How to support your transformations with four system effects.
We live in many different systems at the same time. We often hardly notice many of them and yet they influence our behavior. Transformations change systems. This does not remain without consequences. Therefore, leaders should familiarize themselves with four system effects on employees and actively shape them: Belonging, place, history and exchange.
The search for a uniform definition of the term “system” remains unsuccessful - this term is too multifaceted. Nevertheless, we use it every day and presumably also believe that we all understand the same thing by it. There is no way to get rid of that here. Therefore I orient myself in this article at the following description:
A system (ancient Greek sýstēma “whole composed of several individual parts”) refers to something that consists of various components with different properties that (can) be regarded as a common whole due to certain orderly relationships among them and can thus be distinguished from others. (Wikipedia; “System”; retrieved 2/27/2023)
A system is more than the sum of its components and therefore a system can behave differently from these components. For example, authors have tried to use the terms swarm intelligence or swarm stupidity to refer to the positive or negative deviations of the system from an average expected behavior.
In the following, I would like to highlight four effects of systems on employees. They also lead to deviations from the expected. And they show that systems develop their own dynamics, which - especially in times of change - can generate resistance. Therefore, as leaders of transformations, you should familiarize yourself with these four effects.
Systems have boundaries. This allows them to be distinguished from other systems, or even set apart. In a company, for example, employees may feel they belong to different subsystems - and not to others. There is a subtle, active impact of the system on employees: Imprints, stable odor, and (psychological) security. Through belonging, a system transmits its values, its raison d’être, and thereby secures its future existence and significance.
Importance for Transformation: In order for employees to help actively change a system, leaders should recognize the previous belonging and help transfer it to the new system. This is especially difficult (and important) when different behavior is expected: For example, as soon as leaders are no longer expected to solve employees’ problems, but are increasingly expected to demand that they act on their own initiative, many ask themselves to which system they should or want to (still) feel they belong. As long as they cannot answer this question for themselves, important resources are tied up that cannot be used for the desired change.
My Tip: Don’t just mention the benefits of change, but show how people meet and work together afterwards. Bring affected people together frequently and let them talk about experiences and learn from each other. This way, the new expected behavior does not become the enemy of the old system, but its upgrade. This makes it easier for employees to carry the previous affiliation into the future.
Even if employees feel they belong to a system, this does not satisfy their need for a (recognizable, defined, significant) place in that system. For example, this place opens up specific access to information, processes, power, or other employees. As a result, an employee’s field of action expands, and her visibility may increase. Both can ultimately strengthen their importance (relevance, significance) in a system, and their commitment to the company can multiply as a result. Understandably, many employees then think that it is not this place, but themselves that are important - and that this entails personal privileges.
Importance for Transformation: Due to changes, places are no longer needed or they lose importance - with different reactions: For example, the system itself may resist the encroachment on an established order (“no one will be terminated here”) or employees begin to exaggerate the importance of their place for the company and thus start a mostly unobjective, political discussion. I am always surprised how quickly employees confuse their place in the system with their personal importance - and thus become part of a problem rather than a solution.
My tip: Pay attention to who individualizes the benefits of a place (“ad functionem”) and makes it a personal entitlement (“ad personam”). Because it is often these employees who exert a disproportionate influence on change processes, just to avoid losing these preferences. Transformations then become politicized, for example, emotionally charged out of self-interest. Leaders should use 1:1 conversations to quickly get an overview of which employees have fallen into this trap and what significance they actually have. This makes it clear what the content of further discussions will (have to) be.
A system always embodies history. There is a moment of “birth” and thus a series of temporal events that characterize this system. Common experiences connect and strengthen the relationships between the components of a system.
Meaning for Transformation: Transformations generate new events, weave new stories. In doing so, they implicitly compromise the old stories (and justifications). Some systems become less meaningful. This is reflected in cynical remarks such as “yes, have we done everything wrong here so far?” Leaders of transformations must not disparage history. Of course, looking forward is cool, modern and full of promise. But it would not be possible if the journey to this point had not been designed, mastered and achieved. This is what distinguishes a system. If it is to be changed, a bridge must be built on which employees can find their way into a new story and the old story is sufficiently valued.
My tip: Write a concise change story for your transformation with three chapters (“yesterday”, “today”, “tomorrow”) and a call-to-action. Rely on simple words, build a bridge and outline the meaning of the new shared story - no matter how well-educated, how academic or how experienced the employees are. It’s about their psychological safety. So you’re not facing a rational challenge, but an emotional one.
For a system to produce an effect (output, outcome), it must allow interactions, enable connections, and strengthen cooperation. Systems are quasi exchanges where individual micro-contracts are agreed upon, actio and reactio or performance and remuneration are negotiated. This exchange acts like breathing, keeping the system alive, supplying it with oxygen. In this way, a system achieves that effect which is greater than the sum of the effects of its components.
Meaning for transformation: Transformations temporarily cut off the oxygen supply to a system. As long as it is not clear what is exchanged for what, what is evaluated and contracted in what way, systems slow down - just like a runner who slowly runs out of breath. What new system effect do you expect as the leader of a transformation? What should cooperation look like? How will decisions be made? What do you want the new system to create, enable, manage, build? Share this information with employees so that a new balance can be established via their actions - and the right services are contracted.
My Tip: Let’s say you’ve drafted a new understanding of leadership that you now want to implement. In it, you emphasize the importance of feedback. For example, you demand that leaders end every conversation with (mutual) feedback. This makes feedback the new barter commodity, which has an important meaning. Unfortunately, it quickly loses value if it cannot be exchanged for reasonable and accompanied actions.
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