AN OPEN SYSTEMS APPROACH
Janet Mills and Chris Bull
The idea of using a systems approach to development is not in itself a new one. What makes this approach different is the increased understanding and flexibility of approach and application afforded by the links between systems thinking and a model of the psychological system of human beings which forms the basis of re-evaluation counselling.
The systems framework offers a model as a basis for people to understand what is happening in a given situation. This framework helps people to analyse and record the current state in which they find themselves and where they are experiencing problems. The re-evaluation counselling model provides the means for understanding why humans find certain situations difficult to handle as they interact with their environments individually or collectively.
OPEN SYSTEMS FRAMEWORK
At its simplest level, a system can be diagrammatically represented, as in Figure 5. 1. The framework’s starting point is to describe processes through the concepts of inputs, outputs and boundaries.
The use of the terms ‘input’ and ‘output’ implies an inside and an outside to the system. We have signified this diagrammatically and termed the division line the boundary. The boundary’s function is to ‘contain’ the system both physically and psychosocially. An example of these boundary dimensions at the level of the individual are the skin and the degree to which the person is ‘comfortable’ with close contact with other human beings. At the level of the organisation it might be the physical boundaries of a manufacturing site and the degree to which a feeling of ownership of the business is shared by its members. Systems may, and usually do, differ in the way they appreciate and view the boundary conditions under which they operate. This is due to the degree of permeability, or openness, they possess to environmental information. For example, some individuals who work in large companies can view their higher than average salaries and pension arrangements as chains which restrict them from action, or supports which can protect them from environmental hazards outside the system, or prerequisites for beginning a change in their life styles. At the level of the organisation the literature is full of examples of companies that have been taken over or have been debilitated by environmental changes that they have stolidly refused to recognise.
Figure 5.1 An Open Systems Framework
If we think of ourselves as a system, we ‘input’ various forms of matter. energy and information. Examples of each category are food, sunlight and data. An organisation might take in iron ore, oil and data on market needs and trends.
Outputs can be divided into the same categories as inputs, i.e., matter, energy and information. If we think about the human being, we can see that outputs are qualitatively different from the inputs. Food as an input becomes liquid and solid waste, oxygen becomes carbon dioxide and information about systems concepts can produce clarity of perception about past, current or future events. There is, therefore, some form of change that takes place within the system. Some work is done on the inputs the system receives to produce these qualitatively different outputs. This process has been termed the transformation process and can be thought of as having two dimensions: physical and psychological. The organisational processes directly working on inputs of iron ore would be an example of physical transformation, the morale or esprit de corps of an organisation or department would be an example of psychological transformation. At the level of the individual, the physiological processes that operate on food are examples of physical processes. In terms of the central psychological process in the human system, we see it as an energy-giving creative process which when fully engaged can permit the system to deal with its environment in a powerful, creative, rational and exhilarating way.
This psychological transformation process we term the core process, the outputs of which are healthy both for the system and for the environment in which it is embedded. The term we use when a system is co-operating fully in this way is interdependence. We have all experienced times when we feel full of energy and our actions are clear, direct, creative and fulfilling. This happens when we have experienced boundary conditions which have facilitated naturally our unique core process. Another way of thinking of this is as our preferred stance towards life or our unique way of engaging with our environment productively.
The system contains sub-processes, or what are termed in Figure 5.1 support process. These are processes that maintain the system by ensuring that the key transformation flow is not impeded or blocked. In an organisation these activities might well include machine maintenance, training, stocks, etc.
The next element in our diagram is feedback. This is obviously a key variable in determining the system’s ability to learn and grow. Feedback can be of two types, that which reinforces and that which negates the behaviour of the system. Neglecting to receive or deal with such feedback is likely to result in the decay of the system through it failing to adapt to ever-changing conditions around it.
A healthy, functioning system with good feedback mechanisms has a sense of direction based on its being clear about its current situation in all its aspects and why it is in that state. The direction represents how the system needs to move in order to maintain and improve its own health.
