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3 of a series of 3 on Systems Thinking

You are the leader of this team. In your last staff meeting, in the last 10 minutes the following conflict erupts:

Maria: When I was your age, I never . . .
Jack:  What is this crap about when you were my age? You were NEVER my age! I’m so sick of hearing old people like you judge me when you don’t even…
Leader:  Hey, Jack, calm down. I can see you’re upset with what Maria said but you need..
Jack:  You’re another one! Always telling me what I need to do. I’ve had just about enough of this.
John:  Hey, wait a minute…
Jack: Stay out of it. This isn’t your business either. This is between me and Maria. She’s been on my back since this group started. I’m pissed off.
Leader:  And that is good Jack. I applaud your courage to finally say out loud what you’ve been feeling. But I can’t help but think there’s something else going on here as well…What do others think?
Wow! That was fast wasn’t it! There are times when you are in a group setting when you notice that people seem to be reacting not only to what is actually occurring in the room but also to some perception or past experience that they have, more influenced by their past experiences rather than present circumstances.

We do have the option to ignore the behavior: left untapped it might very well create a risky rift between team members and compromise future work together. If we can resist the tentation to squelch the conflict and not have the guts to attend to it, it might be helpful to ask yourself and – sometime the group:

  1. What is this emotional outburst really about?
  2. What is this person seeing, feeling, and experiencing that I am missing?
  3. What is it about this person’s cultural, ethnic, gender background that would explain his or her unique experience?
  4. How does this fit with what else I know about this person?
  5. To what extent is this person distorting or exaggerating what is going on?
  6. How are others in the group reacting to what is happening?
  7. What does my intuition tell me is going on?
  8. What can I do to help this person become more aware of his or her behavior and find connections to the past?
  9. Who might this group member represent for the rest of the group?
  10. What are the intrapersonal needs that are trying to be met through this exchange?
  11. What do I need to do to work this through toward closure in the group?
  12. What object lessons can be generalized from this single episode to other group members’ experiences?

One of the exciting things about a group setting is the chance to discover and work through some of the apparent trouble together. Often the best way to address this is to use other group members to test your assumptions. This is often achieved by looking for validation from other group members and by comparing one’s interpersonal validations with those of others in the group.

Obviously working like this is only possible if we drop the habit of seeing things as having only one, single cause, and if we approach reality – like a blow up in a group – as a complex event rooted in complex dynamics. Ultimately if we use system thinking as a critical tool for understanding teams.