I’m working with an organization that, like many, is going through change. During coaching sessions I’ve become aware of some dysfunctional patterns of behavior that can prevent both leaders and individual contributors from moving through change as smoothly as they otherwise could.
It’s a phenomenon that is quite common in many organizations—one that business author Barry Oshry describes as the “Dance of the Blind Reflex” in his book Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life.
Oshry’s contention is that leaders and direct reports can become locked into a dysfunctional, self-sustaining cycle when each group has behavior patterns that are the result of unconscious behaviors in the other group. For example, leaders complain about the burdens of extensive responsibility but cling to that power for fear that a planned system or change initiative will fail. And frontline workers complain about non-involvement, oppression, and lack of responsibility while they cling to the same things.
Might this dysfunctional dance be occurring in your organization? Here are some of the telltale signs.
At the senior leader level:
Leaders worry about losing control during change—that their team won’t feel as responsible, skilled, or passionate as the leader does. As the leader’s fears and responsibilities increase, they worry about letting their people down and compensate by taking even more responsibility away from direct reports. Signs leaders must watch for in themselves include:
- Checking up, not checking in, on team members
- Frustration in thinking that the team doesn’t care
As a result, these leaders lie awake at night thinking about what they still have to accomplish on a never ending to-do list.
At the frontline level:
The perceived lack of trust, respect, sensitivity, and insight from their leader frustrates team members and they yield responsibility quickly. They feel they have no role in the change and have lost their autonomy and their value. When this occurs, they begin to withdraw, self-preservation kicks in, and they simply keep their heads down and do what leaders say. Typical behaviors include:
- Increased scrutiny on what leaders are doing and not doing
- Anger and resentment at having things done to them—instead of with them
If these underlying beliefs are not surfaced and acknowledged, organizational culture can remain stuck in this cycle. But it doesn’t have to go that way. Here are some strategies to help interrupt this dance.
- When a one-on-one relationship feels inequitable, each person needs to notice their language and thoughts as they converse and ask themselves: What is my intent and how might my words be misinterpreted?
- Leaders need to think about how they are dragging the responsibility upward rather than across their team.
- Direct reports need to think about how to repackage their message so that the leader recognizes their honorable intentions and willingness to accept responsibility.
- Finally, both sides need to understand that these behaviors are often subtle and hard to self-diagnose and consider enlisting a qualified coach to help identify patterns and develop an action plan.
Note to coaches: Remember—you are not immune to the Dance of the Blind Reflex and can actually become an unwitting dance partner. Are you working harder in your sessions than your client is? Are you taking on their burdens? If so, you may want to consider changing the record and dancing to a different tune.
About the Author
Judith Donin is a Senior Consulting Partner and Professional Services Mentor for North America with The Ken Blanchard Companies. You can read Judith’s posts as a part of Coaching Tuesday here at Blanchard LeaderChat for ideas, research, and inspirations from the world of executive coaching.