It is important to note the difference between having a direction against which health and progress can be measured and actions can be evaluated, and goals, which suggest end-points. A direction is how a system moves, whereas a goal is what the system is moving towards. Often maintaining the direction may result in sacrificing goals, and vice versa. Since the direction is arrived at out of the core process and is directly linked with that, sacrificing the direction (which is what the system needs to maintain its core process through time) can mean interfering with the core process function, resulting in the system either changing its core process (becoming a different system) or, more likely, no longer being able to maintain its health.
Although we have explained the systems diagram in terms of its separate elements, it is important to remember that all the elements introduced here are interdependent. No one element can exist without the others and need to be appreciated in that context. Each element is a part of the whole, and, as such, when one element is modified, it is likely to influence some or all of the others.
Having completed the description of the systems framework, we shall go on to show how this relates to human beings by linking it with a model of the human psychological process which forms the basis of re-evaluation counselling.
A MODEL OF THE HUMAN PSYCHOLOGICAL PROCESS
In our natural state (healthy system) we take in information from our environment (inputs) through our senses. We are constantly bombarded with data about our environment which we then store in appropriate bits within our memory cells. In a new situation, we compare and contrast the new data with what we have stored and make a response as a result (output).
Human beings in their natural, healthy state all display certain basic characteristics. They are all
- Warm and loving, seeking collaboration and co-operation with the environment, which of course includes other people.
- Curious and outgoing, seeking to learn and grow, and taking a developmental stance towards their world.
- Highly intelligent, having a tremendous capacity for understanding, interpreting and acting in their world in a flexible, appropriate and spontaneous way.
Being in and acting from this state constitutes psychological health. Each person displays, these human characteristics in a unique way, and the individual way in which we each act (output) is the result of the information we absorb (inputs) being processed via our personal blend of these human characteristics. This personal blend is our psychological transformation process or core process. When this is working freely, each of us is in a healthy state of interdependence with our environment, and actions upon the world will reflect this both for the individual and for the environment.
What prevents the core process from functioning as it is meant to is that sometimes the information we receive through our various sense organs is hurtful. It causes us to experience an emotional reaction to it. All human actions which are inconsistent with the healthy state are the results of accumulations of such distressful experience, which occlude the core process, preventing it from operating and resulting in rigid, inappropriate behaviours which are ‘re-runs’ of former distressful experiences. For example, being summoned to the boss’s office may invoke memories of being summoned to the headmaster’s study, and the bad feelings engendered are re-experienced in the new situation. The person is then likely to treat the situation and the boss as though he or she were reliving the scene in the headmaster’s office. This new distressing experience becomes connected to the original accumulation of distress, and thus the distress trapped in the information is ready for restimulation whenever any future experience contains information sufficiently similar to either distressful incident.
Human beings have ways of dealing with distress through natural mechanisms (part of the support processes in the systems framework)’ which release the negative feelings associated with the hurt while leaving the data intact, to be filed appropriately, and freeing the human being to respond in the situation in accordance with his core process. These processes outwardly manifest themselves as crying, laughing, talking repetitively, shaking, sweating, shouting, yawning and violent movement. All these are signs that distress is being released. Unfortunately, such signs have become socially unacceptable, and from an early age we are discouraged from doing these things. This is because (a) we have come to confuse the symptom with the cause, believing that stopping someone from shaking stops them being afraid, and (b) when we see others doing these things, it arouses a similar or related need in us, a sort of sympathetic discharge.
The only way we can think of to prevent ourselves doing these things is to prevent others from doing so. Sympathetic discharge, ironically, often occurs because such release has been prevented in the past, and the healthy drive in human beings is always seeking an opportunity to ‘heal’ hurts. When others discharge, therefore, it triggers our need to get rid of our own stored distresses, and because others are doing so, we feel in some way that we have ‘permission’ to do likewise.
Injunctions not to do so are usually very strong, however, and we take action to stop others from releasing their distresses in order to stop ourselves.
