Systems Thinking – an excerpt from my e-newsletter

The Paradigm of Personality

Have You Looked Under the Hood and Checked Your Paradigm Lately?

We are all a product of our times. Innocent in our youth, we soak up the beliefs of our culture like a sponge, quickly allowing them to harden into the filters through which we perceive and understand the world. Like the flat earth theory of old, certain beliefs, or paradigms, are so engrained that their wisdom and validity are taken for granted. Yet today’s dominant belief about human behavior -that we have essentially fixed personalities that are the cause, at work at least, of most problems and conflicts – is as limited as the ancient belief that the world was flat. New information is available, but culturally accepted paradigms are stubborn things, slow to give way. Even when one values a new belief, when push comes to shove, it’s easy to slip back into the old. None-the-less, a new and richer paradigm is emerging today.

To fully appreciate this, the reader needs exposure to some underlying assumptions about human behavior. This article explores three paradigms, interlinked but distinct, offering very different possibilities
for understanding and influencing human behavior:

Personality Theory – Based loosely on psychoanalytical theory, this is the predominant paradigm in western civilization today. Without realizing what they are doing, most people habitually rely on personality theory for understanding conflict and performance issues in organizations. Problem analysis comes to predictable conclusions such as individuals “don’t have the right personality” (“he’s too passive,” “she micro manages,” etc) or that the root cause is a “personality clash.” These sorts of personality flaws are considered essentially fixed traits, thus the primary solution is to change out the people, move them around, and/or hire the right people in the first place.

Ironically, the paradigm of personality theory has systemic effects (see .Systems Thinking, below…the emerging alternative), subtly stoking the flames of organizational tension. People put energy, for good reason, into worrying about how they are perceived. They know even if they are flying high today, that they can be essentially written off as flawed tomorrow. That’s always a possibility when organizational problems are narrowed down to individual performance. People become masters at not seeming defensive, and of playing the games of feedback and development not so much to actually develop, but to avoid being labeled as deficient. It is a paradigm afflicted by tunnel vision (“they’re having a personality clash”), and that is in its essence insulting to the individual, thus eliciting defensiveness and brewing CYA behavior.

Sound harsh? Perhaps. The truth hurts sometimes. But never fear…personality theory has its place in the emerging paradigm. Of course we bring our individual strengths and weaknesses to the organization, and are wise to take an active approach to our own development. And of course we are responsible for our own behavior and performance. But there are stronger forces at play than our personality traits, and to focus primarily on personality is like sticking entirely to snail mail in the age of the computer.

The computer age, incidentally, has contributed heavily to the emerging paradigm. But first, another prevalent paradigm that has its place, but only completes some of the human performance puzzle.

Behavioral Theory – By this we mean the aspect of behavioral theory that focuses on skills. That is, the belief that the solution to conflict and performance issues lies in a skills gap, which could be technical, interpersonal, or both. This paradigm has led to the dramatic growth of training and development as a strategy for improving organizational performance. Like personality theory, it’s a paradigm that makes sense to many (as it must, to become a paradigm), and has practical applications, but again overlooks powerful influences impacting individual and organizational performance.

By all means, a critical mass of individuals who, through training, have worked on their own emotional intelligence, have honed their conflict management skills, have studied their personality tendencies through tools such as Social Styles and have learned to respect and stretch into new behaviors can move an organization to higher productivity. But as most people know, there are mysterious forces at play that can derail even the best classroom learning, especially if the paradigm underlying the training is blind to those forces.

Systems Thinking – Many have heard of it, few have made it a way of life. Rooted in computer science (Forrester), social science (Lewin), and family systems therapy (Bowen), this is arguably the most powerful element of productivity and conflict, yet it is a relatively new paradigm that is not yet integrated into popular consciousness. Some core concepts of systems thinking include:

Start with yourself

Most people put their time and energy into analyzing and trying to change everyone else (a byproduct of the personality theory paradigm). The predictable result is defensiveness by others. If one is not skillful at analyzing oneself and working on continuous improvement (which is greatly enhanced by earnestly and skillfully soliciting feedback from others), then one is not likely to be a significant influence on others (although positional authority may lead others to half-hearted compliance).

Over Functioning – Under Functioning

Everyone over functions or under functions to some degree. If I’m vocal, for example, others are likely to be less vocal. Its physics applied to human interaction. Even if I wish they were more vocal, my filling of airtime decreases their need/opportunity to do so. And vice-versa, if I don’t speak much, others will speak more. The only way to change such a dance, is to change my own behavior (in this example, speak more or speak less). The key is to be aware of such patterns, and to be intentional about changing them.

Every part of the system is a reflection of the whole

Morale and productivity are not, for the most part, a personality issue. Multiple studies (including one conducted by our Senior Advisor, Robert P. Crosby, involving over 500 organizations) have linked variables such as feeling respected by one’s boss, being able to influence one’s work processes, being able to make decisions at the lowest possible level, etc., to morale and productivity. While there will always be a few who are demoralized in a system where most are productive and in high spirits, the
vast majority is responsive, for better or worse, to systemic conditions. And each individual in the system, each work group, each meeting is a window into understanding the system.

The leader is the biggest variable in a human system

The Emotional Intelligence work of Daniel Goleman, while primarily a personality and skills approach, has helped increase awareness of systems thinking by emphasizing the amplified impact that the leader has on the emotional health of the system. The leader is not, of course, the only variable. A systemic approach encourages everyone to start with themselves, and fosters ownership and involvement at every
level. None the less, the emotional and systemic intelligence of the hierarchical leadership remains the biggest variable.

The Emotional Field

People are more connected than they realize. Your emotion effects others (are you tense or relaxed?).
Your approach to the conversation effects others (are you putting all of your energy into being heard, or are you also listening?). Your past impacts you and hence others (your history with a person or a group, how you feel about positional authority, etc.). The same can be said of everyone.

Family systems therapists call this convergence of past and present variables the emotional field. Like gravity, it’s invisible. You can only tell it is there by the effects. If it is a strong field, the effects are predictable. For example, if a boss is (or seems) displeased with us, most people react just as
they did as a child when disciplined by their parents. They get sucked into the field of parent-child emotionality. We become more practiced at hiding our reactions, but the internal experience is much the same.


Given the above, every relationship is a complex system, with its own field. In other words, every relationship – between people, between groups, between layers in the hierarchy – is a reinforcing loop. Each of us is part of the behavior we are experiencing from others…the behavior we like and the behavior we don’t like. And each system craves stability, even when it is dysfunctional. This homeostasis is very hard to break. People instinctively resist most change. Real change requires recognizing the dysfunctional patterns in the system (such as finger pointing), and then patient and persistent leadership towards more productive behaviors.

Take a stand, stay connected

Most of us gravitate one way or the other. We may be good at driving towards task or saying what
we think whether or not it upsets people, or we may be good at building relationships but not so good at taking stands that risk relationship. People get pulled to one or the other extreme by systemic pressure. The ability to do both simultaneously is a core systems thinking leadership skill.

If you change individuals without changing the system, you’ll still have problems. If you swap out the parts when there is misalignment, the new parts will simply grind against each other. Yet that is the primary
approach most management teams take…swap out the parts or rearrange them (i.e., change the structure). Real change requires working on alignment throughout the system, and helping the people at every level think and act systemically.

Real change requires a critical mass managing problems with a new paradigm. What’s your paradigm?

Gil Crosby, first published in Human Factors, Fall 2007, Volume 8, Issue 1

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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4 Responses to Systems Thinking – an excerpt from my e-newsletter

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