Partnership: Choose It or Lose It

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Charlotte decides to do good. Charlotte is a highly motivated worker. Something has been bothering her lately, something about the structure of the work flow that's causing redundancy, misallocation of resources, costly errors, and diminished productivity. On her own she does a careful study of the situation and convinced that she is on to something, she spends her evenings writing a detailed report that includes her observations, the apparent costs to the system, evidence of mismanagement (she is a bit caustic here), her vision of how the work flow should be structured, along with the steps she feels would turn things around and assure success. In the end, this is a detailed report, meticulously done, twenty-five single-spaced pages, with charts and graphs. Charlotte is proud of her work, the fact that she did this at her own initiative and on her own time, and she is truly excited about making a positive contribution to the organization. Charlotte finishes her report and sends it to the company president. And then she waits. And she waits. Certainly there will be a phone call, a meeting, some acknowledgment of her contribution, a bonus maybe, even a promotion wouldn't be out of the question. Something. But nothing comes. A week goes by. Two weeks. Still nothing. Hope wanes, and a bitterness begins to settle in. Those executives, she thinks, they go off to these programs on partnership or leadership or empowerment; they learn all the right words, but in the end it doesn't mean anything. It's more of the same old arrogance of top management. They really don't care. And this marks the end of Charlotte as a highly motivated worker. She is angry; she has her evaluations (all negative) of the president; she is feeling very righteous -- I did the right thing and what did it get me? -- and she has lost interest in pursuing her productivity project. What's the point? she asks. That's the last time I'll go out of my way for this company,

Falling Into The Side Show

What's happening here? Is this just a case of a good-hearted worker being done in once again by callous, insensitive management? Maybe. And maybe there is something else going on, a Side Show stemming from systemic blindness. And here is how the Side Show happens.

"Stuff Happens" In organization life we are constantly getting "stuff" from other people. "Stuff" comes in many forms, but generally "stuff" is something other than what we expected. "Stuff" might be an angry response that comes at us from out of the blue, or it might be a wishy-washy response when we were expecting something firm and straightforward, or it might be resistance when we were expecting agreement or, as in Charlotte's case, "stuff" might be nothing, no response when we needed or expected something. (Physicists might refer to this as minus "stuff".) Some "stuff" is positive -- the proposal was accepted, the budget was approved; but much of the "stuff" that comes our way is noxious (we just don't like it ) or it's a mystery (Why are they doing what they're doing?) and some "stuff" is both noxious and a mystery. And there is an all too human response we make to "stuff" that is noxious and/or a mystery. Not all of us, not every time, but with great regularity.

* We make up a story that explains the "stuff." Our big brain doesn't tolerate mystery, so we create stories that explain the mystery. And generally we don't see these as stories, we see them as the truth.

* In the stories we create, we evaluate the others; we see them as malicious, insensitive, or incompetent.

* And in these stories we see ourselves as the righteous heroes, martyrs or victims. (Who would want to give up such stories?)

* We react to the others; we get mad, we get even, or we withdraw.

* We lose focus on what our good intentions were (That's the last time I'll go out of my way for this company, says Charlotte.)

* And all of this seems very personal, i.e., these are actions, or inactions, aimed at me.

This is a Side Show of organization life -- emotional, dramatic, good guys and bad guys, tragic endings. The Side Show, with all of its drama, takes us away from the Center Ring where the important organization action needs to be. When we are in the Side Show, these feelings and actions all seem real and solid. But in fact they are not. They stem from our blindness to system life. We see "stuff" and we react to "stuff." What we do not see is the context out of which "stuff" emerges. And so long as we remain blind to context, we are destined to continue falling into Side Show after Side Show after Side Show. And our and others' energy gets drained and we're into a we/them scenario. Much that seems personal is not personal, it is systemic; and only when we see and take into account the systemic nature of "stuff", can we avoid the Side Show and function from the Center Ring.

Seeing The "Worlds" Of Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers

We all may live in a single organizational "world," yet within that one "world" there are many different "worlds" each with its unique characteristics.

* Tops live in a world of complexity and responsibility -- lots of issues to deal with, internal issues, external issues, difficult issues, complex issues, issues you thought were taken care of but now come back, things that don't exist (policies for example) that need to be created. And Tops are accountable for the whole system. So when we are interacting with Tops, we are not just dealing person to person; we are dealing with someone struggling to survive in a world of complexity and responsibility. [Charlotte, take note: How might your well-intentioned, meticulous, detailed report, be experienced by someone struggling to survive in a world of complexity and responsibility?]

* Bottoms live in a world of vulnerability -- higher-ups are always doing things to them: changing health care plans, reorganizing, shutting down operations, coming up with new initiative. They are always doing "stuff" to us. So when we are interacting with Bottoms we need to ask ourselves: How is this new initiative that seems so right to us going to be experienced by people living in this world of vulnerability? A great idea? Or Them doing it to us again?

* Middles live in a tearing world, torn between above and below, between customers, vendors, peers. Often in the Middle world Middles don't have what others want from them. Tops want production, but Middles don't do production; Bottoms want the big picture, but Middles don't have the big picture; Customers want quality, but Middles don't do quality. So we may have what we think is a simple request of Middle, but to the Middle, not having what we ask for, it may not seem simple at all. When we are blind to the Middle world, we tend to see them as weak. In response to our "simple" requests, why can't they give us straightforward answers instead of I'll see what I can do.

* Customers live in a world of neglect -- products and services not coming to them as fast or at the quality or at the price they want. Anything other than Customer's product, no matter how well intentioned, is likely to be experienced by Customer as More Neglect!

Let me complicate the above just a bit. I have been treating these "worlds" as fixed positions, as if there are Tops, Middles, Bottoms, and Customers, and you are one or the other. In reality, most of us in organizational life are in all of those positions at varying times, at times struggling to survive in the world of complexity and responsibility, at other times vulnerability, at other times tearing, and in still other times neglect.

Guidelines for Staying in the Center Ring

* Have empathy for others; chances are they, like you, are struggling to survive in their "worlds."

* Instead of making up stories, get curious about other people's worlds; try to understand the context of the "stuff" coming your way.

* Stay focused on your good intention; don't be pulled off by the "stuff." (Easy to say, difficult to do.)

* Be strategic; take the others' worlds into account. [How might Charlotte have used her understanding of the complexity of the Top world to get a better hearing for her report?]

* The transformative notion is this: When we are caught up in the Side Show, what we want is for other people to ease our condition; when what need to do is ease the condition of others in order to make it possible, easier, for them to do what we need them to do. A key element of our strategy needs to focus on reducing the complexity of Tops, reducing the vulnerability of Bottoms, reducing the tearing on Middles, and reducing the neglect of Customers.


The Side Show is costly; it destroys potentially productive partnerships, it focuses energy in non-productive directions. The Side Show is predictable, but it is not inevitable. Staying in the Center Ring allows us to create and sustain satisfying and productive partnerships and it focus energy in productive directions. The Center Ring is not predictable, but it is a human possibility. It involves a choice that is uniquely human and that separates us from all other creatures.

Barry Oshry Chief Theoretical Officer Power + Systems

There is nothing more practical than solid human systems theory.

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