Thus our natural psychological support systems cannot operate and we retain our distress, which causes us often to respond to our environment in ways inconsistent with our core process. This results in unhealthy responses (outputs) to the world, which in turn produce unhelpful, rigid responses from the environment to us (inputs). Again, the grip of our pathology (distress accumulation) we are unable to use the feedback effectively, and the situation goes from bad to worse rapidly. Thus human pathologies prevent human beings from surviving and developing healthily and naturally.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE OPEN SYSTEMS MODEL OF HUMAN BEINGS FOR HEALTHY DEVELOPMENT
The model suggests that, as open systems, human beings have an innate ability to adapt to their environment and to develop and learn as a part of that process. Survival depends on their ability to adapt and grow in a healthy way. The need to survive means that they must get feedback from their environment on the results of their actions and learn from it, and this learning ability is inbuilt. What prevents this natural process from operating freely are the pathologies the person has built up from undischarged distress experience. When the person is acting from, in the grip of, these pathologies, the natural human being is inhibited. At the same time, the natural, motivation and ability to learn are blocked. When they are not in the grip of such distress experiences, people can deal effectively and developmentally with any situation they encounter.
Such a view of humans suggests that whatever their situation is, the process of enabling development is a question of removing the blocks to the natural processes. This in turn suggests that management development is simply one sort of situation in which people find themselves, and the process of management development is no different from that of developing people in other situations -playing golf, for instance.
When managers recognise, understand and then deal with their individual pathologies, they release their natural motivation to learn and interact with the environment in ways consistent with their unique human selves. They can seek and absorb any information which they need to deal with their situation as a manager and make effective decisions based on that information.
Much emphasis is put on ‘style’ in management development training, and there are a number of models to help managers pinpoint what their particular style is. Our model suggests that we each have a unique style’ which, based as it is on our human selves, allows us to behave in flexible developmental, collaborative ways whatever our situation.
A manager’s style is therefore his unique way of doing this, his core process, which will apply whatever role he is fulfilling in life, be it manager father or golfer, any of the several roles he has a social animal.
The combination of knowing what the core process is and being aware of and having some ways of dealing with occluding pathologies gives the manager the means of dealing with his situation. It allows his natural curiosity, intelligence and warmth to guide him.
The model also suggests that we are naturally motivated, have a highly individual way of solving problems and making decisions and are inherently good at communicating all this to other people. Only our distress and pathologies prevent us from doing these things uniquely and appropriately all the time.
A manager’s role in developing other people is similarly a process of helping them to distinguish their core process from their pathologies. ‘Disciplining’ and ‘appraisal’ are two management vehicles for doing this. In such situations, the manager can always do this well when he is operating from his humanity and not from his pathologies. Example of inhibiting pathologies may be such thoughts as ‘I must show that I am the boss here’, ‘I must prove myself as a manager’, ‘I must succeed, do well at this’. Such preoccupations prevent the manager from dealing with the reality of the situation, and make him behave in accordance with the injunctions rather than as his core process guides him.
APPLICATIONS OF THE MODEL TO DEVELOPMENT PROCESSES
The model can be used to distinguish healthy from pathological actions in the individual, group and organisational system, in fact in any system which is designed and run by people. Systems set up by people reflect. in the way that they are designed and operated, both the natural and the pathological actions of human beings. Thus structures and procedures may or may not be appropriate to the situation, according to whether they have been set up by human beings operating from their natural or their pathological selves.
Techniques can be devised from the model to enable groups to identify their philosophy as a group (core process) and to plan their business by understanding what pathologies are operating to prevent them from realising that philosophy. Thence they can devise ways of moving from a pathology-driven to a philosophy-driven direction for any given domain in their environment.
When people come for counselling help, the model can also be applied. The counsellor helps the client to identify what pathologies are operating to prevent him or her from dealing with the problem. In such situations, it may also be appropriate to encourage the person to recount and discharge on past distressful experiences which have gone to make up the current pathology. This is the therapeutic process, focusing directly on ridding the individual of distress and reducing the size of the pathology (the number of previous distress incidents which the pathology contains).
A further application of the model is in the training field. It is on this application that the remainder of the chapter focuses, outlining the nature of the event itself and then describing the effects of its introduction into a large organisation.
The course is in three parts. The first part focuses the participants on their environment. It provides a framework within which they can identify the key domains in their current world and describe the current state of their relationship with and feelings about each of them. Each person then has time to share his or her map with the group which enables the person to see his world, probably for the first time, as a coherent whole, and to appreciate the interdependence which exists between himself and his environment and between the domains of the environment.
