Know thy system and work with it to win

Systems are a part of life and work. Being aware of the systems you are a part of can help you maximize your performance within it.


Mail system

By Sepi Roshan

IN THIS intertwined world our actions affect others.  Nothing works in isolation.  Whether we like it or not, we are all part of a system by virtue of living.  Smaller systems exist in every workplace and facet of life – our organisations, families and communities.  These living, evolving systems develop their own identities and processes which, if ignored, can result in unnecessary stress, strains on relationships and lost opportunities.  To live successfully within a system, awareness is key.

Last week I discussed social, or human, systems: with structures and processes operating together to produce outcomes affecting our personal and professional lives.  Healthy systems evolve to cope with changing environments and allow us to take advantage of opportunities.  Unhealthy, or imbalanced systems, result in systems failure: consider the financial world.

Without understanding these systems, we react in limited ways and produce suboptimal consequences for ourselves and others.  A limited view of the implications of our actions can cause unnecessary stress and pain.  At work, for example, summarily changing a process whilst disregarding the impact on others, may result in a system that lacks empathy for employees and colleagues – this can result in dysfunctional work environments.  Not being aware of living within systems can affect our perceptions of our world and the choices we think we have.  Develop your awareness by asking yourself three vital questions:

What does the whole system look like?

Take time to step back and reflect on the context in which relationships are formed and interactions occur.  Are you within a team, boardroom or networking context?  Then consider the type of system you are working with.  Over 35 years, Barry Oshry, an experimental educationalist, has identified three common systematic relationships:

  1. Top –bottom
  2. End-middle-end
  3. Provider-customers

These relationships are discussed below.

Where do you fit in?

For each context you are in, consider where you are based on the three common systematic relationships identified by Oshry.

  1. Top-bottom: as the top, we have designated responsibility for something (e.g. a department or a family).  If we are acting as the bottom, we are acting as a member of the system for those who have been designated with responsibility.
  2. End-middle-end: if you are in the middle, you are torn between elements at the ends.  For example, you may be the project manager torn between the demands of the finance and marketing departments.  Those on the ends, are exerting some kind of pressure or demand.
  3. Provider-customer: customers are seeking something from the provider and the provider supplies what the customer wants.

We are constantly shifting roles, and like in a play, taking on parts that help the system function.  Unhealthy systems evolve when there is some sort of imbalance.  Take for example, a provider-customer relationship where the customer holds the provider responsible for everything.  If the customer is quoted a price they think is unjustified, they may feel mistreated, cheated or angry, for example.  The provider may feel unfairly judged.

What is the system telling you?

Every system has its own unique way of functioning and evolving – and every part of the system has a message about that function and evolution.  When we are not aware or disrupt the system in some way, there is a reaction. Change is not always a bad thing.  Tweaking the system can result in growth and innovation.  For example, simply changing where the tea and coffee is kept at work can result in creative solutions about storage.  Alternatively, it may tell you that the managing director expects conformity in all areas.  You do not have to wait for a disruption to stand back and listen to how the system functions.  Listen anytime to develop your understanding.

All interactions happen within a system.  If we are not aware that we are working within a system, we may experience unwanted effects such as feeling unfairly judged.  Systems are a part of life and work.  Being aware of what the system looks like, where we fit in and what the system is telling us, can help systems run more smoothly and help our performance within it.  Next week, find out how you can develop healthy, functioning systems in your professional life.