Posted on December 15, 2010 in Articles, Coaching, Inclusive Leadership, Leadership by Rachael

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ant colonyOne of the big influences on my leadership coaching and development is “Systems Thinking.” The origins of this powerful approach are from the 1970’s and from the world of therapy, but there has been some wonderful development of this work more recently to apply it to the complex systems that are the organisations we work in.

Here are some of the ways that I have woven systems thinking into the designing of my leadership development and coaching  work:

  • Information is power? The parts which make up a system are interconnected and affect  eachother in a dynamic way, e.g. members of a team affect each others’ performance in the way that they share information. Do they hoard information, thinking it giving them personal power? Or share it across the contacts in their system because that leads to everyone being more in touch and creative?
  • Stronger than the sum of the parts The whole system somehow has a presence and power beyond the individual parts, e.g. when a team is functioning really well, somehow it takes on its own “identity”. People might say: “What is it about Leo’s team? They all seem to be very switched on, and they are getting great sales results.”
  • Who is in your system? Be aware of who is in your system and commit energy to building strong  relationships with those in your wider system across the organisation. For example in  R&D, build links with your internal and external customers, and make sure that key stakeholders inside and outside your organisation  are involved in the early stages of innovation, not just your smaller technical circle of contacts.
  • Problems at work are complex! When leading cultural change in organisations, executives will want to take a “whole system” overview approach before making a key decision, rather than shining a narrow spotlight of awareness on a problem.

Imagine you find that your valuable line manager Steve has had feedback from a junior member of staff, Laura, to say that she finds his leadership style rather bullying. A quick answer – and this still happens far too often – might be to move Laura elsewhere.

Problem solved? Well not really. A more systemic approach might be to realise that Steve needs to face up to some learning he must take on board re his own leadership style. Otherwise the problem will reoccur.

Laura will need some kind of support to recover and get back on track. Thinking more widely, this incident also impacts on the leadership team’s commitment to developing a culture where we communicate respectfully with eachother, and move towards a coaching style of leadership…..

I have applied this “Systems” thinking in both 1:1 and leadership team sessions. On a recent leadership development day I asked a group to try out stepping into different parts of their system which led to some unexpected insights.

One delegate said:

“I stepped into my client’s shoes and really started to feel the pressure that she is under. That has helped me develop a different and more assertive way of responding to her sometimes challenging demands, without being “infected” by her stress myself.”

If you would like to find out more about systems thinking, I have some great resources and contacts I can send you, and if would like to explore how this approach could help you and your organisation, do get in touch.