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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Illusion of Objectivity in Organizational Development and Consulting

Field theory, gestalt psychology, and system theory provide perspectives and insights that can help you as a leader or consultant look in a different way at organizations, their challenges, and how to improve effectiveness. Below I'll cover some of these insights:  

-       Paul Watzlawick’s first rule of communication - It is impossible not to communicate – can be extended with “It’s impossible not to influence or to be influenced”. The very moment two or more people are in each other’s presence, whether they actively interact with each other or not, they immediately influence each other. Even if you’re a new leader in your organization or an outside consultant, the moment you step into the organization and start interacting, you are communicating, you are influencing, and you are being influenced. Yes, you will likely bring a fresher perspective than someone who has been with the company for a good number of years, but you will immediately be influenced by the organization and it’s people. You will never be a complete outsider with that so admired ‘objective perspective’. It just doesn’t exist. Your goal should not be to become that objective outsider but to know your subjectivity, to know what influences you so that you know your tendencies and biases and how they steer and impact your perceptions, your thinking, and your choices.

-       When you look at the organization and when you’re in contact with it’s employees, you are never focused on the total environment. You can’t possibly be, because you always, consciously or not, choose something to be in the foreground, something to focus on. This focus is often a deliberate focus based on your objectives. Just know what it is and that it inadvertently results in leaving other things to be in the background and to be less considered or not at all. What you pay attention to depends on many factors such as interests, needs, fears, past experiences, objectives, and expectations. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re aware of it and knowledgeable about the dynamics your focus creates. This way you will have a better understanding of how your focus influences your leadership or your consulting.

-       So just to be clear: There is no such thing as one reality or one truth, not even yours. Never. Every reality is subjective and there always are multiple subjective realities at work. Subjectivity starts with your perception, which is always personal and subjective, creating unique dynamics and influencing interpretations in a unique way. Two people can be looking at the same team and perceive radically different dynamics. Even when these two people perceive the same things, their interpretations can be as different as tuna pasta is from beef stew. My conclusion: If you make statements about reality this can only be done while acknowledging the relativity of your statements.

-       The whole is always different from the sum of its parts. Your total organization is not the same as adding up all the people and it’s elements. Think of eating a piece of apple pie, which is not the same as eating a handful of the separate ingredients. You cannot truly understand an element of your organization without seeing the context of the whole organization, neither can you understand the whole organization if you just study the elements and put those results together.

-       Without awareness there is no contact. Increasing awareness is the first logical step and the most important goal of the Gestalt approach in organizational consulting. Awareness is the process of noticing and realizing the possible different meanings of what you notice. An essential condition to improve the effectiveness of people and organizations is increasing the awareness of every individual employee. When consulting an organization it is not so much about programming, re-programming, controlling, and prescribing as it is about helping increase awareness and facilitating the process of self-regulation and of creative adjustment that is already present in every organization. Your focus should be on taking away the hindrances which block the self-regulation and the creative adjustment of the people in the organization. This is quite different from the tell-and-sell approach of consultants and leaders who think they know it all or that they should know it all.

-       When problems develop, there is no one ‘identified patient’. As much as we all might wish to isolate the problem, system theory teaches us that all parts interact in many different ways. Enabling structures and behaviors are just one example of how other teams or departments play a role in creating, allowing, or exacerbating the problems. According to field theory, every symptom, illness, or distortion always relates to the whole organization. This is not to say that it isn’t possible for one person or one team to resonate strongest with the illness of the organization but isolating them and focusing solely on them to create a solution will not result in sustainable improvement.

Many thanks go to gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin who developed field theory in the 1940s and who has inspired me to see interactions, challenges and processes in their context - in their field with it’s many influences. With the above beliefs and ideas I aim to add to the perspectives you are already using. Even though some of it might contradict with your beliefs and practices, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a choice between one or the other. I challenge you to combine them, maybe even into ‘third alternatives’, as the late Stephen Covey would call it. Take on a ‘no-victim approach’. You are always a part of the dynamic, whether you are a team member, a leader, a consultant or in any other role. You are part of the dynamic by being part of the organization and by what you choose to focus on and how you influence everyone you’re in contact with. As soon as you and I step into an organization we are a part of it and we have to acknowledge, understand, and leverage that influence. We better take seriously how we contribute to whatever dynamics are present and the subsequent accountability. I have in my 22-year practice and it has paid off for my customers. 

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