Recently a colleague approached me somewhat distressed. For the past year she had been working as a consultant for a small niche enterprise advising them on culture and leadership development.
She had been so successful and had built up such a positive relationship with the CEO that he had invited her to join the company full time and continue to do her work for him internally, as the company was growing rapidly and would need more and more of her capability and services.
She had considered the offer carefully and then decided to take the position. A few weeks into taking up the position as the new Head of Culture, some tension started to emerge between her and the CEO. She was very troubled and perplexed by this as the ‘tension’ and ‘noise’ was increasing between them.
She thought she knew the CEO, had she misjudged who she thought he was? Why was he behaving so strangely towards her? What was she doing wrong? Were some of her negative patterns she thought she had ‘conquered’ and left behind long ago re-emerging? Had she made a mistake taking the position?
I invited her up onto the ‘balcony’, a technique which is useful to see the bigger picture, to explore with me what was going on in the system between her and the CEO. As she stepped into observer role described the moments of conflict and tension with the CEO, the pattern between them became more visible. Until a few weeks ago she was in role of consultant and he was in role of client. They had developed a shared understanding of how this role-relatedness would work and were aligned on the ‘rules’ of relating between them. They were working very well together in a client-consultant ‘system’.
However, with her accepting the position and coming into the company, her role had changed from being a consultant to being an employee, and his role had changed from being a client relying on her for expert advice to becoming her ‘boss’.
This changed everything. It meant they were in a new ‘system’. She was now also a member of the Executive Team, which meant one of the client group’s in the company she had been coaching were now her peers – complex and very tricky! The CEO needed to treat her as one of the team, as one of his direct reports, which she was and which he had started to do. The team were expecting that too.
She however was still taking up the role of consultant. She had not shifted her “mental map” of the role, or the role itself. She had not stepped into role of employee, so the system had changed but she was in an ‘old’ role running an ‘old’ map. The CEO however had stepped into role of ‘boss’ and out of role of ‘client’, they were now operating with two different maps, in two different systems requiring different patterns of relating. Which is why nothing made sense and the ‘noise’ was increasing as these two systems required different ‘rules’ of engagement. They were no longer ‘matched’.
A new pattern of relating
They were both exactly the same people that they were a few weeks before, neither of them was doing anything wrong, but what had changed were their roles and therefore the rules of relating and engagement between them. They needed to establish a new pattern with new ‘rules of engagement’.
I watched my colleague’s face relax, her energy shift, her colour return as this became visible.
She knew exactly what she needed to do. She needed to step into role of employee and ‘recontract’ with him for how she took up her role and did her work in the organisation now as an employee. She had signed a technical legal job contract with him when starting, but they also needed to ‘recontract’ systemically for how they worked together, which they hadn’t done. What a relief! She was ok and so was he.
The problem she thought she had was reframed. No need to leave the company or go back to therapy! I checked in with my colleague a few weeks after and all was good. They were figuring out their ‘new rules of engagement’, and aligning on how to function in their new roles together.
Reframing the mental map of roles
I remember sitting there thinking about the power of applying a systemic lens to what appears to be a behavioural and/or interpersonal relationship issue in an organisation. It is such a liberating way of ‘seeing’ and understanding, and such an empowering practice:
- Whilst it is not always easy to change role, it is much easier than trying to change the person;
- It is far easier to change the role you are playing than it is to try and get someone else to change;
- It brings a neutrality and ease of change because it doesn’t make someone ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’
Learning to think systemically, to see the systems we are in and the roles we play in those systems, is becoming more and more critical as we create and are expected to thrive in complex networked organisations, where people are expected to play multiple roles, and adapt to new roles at ‘speed’. The good news is we can all learn to rewire our operating system of mind to think this way and build our capability for applying these new systemic practices. Think about it a shift from ‘human capital’ to ‘systemic capital’.
Joan Lurie, Director of Orgonomix.