Relationships as separate entities

I spent two days in a training on Organizational & Relationship Systems earlier this month, with CRR Global, an organization that offers a coaching and training curriculum with this perspective.  I signed up because I want to grow my skills at leadership in general and with change leadership in particular.  The training was very interesting, drawing on many disciplines and areas of research that I was already quite familiar with such as system dynamics and John Gottman’s work on intimate relationships.  One of the key concepts I came away with was the idea of the relationship itself as a separate entity from the people involved in the relationship, an idea common in couples counseling, but newly (for me) applied to relationships within organizations, including partnerships, teams and larger groups.  The training helped me understand how to work with a relationship system, to coach the system itself with all the people involved, rather than just work with the individuals who are part of the relationship.

I find this framework very powerful and have already applied it within my own organization.  The strength of the frame comes from a couple of key ideas:

  • The relationship system has inherent ability to self-regulate – I have certainly found this to be true. I have directly experienced stability in an organization even when individual people come and go.  Relationship systems can be self-perpetuating.  So if you want to lead change, it helps to pay attention to the next idea:
  • Relationship systems have inherent creativity and intelligence, and have the seeds of change already planted in them. The implication of this is that:
  • The work of a leader or coach is to help the system “see” itself, become aware of itself, rather than try to fix it or change it, and as a result the system will self-correct, and sometimes in unexpected and wonderful ways.

This approach to leading change really opened me up to all kinds of new possibilities.  I found it to be very energizing, for a number of reasons, among them:

  • It was so freeing to not have to know what the answer is – what needs to change. As a leader, it means you can set vision and then work with the relationship system to facilitate movement toward that vision, but not have to know all the steps along the way.  In fact, the system could surprise you in ways you could not even imagine.
  • I really appreciated the starting assumption that the people in the relationship system are inherently capable – it emphasizes that a leader can let go of a particular outcome and trust the people in the team or organization.

The skills a leader brings to bear with this approach are similar to those of Lean leadership such as inquiry and respect for people.  But there is also an appreciation for the emotions people bring in to the system (we are all human and our emotions follow us into the work place, it turns out!), as well as for physical experience, and how we can use body movement to tap in to a different source of intelligence than our head center where we spend so much time.

It was really fun to be able to go to a training and apply what I learned right away, with such positive outcomes. A very strong reinforcing feedback loop!

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