The states identified, along with their associated feelings, show the degree to which the current state of interaction with the environment is healthy or unhealthy, i.e. whether or not there are pathologies operating. It is often difficult for people to distinguish clearly between what they perceive the state to be and the nature of their feelings about the state. This is particularly so where the feelings are negative ones since it is difficult to divorce what is happening from the feelings aroused when one is operating from distress.
The second stage of the course enables people to identify their core process. This is done by providing a series of steps which enable the participant to move from general experiences to a specific one and to define within that the specific features of the experience. From these descriptions emerge a verb and a noun which capture for that person the essence of their centrality, what it is that they do that allows them to experience feelings of satisfaction,-enjoyment, warmth, effortlessness etc., which are associated with operating from the human state.
Having identified their ‘real self’, they move to the third phase, which is to identify and find ways of dealing with the various pathologies inhibiting their core process. This may be done in several ways and may focus on a specific domain which is currently in an unhealthy state or examine directly the most recurrent pathologies.
It might be useful to describe a specific example of this stage of the process. On one programme a senior manager had identified his core process as ‘growing relationships’. Looking at his current situation, he identified a number of highly competitive situations in which he engaged, both in the sporting and the personal sense.
One particular relationship, an important one within his management team, he saw as unproductive because he and his colleague never agreed about anything, and he experienced the other man as ‘trying to control me’. A detailed analysis of what exchanges took place between them, what feelings the manager experienced, what he was valued, and what he thought his opponent’ was valuing quickly revealed his own competitive streak. He summarised the nature of the current relationship as ‘scoring points’. He then used the Gestalt ’empty chair’ technique of having a dialogue between ‘core process’ him and ‘pathological’ (competitive) him. The pathology was ‘I must prove myself’, and in situations such as the one with his colleague pushed him into rigid, and in this case competitive, behaviours whenever they faced each other at meetings.
After discussion between the two ‘aspects’ of himself for a while our manager was able to see the pathology as a separate and blocking aspect which he chose to overcome. In order to help him to stay out of those competitive behaviours, at least to have choice about when and whether he used them, he thought of a ‘direction’ – an expression he would keep in mind, and have actually written down in several places, and which would enable him to keep out of the pathology and let his core process work for him. This phrase was ‘stay light’, since he recognised that keeping a cheerful and ‘light’ frame of mind when in potentially competitive situations would make it impossible to be competitive, since these behaviours were, for him, associated with aggressive feelings.
The design of the workshop is reinforced by the establishment of a learning climate consistent with the model. It is an innate process by which people learn naturally and easily. All that prevents them doing so is experiencing or re-experiencing distress. The learning climate thus needs to minimise the distress in the here and now and also reduce the likelihood of triggering old pathologies, closing down the natural process of learning. People are capable of recognising and dealing with their own pathologies provided that they feel supported by their environment.
This requires that the climate of the course be such that people feel safe enough and supported enough to expose and deal with their own distress. This means that when one member of the group is working, the other members need to encourage and reinforce rather than criticise or deride the person. In the face of ‘negative feedback’ the person working is likely to close down, experiencing such feedback as distressing and probably being reminded of other times when he or she has been hurt by criticism or ‘put down’ remarks. Such feelings will lead to the participant feeling unsafe, ceasing to work effectively and resorting to rigid behaviour such as aggression or withdrawal to cope with the hurt.
