Leadership and Human Systems – How Authority Relationships Influence Behavior


Edwin Friedman

This is an expansion of an earlier post: A colleague in the nuclear industry recently asked my opinion of the role “boss stress” plays in nuclear safety culture. Research (study after study indicates that the boss-subordinate relationship is the biggest variable in job satisfaction, turnover, etc.), experience, and common sense all indicate that authority relationships are one of if not the biggest variables in any human system. Yet authority dynamics are poorly understood, and almost randomly executed. An excellent and practical model of the systemic impact of authority relations is the 5 behavioral characteristics of “chronically anxious systems” detailed by systems thinking pioneer Edwin Friedman. He noted the following predictable behavioral symptoms in any organization where the leaders are more a source of unnecessary stress than they are a source of calm focused effort. Each and all result in poor performance:

Reactivity – People go into fight and flight reactions such as keeping their mouth shut, talking behind people’s backs, forming and holding negative judgments and believing them to be objective, etc (read my book, Fight, Flight, Freeze!). The result is unresolved needless drama, an over-abundance of career damaging negative evaluations, and high turnover.

Herding – People over-identify with their own groups (us vs them) and are more concerned about their rights than their responsibilities. Focus is on “how can they treat me/us this way,” “they just don’t understand,” “if they were different everything would fine around here,’ and the result is poor alignment, miscommunication, and defensiveness. These behaviors, along with the next characteristic, kill the upward and lateral communication essential to safety and high performance.

Displaced Blame – People point in every other direction rather than calmly looking at their own role in what has gone wrong/what could make it better. Feedback, when it happens, tends to be negative and is likely to defensively ignored.

Quick Fix Mentality – This is an epidemic. Symptoms include trying to implement too many solutions at the same time, poor implementation, always looking for the next best thing because past efforts have failed to produce the intended results. The root cause (i.e., “quick fix mentality”) tends to be overlooked and defended as a “sense of urgency,” and the people and failed solutions tend to be blamed instead.

Absence of Non-Anxious Leadership – This is the ultimate root cause of all of the above and it replicates itself in a dysfunctional system.

Friedman’s model of non-anxious leadership was the focus of our newsletter, Human Factors issue 9.2, “The Leadership Paradox – the Shared Traits of Patton and Gandhi,” some of which bears repeating here. Both leaders embodied the second characteristic of self-differentiated leadership, as defined by Freidman, The Capacity and the Willingness of the Leader to Take Non-Reactive, Clearly Conceived, and Clearly Defined Positions.

Yes, when you take a clear stand you will almost certainly face conflict from one quarter or the other. Better men than I, such as Patton and Gandhi, certainly did. But those who try to avoid conflict by avoiding clarity, or by agreeing with everyone, are doomed to mediocrity. They cannot lead. “Followers” cannot channel their energy without clarity about where they are heading. As John Dewey put it, “There is no freedom without structure.” Calm clear direction adds essential structure to human systems.

Freidman’s “first and foremost characteristic” of a self-differentiated leader is equally vital. The Leader Must Stay in Touch. As another self-differentiated leader, General William Tecumseh Sherman, put it “no man can properly command an army from the rear.” The belief that “empowerment” and “systems” can create reliable results allowing a leader to sit in their office or attend meetings all day is a false hope. To lead one must fight the shackles of their computer and the meeting room and get out on the floor. To lead you must engage and learn. When you lose touch, you stop leading.

Many in positions of leadership struggle to meet this characteristic. Some are concerned that they will dis-empower the layers of management below them if they “skip layers.” Indeed, empowering middle management and front-line supervision is well worth your attention. But it doesn’t happen through absence. It happens through clear goals and behavioral expectations (such as expecting everyone to constantly be clarifying who will decide what, and by when, and expecting everyone to surface issues/create an open flow of communication), through hands-on reinforcement of those expectations, and by staying in touch without assuming authority that belongs at another level. It’s leaders that “take over” that dis-empower, not leaders that stay in touch.

Insist that others, at all levels, do the same. Don’t get caught in the trap of listening to different parts of the system complain about and blame others. Point them towards the others, ask if they want help, and if not, insist that they let you know about how it went.

In other words, “walk the talk.” Or as Gandhi put it, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Clarify your expectations, and then live them through your interactions with the organization. Encourage your subordinates to do the same, including letting you know if you seem to be contradicting your own expectations. Encourage surfacing issues, even if, and especially if, they have “issues” with your positions or behavior. Learn to reinforce the behavior of speaking up without limiting yourself to either rejecting or acquiescing passively to what is said. Make sure you understand. If you manage to truly understand what people are telling you, you’ll be in the best position to decide what to do.

That brings us to Friedman’s third and final characteristic of Self-Differentiated Leadership, The Capacity to Deal with Resistance. Resistance is an element of human systems. In families, the members predictably focus their attention on the “black sheep” of the system. In organizations, and each work group, it is easy to do the same. When leaders get hooked on trying to convert or manage the most difficult members of their system, they actually reinforce the status of and tension with that member. Energy is drained from all. The likelihood of an impasse or ugly divorce is far higher than the likelihood of converting the resistance into true support. Yet most leaders get hooked like a moth to a flame.

Like Patton and Gandhi, the path forward is to walk the talk of the first two characteristics. Be clear about what you stand for, stay in touch with all parties, and move forward. This may not break the resistance, but it won’t allow resistance to bog you down.

This is not to say that the sources of resistance are “the problem.” Some people are simply inclined to be the vocal minority, brave enough to be overt in their discontent (search their comments for solvable problems, and let them help you solve them!). Others, of course, will whole heartedly follow you. The majority will probably “wait and see.” Insist that everyone surface issues and tackle barriers! Create opportunities and structure for engagement! The real problem is not resistance. The real problem is if you fuel resistance by becoming obsessed with it.

In sum, there is such a thing as good stress and bad stress. Good stress drives us to perform. Too much stress drives performance downwards. Solving problems, making improvements, delivering safely, on time, and with high quality is challenging enough. Leadership is the biggest variable in keeping the right focus, or in adding needless drama and thus fueling the 5 characteristics. As Freidman puts it, leaders are either a step up transformer of bad stress, or they act as a step down transformer, thus decreasing drama and helping the organization stay calmly and persistently focused on the task at hand.

Take clear stands, stay connected, decrease needless drama. These are the essential EQ skills we drive to a deep level in our experiential Tough Stuff learning process. Join us for the next session. Foster self-differentiated leadership throughout your system and watch performance improve exponentially.

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 www.crosbyod.com
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