From System Blindness to Sight

How looking at patterns of behaviour can lead to more empathy and improve your creative problem-solving skills

I sat at the table with the two other members of my department: Department B3. We were “production staff” at the very bottom of the organization. Around me, frantic middle management rushed by, busy dealing with customers and new projects. I had heard that the top executive team was at an offsite planning retreat — which had only heightened the general sense of confusion and chaos.

I knew there was work to be done, and I had ideas. I saw opportunities to make things better, but my manager was nowhere to be seen and the company rules restricted me from going over my manager’s head. Besides, this wasn’t my problem to solve, was it? I should probably wait for my superior to tell me what to do. So, I sat in silence, listening to my co-workers talk about what they did on the weekend.

We spent the entire day that way. An entire day where we contributed nothing to our organization. I felt completely demoralized and detached. I was immensely frustrated at leadership. Didn’t they see the talent that was sitting idle while they ran around? It all just seemed like such a waste.

What sounds like a terrible first day as a new hire in an ineffective organization was, in fact, one of the most visceral learning experiences I’ve ever encountered: Barry Oshry’s Organization Workshop.

In this workshop, participants are randomly assigned to different roles within an organization: Top, Middle and Bottom. Others are given the role of Customers of the organization. Then, the organization is set in motion for five intense and condensed days of business. Throughout these days, patterns of behaviour emerge.

Oshry has dedicated his life to studying these patterns and what they mean for power and partnership in social systems. The profound insights he’s gained over the years represented a tectonic shift for me. It was as though the light had just been turned on in a room that I previously thought was well lit; much of what I had learned about what drives human behaviour in organizations was being turned on its head.

The realization hit me hard: I was suffering from system blindness, and even worse: in this blindness, I had participated in — and perpetuated — patterns of behaviour that consistently produced results that I didn’t want.

How did I arrive at this point, and why was this such a jarring awareness?

Over the years, often as part of a leadership development program, I had completed a number of different personality assessment tests: Insights, Birkman, MBTI, StrengthsFinder, you name it. The volume of tools to help us understand our unique personalities, and how this influences our behaviour, is impressive and has spawned a massive industry.

With each report that I got back, I learned more about myself and was stunned at how well they “got me” through a series of survey questions! Each has offered a valuable perspective on who I am, how I show up, and how to interact more effectively with others.

The implicit message is that the key to our behaviour lies in our personalities. Layer “management best practices” such as one-on-one meetings on top of that, and the general premise is reinforced: the behaviour we see in our organizations and institutions is a product of individual personalities. Ergo, if you need to solve a problem, focus on the individual.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that focusing on individuals through personality assessments and one-on-one meetings does add value. Yet here I was in a workshop watching as predicted patterns of behaviour — Tops pulling responsibility to themselves, Middles being torn between competing demands — occurred almost like clockwork. Patterns that had played out similarly amongst many thousands of others who had participated in the same workshop around the world over several decades. Patterns that appeared to show no regard for individual personality types whatsoever.

I immediately thought of a former co-worker, and how I had explained away his entire behaviour as “just the way he is” — his “personality type”. The question was undeniable: What if there was far more to the story?

I’ve continued to wrestle with this question, and I’m increasingly of the mind that our individual personalities provide only a fraction of the story. I believe strongly that there are other factors that play a very significant role in our behaviour — specifically, the systems that we function in, and the spaces we occupy in them. Yet we somehow tend to default to attributing behaviour to individual personalities, just like I did when explaining my colleague’s behaviour.

The truth is we exist in social systems: families, organizations, institutions, society. Could it be that the structures of these systems, the interconnections between the parts, produce patterns of behaviour that are more powerful than individual personality traits?

Otto Scharmer suggests that structures are nothing more than “patterns of relationships”. Barry Oshry comes down even more adamantly on this, stating that “to some extent, our experiences have nothing to do with who we are as individuals; to some extent whoever occupied our particular systems space would be experiencing precisely what we are experiencing”.

