Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Value of Understanding the Structural Story

[S]igmund Freud discovered many years ago that it is part of normal human life to project our innermost fears, judgments, hopes and dreams onto others; or as my colleague Kieran says, we “load each other up”. Indeed there are many management books, intervention tools, and thoughts on what to do about this when it happens in a work setting. When we load another person up by projecting our reality on to them at work it can lead to problems be creating self-reinforcing negative feedback loops. This occurs when one person projects a moral story onto a colleague causing their colleague (or the person projected upon) to do the same thing back to them. As this goes on it gets worse and worse leading to number of unproductive and damaging effects.

I have seen this phenomena many times in working with engineering teams. When faced with making a decision about a project, the engineering team members often spend time analyzing the underlying technical issues and underpinnings of the proposed plan of action. Understanding why they are doing the project is just as important to them as how they will do it. In Structural Dynamics, when we discuss purposes and the underlying mechanisms we are using the language of Meaning.   Since the engineers are going to have to implement the plan, which typically means creating something new to address a problem, they want to understand the purpose and theoretical underpinnings.

However, the leader of this team, the longer they sit there listening to the analysis, becomes more and more frustrated and thinks, “ This team has analysis paralysis and just can’t make a decision.”   Often leaders are put in the role of minding deadlines and ensuring that work gets done. All the concrete elements of how and when things will get done including deciding what the bottom line is. Discussions around developing time frames and next steps are spoken in the language of Power.
Seeing the leader’s frustration and annoyance with the pace of the decision making, engineering team members decide that their leader doesn’t care about quality and they become equally frustrated and tension ensues as the projections fly creating layers of moral story that end up hurting relationships and making it even more difficult to get work done.

Reframing the story using Structural Dynamics is a powerful intervention I have been using with my client teams, leaders, coachees, students and corporate pairs who are in conflict. In reframing the moral story to a structural story of the engineering team and the leader we can see that they are speaking different languages and therefore not able to hear or appreciate what each other needs or is trying to communicate, just as if the team were speaking French and the leader speaking German. Understanding is not happening.

Sharing Kantor’s model of Structural Dynamics in the corporate setting brings quick relief, is eye opening, and healing to strained and “loaded up” relationships. Instead of having to tell a morale story, e.g.,  the team can’t make a decision and the leader doesn’t care. The structural story is much more useful. The team needs to spend time in Meaning because it’s the only way they can get to an accurate decision. And the leader needs to use the language of Power in order to keep the team and project on track. When both parties know these languages they can then transparently and with understanding of where each other are coming from change the nature of the discourse from unproductive to a productive collaborative dialogue. Knowing the structural story makes it much harder to come to unproductive and often inaccurate moral conclusions.

Cross posted at Dialogix

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