Every System has a Crack
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide
An winter landscape with leafless trees on grass. Two trees are close together, and inbetween them a ray of sunshine shines through.

That’s how the light comes in

To shift a collective culture is no mean feat.

And collectives can shift the place they co-create from as soon as they discover one simple fact: that we constantly co-create the results that nobody wants. With our thoughts and actions we constantly reenact a culture that doesn’t serve anyone.

However, before that awareness can rise, the players of the system need to share their perspectives. Understanding these different perspectives is what enables a system to see itself more fully. It can’t get there at all if people only share half heartedly or hold back their thoughts and feelings altogether. The unsaid leads to systems blindspots.

The role of psychological safety

And that leads us to the need for psychological safety. What if the psychological safety and interpersonal trust necessary for sharing perspectives is lacking? Well then, frustrations will surface again and again, but what really causes them will remain in the dark. That is the reality in most organisations that have been around for a while. 

When things remain unheard and unseen, the system operates in blindness, unaware of its underlying currents. However it does notice the results: relationships are ruptured, and projects don’t go smoothly or hardly move at all. 

The power of listening

What can leaders do to break the spell of blind co-creation of frustration? Let’s first look at what they often do not do: One of the greatest leadership failures is an inability to listen. This lack of listening causes a disconnect between leaders and the situation at hand. A disconnect between the leaders and their people’s experience.

But what does it mean to listen? It is one thing to ask for a perspective, and a different one to actually listen. Really listening means suspending judgment, cynicism and fear. You have those when you find yourself in disbelief of what you hear, or discarding it as not accurate, or quickly interpreting it, or pretending not to hear it at all and moving on to the next topic because it is uncomfortable to acknowledge what you’ve heard, let alone invite the other to elaborate.

The truth is that it’s common for everyone, including leaders, to default into reacting with protective behaviours when  we hear something that makes us uncomfortable. The protective behaviour could be resorting to sharing information. Putting  on a corporate face. Saying “I hear you”, but failing to lean into the curiosity and empathy which would encourage the other to say more about why they think what they think.

Rank and vulnerability

That’s why possibly the most important thing in any change initiative is for leaders to lean into the vulnerability of not knowing: to listen with an open heart and to stay with being confused by what they hear when they could easily discard it with an easy explanation, such as “Oh, that’s just the usual complainers.”

How can leaders (re)create trust with their people so they feel safe to share what really matters to them? 

By listening with empathy and by seeing with fresh eyes what is happening in their organisation. Again, that requires vulnerability. A vulnerability that in turn allows others to take a risk.

It’s a small opening towards culture change.

When that crack opens in any kind of gathering, that’s where the light comes in which fuels anticipation of a future possibility and movement towards co-creating that better future.

Those with the most power and the highest rank in any community need to make the first step of vulnerability.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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