People are therefore specifically requested from the outset to give encouragement and validation to each other and to validate themselves. This often seems odd or uncomfortable to begin with since such a climate is unusual in our pathology-ridden world. Such norms are quickly established, however, and the trust in the group builds extremely rapidly as a result, allowing the group to move into the core process section of the programme early in the week. The early establishment of core process is an added ‘safety net’ for people to move on to explore their pathologies, since it enables them to realise that they are fundamentally ‘OK’ and that, in giving up that part of themselves which they identify as pathology, they are secure in the knowledge that it will be replaced by something strong and sound. This differs from some other behavioural approaches, which fail to provide this assurance. Thus the individual finds it very difficult to drop behaviours even when he is given feedback to suggest that they produce negative feelings and responses in other people. The trainer’s role in this process, besides offering the frameworks, is to establish and help maintain the climate norms, to provide a model of humanness (act from his own core process) and to explain what is happening where relevant, in terms of the model. The more the trainer can become a peer in the group by sharing all information, asking for the group’s help and support when he feels himself caught in his own pathologies, and revealing his own problems and concerns, the more the group will flourish since the human process is essentially a collaborative peer one rather than that of ‘expert’ and ‘pupil’.
EFFECTS OF RUNNING THE PROGRAMME IN A LARGE INDUSTRIAL ORGANISATION
In 1977, as an experiment, the course was introduced into the programme of training issued to all managers in the head office of a large industrial organisation. It was presented under the title ‘Increasing Effectiveness at Work’ and was aimed at staff at junior supervisor level and below. Following the success of this programme, a more senior version was promoted to help managers deal with the complexities of their world.
After the first course a pre-day was introduced as an integral part of the event. This was deemed necessary because the nomination process was one where the nominee had little say in the process and felt ‘sent’ without any idea of what he or she was getting into. At the pre-day, the participants are given as much information as possible about the nature of the event and are given the opportunity to air and perhaps to resolve any concerns they may have about attending. If at the end of the pre-day they wish to withdraw, they are encouraged to do so. Only three people have withdrawn at this stage out of a total of about 160 nominees.
All the courses have included a follow-up about three months after the event. Less than 5 per cent of participants have missed this and of these, all but three have done so with reluctance.
Following the pilot programme two seminars were held, one for personnel people, the other for managers likely to nominate others for the course. Personnel were chosen because of their strong influence on the training of staff in their departments and their high credibility with managers. Their support was seen as critical. Managers who attended did so by direct invitation, the trainers inviting those whom they felt most likely to be supportive.
At each session, a selection of people who had attended the pilot event were invited to share their views and experience in an informal way over lunch. This proved important since their enthusiasm and support were worth a thousand words from the trainers, who could reasonably be expected to be biased. The personnel group was least receptive, and this for a number of reasons. Scepticism and occasionally outright hostility stemmed from feelings that such training was ‘unproven’, ‘irrelevant’ and ‘had been disastrous in the past’. The lack of success in convincing personnel of the benefits of such an approach had a detrimental effect in the longer term since they did little to promote the course and in some cases discouraged it.
The managers, however, were on the whole more receptive and prepared to ‘give it a try’, with the result that the course was fully booked for the following two years. In the third year support declined in some of the main departments, largely because of economic restraints leading to cuts in training budget for courses where it was difficult for managers to perceive immediate and direct business application, though this year there have been signs of it regaining ground as managers look for ways through the current problems.
In two large departments, each geographically separate from the main headquarters office, the course continues to be in demand. The personnel officers here are supportive, as are members of management, some of whom have attended the programme themselves. The climate in these departments is more open than in the HQ and this has contributed to the course being accepted. An increasing proportion of staff in these locations has now attended the event and ex-participants have set up their own support systems to continue their experience. There is a growing interest here to move the approach to the next level of human system, the workgroup, and a pilot event is just being completed. This development will, if successful, increase the pace and spread of the approach and also show more clearly how it is relevant to the business as well as to individuals.
About eighteen months after the course, when about seven events had been run, an evaluation was held outside office hours at the company’s main headquarters building. This was not an ‘official’ event so that people from outlying locations were not able to come unless they had reason to be in the building for other purposes, or were prepared to attend at their own expense. Sixty-eight people had attended at this point and forty-eight people came to the evaluation.
The impetus for the event came from people who had attended the first one, and who asked whether it would be possible to set up an event at which those who had been on different courses could meet each other to exchange experience and views.
There was a wide range of age and status. Some had attended as recently as two months previously, others as much as eighteen months.
It was an animated and enthusiastic event, giving an opportunity for both formal and informal interaction. It was interesting to observe that the experience was common enough and powerful enough to enable people to cross status and age boundaries to talk freely with each other. The questions focused broadly on three areas: the course itself and what had helped people to learn; personal benefits and disadvantages of attending; and pay-offs or drawbacks for the company.
