Working together can be fantastic

Systemic questions in collaborations

Working together can be fantastic; especially when you get into a flow in which synergy can arise. You then feel like it is possible to achieve everything together. When this flow is lacking and problems arise in a group of people, we often look at the group dynamics first. There has been lots of research into group dynamics and there are many models available in this area. Group dynamics concern the patterns within a group or team and are usually focused inwards. Interventions at a group level, for example bringing these patterns out into the open, can be highly effective. However, you sometimes see that after a while the same patterns return. For someone with knowledge of systemic work this is the signal to look at the problem at system level: not only internally – within the group – but also at the other systems to which this group is connected. 

How flow is generated

Flow is generated – or hindered – in a team by the exchange between all these different systems. In partnerships, there are always many systems that play a role. Firstly, each individual has his own system of origin, which indirectly plays a role in the partnership. Additionally, there is the organisational system you belong to, the system of your department and the team or product you belong to. Other systems potentially play a role too, for example the system of the professional group you are part of or the system of your client or market. When you cannot solve the problem in a team with an intervention in the group dynamics, it can be worthwhile to zoom out a little further. By widening your perspective, you could possibly see what is going on in the exchange between the team and (one or more of) these larger systems. 

Tina was team leader for a team with financial administrative tasks. The team was newly formed after a reorganisation. Before that the staff had worked in other teams, in which they each had a solo function. They knew each other, but hadn’t worked together before. Tina was clearly struggling. ‘They keep fighting’, she said. ‘One doesn’t want to work with another because he doesn’t trust the people from that part of the organisation. Another doesn’t want to work together with someone who has worked in a team that committed fraud, and then there’s one who thinks he’s so good that everyone should copy his methods. Where do I start?’ 

Problems and solutions

The first question that you can ask from your systemic wisdom about the example above is: ‘For what is the current situation a good solution?’ This question will automatically help you zoom out instead of focusing on the symptoms in the overcurrent: the individual employees who all provide reasons for not working together. Even if you tried to fix all of these individual reasons, nothing would change. Replacing all these employees with new people would not solve the problem either. In this case a more structural solution could be found in the undercurrent, where the life-giving forces of systems apply. In this example we follow the life-giving forces to discover what good reason the system provides for not wanting to work together. 

Belonging as life-giving force

From the life-giving force ‘belonging’ you can ask the question: ‘Are there people who are no longer recognised after the reorganisation, who are no longer seen?’ In reorganisations complicated procedures are often designed to form new partnerships. Sometimes these procedures become so complicated that they no longer seem to concern people. Or different measures rapidly follow one another. In that case the strategy often is that any problems resulting from these measures will be solved later. In both situations it happens that people, with their special expertise or experience, are easily forgotten. From the perspective of this life-giving force, the team’s resistance to working together is functional. The system is ‘forced’ to show that which is not recognised or seen. This also happens when someone within an organisation is suddenly dismissed or when an organisation harms people or the environment and then tries to hide it. This can also appear in the overcurrent in the form of a lack of cooperation, as the system’s reaction to make visible that which is excluded.

Order as life-giving force

The underlying reason for the lack of cooperation or the resistance can also have something to do with the life-giving force of ‘order’. Not only does everyone who is part of the system have a right to a position; the positions within an organisational system also have a fixed order. Working from this order provides peace and security. Systems thrive on this. In organisations it often happens that people or teams leave their place in the order, then they no longer function from their functional position in the organisational system, with the corresponding responsibilities. Think of an employee in a project team who takes the decisions that should be taken by the project leader. Or consider someone who continuously gives a colleague with the same status instructions and checks their work, but this behaviour is not a two-way street. In both cases someone ‘places themselves above the other’, in a way that does not coincide with their actual position. A different example of ‘leaving the order’ is a manager who by no means directs his team when trying to solve a new problem. In this case he passes off his responsibilities to his team. After a reorganisation – like in Tina’s example – it is especially wise to look at this life-giving force. The order has to be ‘reinvented’. 

Exchange as life-giving force

There are also good reasons not to work together stemming from the life-giving force ‘exchange’. After a reorganisation the organisation has to ‘reset’. The dust has to settle. In terms of the time this takes, the guideline is one cycle, for example one financial year or a term of election. Everyone has to reconnect to the system. The order has to be re-established. This requires extra energy from the staff, whereas it is still unclear what they will receive in return. For that reason, a reorganisation disturbs the balance between giving and taking in the undercurrent. It is possible that someone appears to gain a lot in the overcurrent, for example by getting more opportunities to develop, better working conditions or working closer to home.

Balancing again

When there is a new reorganisation within the period of the first cycle this introduces an extra risk factor. Employees are busy connecting to the new situation, which costs extra energy, and then are forced to let go again. It can then become less and less interesting for someone to connect to the organisation or to the goal of the reorganisation. They have already given too much. Just when they get to the point of receiving something in return for their efforts, they have to give again. Moreover, what and when they can expect something in return is uncertain, which disrupts the balance even more. The exchange and balance between giving and taking can also be disrupted in teams that have nothing to do with the consequences of a reorganisation. For example when the production requirements are constantly increased without there being any kind of reward. Or when staff competencies and qualities that were previously highly appreciated by the organisation are suddenly of lesser importance. 

Tina immediately knew why the staff was restless. ‘The management kept saying how important the reorganisation was, how much better everything was going to be, and that everything would be much more efficient. It was as if we had never done anything right in the past, when I think that the staff had actually managed quite well with the few resources available. They had prevented disasters.’ When we looked past the boundaries of the team, we saw that lack of acknowledgement was actually a problem in the entire organisation. It manifested in several different forms. In systemic words: there were a huge variety of symptoms. Tina got to work with her own team. She organised a team meeting about lack of acknowledgement and the balance between giving and taking. Together we approached the management and planned a meeting about the symptoms that we had noticed. The management reached the same conclusion as Tina and changed its communication strategy. The first concrete step by all members of the board was to visit the teams and hear what was lost during the reorganisation. All’s well that ends well? Not quite yet. However, making a start by bringing up the undercurrent gave the management a better grip and more possibilities to successfully lead the new organisation. 

Questions about working together 

  • What is the lack of partnership really about? Does the symptom belong to one of the people in the team? Does it belong to the entire team or to a part of it? Does it belong to a larger system? 
  • If the behaviour of a certain person bothers you, ask yourself what function this person fulfils for the system by showing this behaviour. Is he ensuring that someone or something is not forgotten? Is she safeguarding quality? 
  • How come you are the person looking at this situation? Whose role or what need are you fulfilling for the system when you do this?

Accept all possibilities as hypotheses when answering these questions. Imagine that the lack of partnership is indeed due to a person, what does that mean? What does it say? Imagine that the lack of partnership is indeed due to a team or a part of a team, what does that mean? What does it say? Work with the above questions with the intention that everything is fine the way it is. Nothing has to change. The actual situation within the team or within the organisation is the system’s best solution for the time being. Acknowledging this gives the symptom a function. This is exactly the right function for the symptom. This gives it a fitting place within the system and allows you to continue your work. The symptom shows you the direction in which to start exploring. Going over the three life-giving forces – like we did in the example – can provide the necessary structure for this exploration. 

Siets Bakker