic theory, the position offered to you by the client is called the ‘assigned place’. The assigned place is the task formulated by the client. In the overcurrent this concerns the results that are expected of you as a contractor. In the undercurrent — sometimes subconsciously or unspoken — it also concerns the role you are expected to fulfil. People are highly sensitive and clients are usually perfectly fine-tuned to what you can contribute to the organisation or team. Therefore you are generally asked and invited to act from your magical place. Job applicants are also subconsciously selected on this basis. In the assigned place the risk is in the ‘outsourced assignment’. The client then tries to outsource (a part of) his own tasks and responsibilities to you, consciously or not. Something that belongs to the client and the organisation system is then handed over to you. In the undercurrent of the assignment there is an invitation to fulfil something for the organisational system from your position of contractor.
Siets Bakker: ‘I had accepted an assignment as an external strategic advisor, for eight months. I had to write and implement labour market policies to ensure a better market position for the organisation. Subconsciously — for me and for my client — this assignment called upon my sense of responsibility. The responsibility for this strategic policy was outsourced to me. Any policy I could have come up with would never have worked. Whichever way the organisation might turn, they were the ones responsible for their own strategic policy. Not me.’
In many cases it is fine to work from your magical place. Also when it coincides with the assigned place offered by your client. You are in your element and the assignment makes the most of several of your qualities. Still, the magical place is not always the place that serves the organisation of the contractor most. Especially when you sense that there is an outsourced job in the undercurrent of the assigned place, it can be useful to contract in a pure way.
In your role as a contractor you can avoid accepting an assignment with an outsourced job. This is achieved by seeing the assigned place — the tasks as originally formulated — as an opening bid and not as an accomplished fact. It is the starting point from which you will explore what is going on in both the overcurrent and the undercurrent, together. The assigned place is nothing more than a framework from where the contracting can begin.
A client is often perfectly aware of your qualities. Indeed, you were probably approached because of these competencies. However, accepting the assigned place does not automatically mean that you serve the organisation in the best possible way.
Working from the ‘serving place’ often means doing something different than what you were first asked to do as a contractor. In the serving place, you not only intervene in the issue’s overcurrent but also in the undercurrent. Drawing attention to the undercurrent is obviously much more challenging than just doing your job. There is a risk of not getting the assignment, especially if the client does not want to look at the undercurrent or act upon it. In the serving place you respond to the client’s issue from a different place and perspective. Obviously your responses do fit in with the original request, but you broaden the ‘playing field’ of that request. This is achieved by posing questions and providing answers that lead to the undercurrent. This reframes the issue.
The difference between the magical and the serving place can be noticed through your options. In the magical place, the options are limited. You act the same way you have always done, from loyalty to your family system. In the serving place you do something different, something that might even go against the group conscience. This makes you feel guilty, but also shows you that there are many more options. This is the result of literally being less ‘bound’ to your system of origin in the serving place. From here you can tap into the organisation’s growth potential much more effectively.
Leanne Steeghs: ‘My client Jan, for whom I have been providing sales trainings for some years now, asked me to join him at a sales meeting in Denmark. As soon as I had heard the word ‘Denmark’ I had already enthusiastically responded ‘yes’. I had no idea what I’d be doing there or what was expected of me. It turned out that the team would receive a product training and that I would have to translate it into a sales pitch. The assigned place. I found it strange that Jan wanted to invest so much money and valuable time in this project. When I was informed about the reason for the international trip, it became apparent that something else was going on. The sales manager, who previously managed the team, had been placed back into the team by Jan. There had recently been more turnover and discontent in the team. Jan wanted to solve this with this trip, as a kind of incentive. Jan reckoned it would be good for team spirit and motivation. I noticed that I felt sceptical about this. I didn’t think that the discontent in the undercurrent could be solved with a fun trip. I said that I only wanted to join as a team coach, not as a sales trainer. Jan accepted this change in the assignment. Together we designed a programme and clarified our roles. The serving place was found and appointed. It was an unforgettable trip.’
When you notice that an assignment is becoming a struggle without there being any identifiable substantive reason, examine from which place you are working as a contractor. It might be necessary to cancel the agreements and negotiate a new contract. This is not an easy solution, especially not when you are in a financially dependent position. However, from your systemic wisdom this is the only right choice.
When you accept an assignment from your systemic wisdom you not only work with the part of the organisation that hired you but with the whole organisational system. You continuously look for ways to strengthen the whole. The assignment’s meaning in the systemic context therefore differs from its analytical context: the assignment formulated from the client’s position is always a symptom of something larger. Contractors using their systemic wisdom do not have to make themselves appear larger than they are. They work from the awareness that what people see is always part of a larger whole.
Siets Bakker and Leanne Steeghs are the authors of Unlocking Systemic Wisdom. A practical book that brings key knowledge from constellations to the work floor.
Learn more on www.connecting-books.com or www.leannesteeghs.com