We are delighted this week to feature another guest blogger, Josie McLean. If you would like to blog on a theme related to Challenging Coaching then please get in touch. Here is Josie’s exciting glimpse of the potential of systemic coaching. (John Blakey)
Coaching systemically, is not what I set out to do – it emerged. Although I have been a student of Peter Senge’s work for some time, I did not set out specifically to learn about systemic coaching. I followed what I thought I knew about complex adaptive systems and experimented. It was, and continues to be, action learning and research. Here is a summary of one of my existing assignments.
My client is the administrative organisation of a local council in Australia. One of the things I observed as I roamed the council, was that some lines of communication seemed to be missing. People, usually lower to middle parts of the hierarchy, may have observed or felt something that was really important for senior executives to be aware of but they failed to raise these topics. This is nothing new – it happens in just about every organisational system I have worked in or with.
I started to wonder why the communication was hindered. I observed more…
- Some people expressed a fear of speaking up, either openly in their speech or through their body language. Some were concerned that it was “not my job” to say anything because “that’s what they get paid the big bucks for”. Some also expressed fear that if they said something – they might face unpleasant repercussions from the executive for raising taboo topics . My intuition was that these fears, combined with the mental model of “not my job”, inhibited the development of strong and effective communication feedback loops from lower in the hierarchy to the executive group.
- In addition, despite some formal structures in the organisation to facilitate open and honest feedback (e.g. broad staff meetings and quarterly all-staff reviews ), it seemed that information was like water being absorbed by a sponge. An unintentional dynamic was at work where the executive group tried to protect the senior managers by withholding information and they in turn appeared to be withholding information from their staff. Information was not flowing freely despite this organisation actually being recognized for its great culture. Executives were unaware of this dynamic that created a lack of trust and honesty at all levels.
My systemic coaching intervention then was to:
- Address the mental model with those I met in the organisation and focus upon it in a leadership program we developed for the organisation and in a team development program with the senior management group – it seems that they also thought that ‘shaping the wheels of the organisation’ was not their job, theirs was but to ‘keep the current wheels turning’. Things have shifted now.
- Create a feedback loop by being the messenger of the feedback to the executive team. I explored with them both the content of the feedback and the fact that I was needed to bring it to them. It was a great conversation that challenged their own views of being accessible but also heightened for them the issue of ‘authority’ and how it is perceived.
As a result of the shift in mental models, people within the middle layers of the hierarchy are now also creating informal networks, reaching across functional lines, to converse about issues of common interest. They are inviting people who seem to be important (leverage points) to influence desirable outcomes. These people are rarely from the executive group. From a systems perspective, we could say that they are forming new structures (informal groups), to increase or strengthen feedback loops of information, to deliver a systemic response.
This case study is a small example of what I believe is a possible future for systemic coaching. It challenges our existing notion of what coaching is but does not make coaching as we know redundant. It evolves and adds to it. Just as we became aware that coaching individuals could be extended to coaching a team as a whole – maybe we can evolve and extend coaching to organisations as a whole: to midwife the new paradigm we know must emerge.
Josie McLean, PCC, is the founder of The Partnership in Australia, past President of the ICFA and 2009 ICF President’s Award recipient. She is works with forward thinking individuals and organisations to make a difference to the things that matter most.Josie is also an active researcher being involved in both PhD research and an interdisciplinary team seeking to catalyse the next transformation of the Australian landscape – being sustaining and sustainable. firstname.lastname@example.org www.the-partnership.com.au