Are you curious about why some work system engagements go so well and others are so difficult when by all appearances, the presenting issues seem similar? Have you thought about irrational forces at work in human systems and the power those forces have to hijack good thinking? What can a consultant do to help people recognize “emotional process” in the workplace and learn to function better in the face of it?
This is the topic I explored in my dissertation research. I studied how organization development consultants use Bowen theory in their work. I found that consultants who ground their practices in Bowen theory take a different approach and stance than other organization development consultants. The biggest difference is in stance. Consultants who use Bowen theory take a systems perspective and make every effort to remain neutral and stay outside the organization’s emotional process.
Emotional process describes how people respond unconsciously to each other. Murray Bowen, who developed his theory in the mid-20th century believed that awareness of the process, and an effort to engage the “thinking brain” could improve individual functioning. In turn, improved individual functioning makes for better functioning families and work systems.
Following this line of thought, the consultants help their clients become aware of emotional process and support their efforts to come up with thoughtful solutions to their problems. The consultants often engage in coaching to help individuals within an organizational system represent their points of view more effectively with their bosses, their subordinates, and in meetings.
The consultants who use this approach find it effective, especially when they engage with clients who are interested and motivated to learn a new way of thinking about work systems. Based on my research findings, I am developing a reference model for Bowen theory-based organization development consulting. When I have completed the model, I will post the details. In the mean time, get in touch if you would like to learn more.
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.