Marie Kaufmann

Honestly, how responsible are you?

I have over the last year become aware of how influenced we are by systems theory thinking in our practice of change and leadership. We have forgotten that the idea behind systems thinking is to think of an organisation “as if” it would be a system. We forget the “as if” and tend to think that the organisation really is a system that generates goals and intentions of its own and carries the responsibility for the actions and results. And this has consequences for our way of relating to leadership and change, and also to how we deal with responsibility and ethics. This thinking, in my eyes so dominating today, tends to make us passive and we feel like victims of the “system”. Douglas Griffin, thinker and professor at the Complexity and Management Centre at University of Hertfordshire, formulates his critique of systems theory thinking like this:

”In automatically obscuring any paradox and forgetting the “as if” intention ascribed to the organisation as a “system”, we slip into thinking about the corporation as having a mind of its own, as setting its own purpose and acting with the freedom that only human beings in fact have. This way of thinking affirms an ethically passive stance in which most of us, as victims of the system, feel that the cause of unethical behaviour (…) has been found, guilt allocated and justice served. It is the “system” and a few powerful individuals who are to blame  (….) To emphasize the point, I am arguing that nowadays we locate ethical responsibility in both the “system”, simply taking for granted that a “system” can be ethically responsible, and in a few individuals. In doing this, we adopt a particular view of leadership in which it is individual leaders who are blamed and punished when things go wrong, or praised and rewarded when things go right. The rest of us are allocated to passive roles as victims of “the system”, and of manipulative leaders, and our salvation lies in the action of heroic leaders. “ (The Emergence of Leadership, pp 2-3)

I see this very often in our work with organisations and companies. People seem to have lost their sense of real influence and responsibility and there is a strong tendency to project expectations and blame onto their leaders. I believe we have to look beyond our automatic way of thinking about leadership and change, to find the root cause of the victimhood in organisations. What does it take to reclaim our sense of being alive, creative and fully responsible for the actions we take and participate in?