emotion as systemic

April 17, 2006

What happens when you have 80 people in a confined space over 8 days?
Emotions start running high, that’s what. And in some cases – very high and I include myself in that description. It’s interesting to find myself in an institutional setting experiencing much of what my clients experience when they invite me to work with them to “solve” the problem.
Many organisations fear emotion. There is an assumption that to be emotional = out of control and to be out of control = inevitable chaos. Often the point at which someone starts exhibiting emotional behaviour in an organisation the three Cs will be called for – the Coach, the Consultant of the Counsellor. Taking the “problem” out of the system is seen as a way of containing and controlling the situation.
Here in Paris there’s nowhere to go. The hotel is about 25KM from the centre of Paris, there’s little outside the hotel in terms of distraction, (in fact the location has all the charm of an industrial estate on the edge of nowhere) there are limited circulation spaces and many people are sharing rooms. From an outside perspective it looks like a recipe for disaster. But we’re being challenged to look at, experience and understand emotion as a systemic manifestation. Why is it that people get “set up” in organisations to be the carriers of emotion? In my own experience, many of the trouble makers in organisational life are expressing what the rest of the system is too afraid to say. Here in Paris there is a lot of emotion – frustration, anger, intimacy, sadness etc and we are exploring how the relationships in our temporary institution create carriers of emotional messages. Both how we accept the invitation to act on behalf of the group and how we assign that invitation and responsibility to others.
Increasingly I’m becoming more interested in keeping the learning about this kind of systemic interaction within the organisations with whom I work. If I can help the organisation understand why particular kinds of behaviour speak on behalf of the organisation then the intervention can be appreciative as distinct accusative. That’s not to suggest that people don’t have choice about how they behave in organisations either – not everything can be blamed “on the system”. Systems can generate emotion but individuals make the choice about how to express it. Coaching and consulting can work hand in hand to bridge the gap between the individual and the organisation and when I’ve been privileged to have access at both levels the results in terms of organisational learning are impressive. It takes bravery to contain rather than control emotion and then use the wisdom to advance the learning of the entire organisation.

10 People reacted on this

  1. It’s quite fun/funny reading these descriptions of this conference because it really *does* sound like the business equivalent of the Zen retreats I’m familiar with.
    Take a bunch of people with wildly different expectations; stick them in a place where they are eating, living, and sleeping in close proximity; wait a few days & see what happens. Apart from the fact that you guys get to talk & don’t have to give up meat, sugar, and caffeine for the duration, this “pressure cooker” experience is similar to what I’ve sat through on retreats, the “goal” (as much as there ever is one in Zen) being simply to observe & sit with whatever habitual thinking (aka karma) bubbles to the surface.
    It’s funny, isn’t it, what folks will travel & pay money to do to themselves, isn’t it? 😉

  2. There seems to be a reaction, when feedback is sought that all the negative stuff comes out first. Working past this and getting people to take some responsibility.
    There is a blatant theme of “the management are to blame” and employees are not responsible.
    Its very difficult to explain what Responsibility means and get people to really understand…
    Getting Employees to take Responsibility is a big step to resolving manner issues

  3. Defensive behaviour, when you think about it, is about protection. I ask the question “what’s being protected here” and start from that perspective. I also ask what’s the role, the rights and the responsibility for each person – leaders can only lead if there are followers. Followers can only follow if there are leaders, so it’s a relational concept and reality.
    Lori – it’s true! why should our lives inside organisations be any different from those outside? We bring ourselves with us where ever we go and organisations are merely systems of relationships that come together to perform some task…
    It’s fascinating…really fascinating stuff

  4. Donagh – I believe (and work from the premise) that there are massive unconscious processes at work in organisations, systems, relationships etc…most of which are not available for us to see and process, they get “acted out” in ways that are uncomfortable sometimes. Having someone who is in a position to interpret this behaviour as distinct from assign it to a scapegoat is really liberating…and I’m living it this week in this conference!

  5. Yes, Paul I do see myself as a process consultant. I’m always interested in “how” the problems manifest and what’s in them as distinct from only sorting them. I draw on psychoanalytic theory (particularly object relations theory) to help me in that task.

  6. You recognising the unconscious beliefs, processes and behaviours in an organisation and getting the individuals to see this must be enormous tasks.
    Some people still think we’re all the same and should behave the same in a corporate environment

  7. It’s really challenging work, that’s for sure! Unconscious processes are unconscious for a reason, mainly because of fear and anxiety so I see my role very often as trying to create a safe enough or accepting enough environment for organisational systems to start to explore this. If these processes can be seen as working in service of the task (which they are) and not disrupting it, then we’re generally off to a good start.

  8. Is that not back to getting people to take responsibility and stop blaming other people or circumstances for their own situation?
    Should we not be empowering people rather than coralling them tighter in processes and policies?

  9. Ah, I thought I detected a bit of the old Melanie Klein in there somewhere. My first wiffe spent a long time studying Klein while developing as a psychotherapist, so some of that rubbed off on me. I have a book somewhere call “The Psychoanalysis of Organisations”, maybe by Brock (?). I found that useful.

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