Leadership Simplified: Doug Van Dyke


Leading a Group? Keep Systems Theory in Mind

Volume: July-Mid 2012

By Doug Van Dyke, Leadership Simplified, www.leadershipsimplified.com

Sometimes in our hectic, crazy business lives an issue arises with one of our colleagues. In other words, we find ourselves in the midst of a one-on-one conflict or situation. Other times, an issue takes on a life of its own and morphs into a group situation. This is commonly referred as a cluster……hmmmn. Well, if you have no idea what I am talking about consider yourself lucky, stop reading, and go play Angry Birds. If some type of group-issue-management-thing resonates with you, however, let’s go forward.

Recently, I was talking with someone very wise about both one-on-one and group conflict-scenarios. Let’s call her mom; wait, no, let us refer to her as Barbara. During the discussion, Barbara pointed out something very astute. She said: “You know, as soon as you have more than two people involved in a situation, you are really talking about a system. Sometimes this calls for you to think in terms of systems theory.” I paused for a moment, blinked twice, and then realized that I was talking with a genius. Barbara was absolutely correct, once you move past a two-person situation you are dealing with a system.” As such, I thought it might be kind of fun (as I define fun) to take a quick whirl around just what working with systems looks like.

When we think about how to lead various workplace systems that arise, we may want to keep four important concepts in mind:

  1. The behavior of each element of a system affects the behavior of the whole system.
  2. The behavior of the elements of a system and their effects on the whole system are interdependent.
  3. Out of systems, subgroups will form. Note: These are commonly called factions or cliques.
  4. Subgroups will have an effect on the behavior of the whole group and none of the subgroups have an independent effect on the entire system (source: Organization Development and Transformation by French, Bell, & Zawacki, 2005)

Heavy stuff for a light blog post. Makes you want to get your a priori on. Ah, I digress.

So leaders, what should we take away from these insights about systems theory? The answer is as follows:

  1. Leaders need to be alert when a feud or dispute escalates from a two-person situation into a multi-person interaction.
  2. When item “a” occurs, think strategically about how to deliver difficult conversations.
  3. Show good leadership by helping your team members understand the nuances of systems theory, and in the process build a better sense of collaboration and team play.

Can’t get enough of systems theory? Check out Hegel, or Stephen Hawking, or maybe just find that well-adjusted guy kicking-butt at Angry Birds.

Until next time, be well.


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