Thinking Systems: An Alternative to Blaming and Scapegoating

Recently, I completed the data collection phase of my dissertation research. I am studying how organization development consultants use Bowen theory in their work. One theme that emerged is the tendency to look for an individual to blame for problems in a work system. This person could be the leader, or another person in the organization who becomes the scapegoat.

In Bowen theory, seeking an “identified patient” is a way for the anxiety in a system to be channeled. This mechanism gets everyone else in the system off the hook in terms of seeing their own part in the problem. Many of the consultants I interviewed talked about how the ability to see organizational issues in a systems context increased their clients’ capacity for change and improved their organizational effectiveness.

On the other hand, systems with a stubborn adherence to assigning blame to an individual had difficulty breaking out of the pattern. What can happen in these systems is that the scapegoated person is forced out, but the system finds another scapegoat to replace him or her. The underlying issues are not really addressed. Although thinking systems is a complex skill to develop, the payoff in terms or organizational effectiveness is worth the effort.


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