Oshry uses a model of four different spaces to describe social systems : Top, Middle, Bottom and Customer. On the surface, Oshry’s model is simple — and perhaps prone to dismissal as simplistic. Yet the simplicity belies a stunning power to illuminate patterns of behaviour. Each space is characterized by specific conditions—for example, Top is characterized by complexity and responsibility, Bottom by vulnerability — and each space interacts with the others in highly predictable ways. And while it can be easy to translate these “spaces” to organizational hierarchy, the model extends well beyond positions in companies. We continually move in and out of these spaces as we go about our lives, generally oblivious to their influence.

For example, imagine the difference between a meeting that you have called and one to which you have been invited by someone else. Surely the success of both meetings is dependent on all attendees fully participating, and your personality remains the same in both. Yet we feel responsible for the meetings that we call (i.e. where we are Top), and we hold others responsible for the success of meetings that they call (i.e. where we are Bottom).

And so it goes. We tend to behave in ways that are representative of the system conditions we are in, even while we are blind to these conditions. This blindness makes us vulnerable. We are at the mercy of forces that we are not even aware of.

That our experiences have more to do with the particular system space we occupy and less to do with who we are as individuals is a big assertion. One that flies in the face of our focus on individual personality types and traits.

Yet I experienced this first hand in the Organization Workshop in a way that I simply could not deny. That day, the space I occupied in the social system as a “Bottom” was having a profound impact on my behaviour and denying this was choosing system blindness over system sight.

On first glance, this focus on behavioural patterns inherent in systems may seem to be cold and depersonalizing. We’re simply cogs in a system, with no individual agency or influence. However, on deeper reflection, I believe this focus on systemic forces shaping our behaviour provides at least two critical benefits:

  1. Creative Problem-Solving

An awareness of how systems influence our behaviour opens up the opportunity for far more creative and effective solutions to challenges. As one of my advisors at Royal Roads University is fond of saying “if you only see problems as personal, then all of your solutions are personal as well”.

You can try to fix the other person, fire them, or rotate them into a different role. However, I’ve experienced first hand Peter Senge’s assertion that “different people in the same structure tend to produce qualitatively similar results”.

If we are able to start considering more structural, systemic factors in dealing with challenges, we open the doors to a much richer range of options than simply “fix, fire or rotate”. When we begin to see the patterns of behaviour inherent in the structure of our social systems, we also start to see opportunities to intentionally shift those patterns at a deep, systemic level, rather than focusing on superficial symptoms.

We shift from being at the mercy of invisible forces to understanding how we can better act within the system conditions we find ourselves in.

2. A Greater Degree of Empathy

Perhaps ironic on the surface, I believe a focus on system forces opens the door to a far greater degree of empathy.

Shifting away from exclusive focus on who people are as individuals may sound profoundly dehumanizing. However, I’ve found that, in practice, it’s exactly the opposite.

By focusing purely on individual personalities and traits, we inadvertently limit the breadth and depth of the human experience.

We are dismissive of the profound impact of context and system space on our experience. We do not simply exist in isolation. We also exist in systems of interconnectedness.

By growing our awareness of how these interconnections influence behaviour, we gain a far more powerful understanding of the forces that shape our perception of reality. This does not diminish the importance of individual choice and intentionality, nor does it absolve us of responsibility for our actions. We still must find and claim our individual freedom to choose within the systems in which we live. However, system sight provides a much richer, nuanced understanding of what truly influences our behaviour and that of others. It opens the door to more empathic relationships.

Our vision at Domain7 is to help create a more empathetic and connected world.

Last February, we gathered the entire company together in a remote ski cabin and participated in an Organization Workshop as a team. We wanted to explore how awareness of systems can grow our capacity for empathy.

It was at turns chaotic and challenging, exciting and unsettling. We emerged, as a team, with a new, shared language to describe our space in the social system that is Domain7, as well as other systems we are part of. More importantly, we began the journey, as an organization, from system blindness to system sight.

I’m excited to continue this journey, as I believe it holds tremendous potential for deep and lasting change.

Related Reads:

If you are interested in exploring how our role in social systems influences behaviour, I’ve found the work of Barry Oshry to be both accessible and deeply profound. You can find his blog here.

Interested in participating in an Organization Workshop?

For an immensely powerful and visceral exploration of how our role in systems influences individual behaviour, I highly recommend the Organization Workshop designed by Barry Oshry. Domain7 is pleased to offer this workshop. Please drop us a line, if you’re interested.