Dance of the Blind Reflex – Ends and Middles

In my last post I shared the dysfunctional relationship pattern between leaders and direct reports as part of what author Barry Oshry describes as “Dance of the Blind Reflex” in his book Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life.

Continuing this theme, another primary dance we may find our clients in is between someone who may be the middle person in a situation who is torn between two end people—for example, a manager who is in the middle between someone on their team and a senior leader.

This challenging relationship can be made even more complex when there happen to be multiple people at each end.  Individuals or parties at the ends have their own agenda and will look to a common party—the middle person—to help support their cause by influencing the other end or ends.

If you are a coach, this scenario may sound quite familiar.  Managers often find themselves in the middle between a person or people on their team and a senior leader.  It’s important for us to know these patterns that emerge in relationships—especially when they aren’t helpful.

Here is a little more information relating to this second “Dance”:

People at the ends who feel unsupported may see themselves as victims. They can become inflexible and put their faith in the middle person to be a liaison who they think can get the best deal for them and their cause.

People in the middle often feel burdened. Interestingly, for some, this role may actually become somewhat addictive. Someone in the middle role may enjoy being needed by both end parties and may relish the trust and insight gained from both sides.  The potential danger is in not pleasing or helping either side, or even encouraging the toxic relationship, if the person in the middle is unaware of the dance they are doing.

As a coach, do you ever go into rescue mode before taking a step back to look at any game the client may unconsciously be playing?  Commonly, coaches feel the urge to take on an executive’s burden—sometimes working even harder than the client is working. The coach goes into rescue mode, creating a brand new end-middle-end pattern.  But the role of coach should be that of a human mirror. In this case, we may need to figuratively hold our clients’ feet to the fire to help them recognize the relational game they are playing. In doing so, we help them move toward healthier relationships.

Here are three tips to consider as coaches:

  • Use your coach position in the middle to help the executive at one end uncover information about the other end—whether it be a team member, their boss, or someone else.
  • Hold the executive accountable for owning the solutions and decisions.
  • Remember that our role as coach is secondary. The primary focus needs to be the relationship between the middle person and the people on both ends.

When we can perceive the existence of these relationship “dances,” we can move to healthier interactions where trust and creativity are fostered for both the people we serve and ourselves.

About the Author

Judith DoninJudith 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.

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