The resulting statements were later incorporated into a questionnaire which was sent out to all participants. Eighty per cent were returned. The responses validated our contention that a supportive learning climate was crucial to a successful outcome, and was the key to enabling the learning (the examination and re-evaluation of oneself in one’s life situation) to take place. The questionnaire results also confirmed some aspects of the process which needed further attention.
The following is a summary of some of the outcomes of the questionnaire. In terms of the benefits, 90-100 per cent of those who replied felt that as a result of attending they:
- Were more confident.
- Had a more positive approach.
- Communicated more effectively in general and with those of different status from them in particular.
- Understood better who they were.
- Treated others as people, rather than in accordance with their position or role.
- Understood the value of healthy relationships.
- Got things done rather than put them off.
- Considered they were more able supervisors and managers.
- Saw more clearly what was going on and had more patience to deal with it.
- Felt less pressurised/coped with pressure more easily.
- Had a clearer sense of direction.
On the negative side most consistently supported drawbacks were seen to be:
- Some conflict between personal and organisational objectives (15 per cent).
- Feelings of discontent with job situation (17 per cent).
- Difficulties in explaining the course on return – negative or sceptical responses from others (25 per cent)
It is interesting to note, however, that only 7 per cent felt de-motivated to a point where they felt that the organisation actually got less from them.
About 12 per cent of the participants have since changed jobs within or have left the company. Three of these are definitely the same as those who experienced (1) and/or (2) of the reactions listed above. About the others it is less easy to determine since many of the questionnaires were answered anonymously. As regards (3) above, there is now more opportunity given during the week to coping with possible negative reactions from others on return. It is interesting that some of those who did react negatively to their colleagues’ attendance have attended themselves since with successful results.
There are a number of continuing relations which give the opportunity for people to maintain their learning experience:
- Several small groups of people keep in regular contact through informal lunch or telephone contact.
- A support group, open to all people who have been on the course meets once a fortnight to continue to work on problems, using the course methods.
- A group of senior managers who worked together during the course meet once every four months with their trainer.
- One whole course of senior managers agreed at their follow-up to meet again the following year and did so.
All those people who have made a major life change since their programme were already dissatisfied with that area of their life before attending. The course helped them to identify exactly what they were dissatisfied with, and helped them to decide what to do and to take action to do it.
Two specific examples of direct effects on managers in their jobs are the following:
- One manager who said that he quite naturally and spontaneously was able to handle a very difficult personal counselling situation with a close colleague, an extremely delicate and emotional problem, which before the course he would have considered totally beyond his capability.
- A manager who had found it difficult before attending the workshop to discipline staff, preferring to put things right himself rather than ‘get into hassles’, reported at his follow-up that he could now handle such situations without difficulty.
In neither of these cases did the managers concerned air these problems during the week. Neither did they focus directly on how they behaved in such situations, nor was either given any models about how to ‘counsel’ or how to ‘discipline’ staff. Their newfound flexibility in behaviour arose from the new confidence and freedom to behave accurately that each found from identifying their core process and sorting out some of the pathologies which prevented this operating. The course addresses fundamental attitudes and values directly rather than through behaviour modification, allowing behaviour to flow from the attitudes and values inherent in the core process statements.
These changes, once experienced and recognised by the participant, seem to be lasting results, and each success reinforces them and leads to more. The only thing which prevents this happening continually and effectively is where the distress in the organisation outweighs the amount of support available to the participant. Fortunately in most parts of the organisation where the course continues this does not arise, since there are such numbers of people who have now attended and who are able to support each other without much effort.
Participants from recent and past programmes still contact the trainers to tell them of new directions they are taking, new insights acquired and hurdles overcome. We believe that this approach is a major new contribution to developing people. whether those people be individual managers, secretaries, or scientists, or are people working as a collective system like a group or an organisation. Not least, we ourselves have developed and grown through our association with the model and its applications, using it in our own lives to enrich and extend our own experience and capabilities for healthy and joyful living.