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Philippe Bailleur is a long term trusted trainer here @Heerlijckyt. This blogpost shares some insights into how to look at returning patterns in organizations:

Change and a recurring pattern

The field of organizational trauma is unfolding. I see “Stuck? Dealing with organizational trauma.” as a good foundation to learn about this broad topic. With my blog, I’ll share new foresights or learnings that build on the book …

I have been working as a coach with individuals, groups and organizations for almost 20 years. Change is at the core of my work and based on that experience, I want to share a number of impressions. I guess the pattern I will discuss in this blog is one of the reasons why organizations get too deep in the Trauma Trap – a central concept of my book – before action is taken.

What does it take to change?

More than 10 years ago, absenteeism was put on the agenda of organizations. I still remember a conversation with a client – the Managing Director of a medium sized company – who felt that the percentage of absenteeism in his organization was too high. I’ll take you through the phases of the conversation I had.

By the way, this approach is recurring in this kind of exploratory meetings, whether it is about absenteeism, turnover, bullying, conflicts, burn-out, cooperation problems, … or leadership issues.

At the start of the conversation I usually explore the context of the organization that contacted me. In this way, I get a feel for the market in which the organization operates and the challenges that this entails. Over the years I have learned that it is particularly useful to understand the bigger picture of an organization. I like to feel the somatic dimension of the issues the company is confronted with. That’s where trauma-informed working is starting!

Next, I try to get a feel of what one would like to do about the problem. Over the years, I usually add a very specific question: “Why now?” This helps me to feel exactly where the urgency is or where the motivation is coming from to get started. In this specific case, the HR Director had presented the cost of absenteeism to the company based on a workshop he had followed on the topic of wellbeing. Urgency had been created …

Logically, you’re going to ask some questions in order to get a feel for why the situation is as it is. In this sense, I like one of Deming’s well-known statements: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” I need that kind of information anyhow to be able to propose an tailored approach that I believe will make a difference. Right here, most of the time, you find yourself at an interesting crossroad:

  • Do you suspect that the client – in this case the Managing Director – could be part of the problem and so will have to become part of the solution?
  • And if so, is the client aware of this and/or willing to move from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution?

Over the years I have learned the following: “If the person wanting change is putting himself outside the change, exactly that will become the reason why there will be no breakthrough.” At this crossroad, you run into the change concept of your client: ‘integral change’ (= client is part of it) versus ‘others have to change’ (= I’ll watch while other change).

As an organisational developer, two worlds come to clash here. You can sell something by making your solution, service or guidance attractive. At the same time, what is needed to solve a certain problem situation – such as a high rate of absenteeism – is often less obvious. There is a good chance that it will also require something from your client. So he has to join the dance. Even more, it might take something of him that he doesn’t like to do or puts him in a vulnerable position. However, if he is not prepared to do so, you often know that your work will not have the intended effect. That is why I am leaving this case for a moment. No worry, I will come back to it …

The temptation of “technical solutions”

We are so keen to be taken by the nose at this crossroad and we stand on it more often than we think. If we can choose between a product or service that will help us achieve what we want to achieve without really having to do much versus a solution or service for which we will also have to do something ourselves, then we are so happy to choose the first option even if we know deep inside that this will not lead to improvement. Marketeers know this very well. Let me give you a few examples:

  • Slim for the summer in three weeks – Yeah, right.
  • Only 7 minutes a day with this app and you’ll look like a Greek god – Yeah, right.
  • This plaster will help you get rid of your smoke addiction in 4 weeks’ time – Yeah, right.
  • Become self-confident in 7 easy steps – Yeah, right.
  • Become a master guitar player with this online course – Yeah, right.

And yes, there are problems that get solved in this way. This is particularly true for problems of a technical nature. In essence, these are problems that are solved by an expert who does an analysis and then offers a solution. It’s usually about replacing a part of a machine, upgrading a software module, repairing a leak in the roof and so on. However, some problems are more complex, ambiguous and less easily traced back to one clear-cut cause. In that case, we do not speak of a “technical problem”, but of a “development challenge” or “wicked problem”. Most of the questions that organisational developers (coaches, trainers, advisors, etc.) are dealing with are – of course – of that last order.

Back to our case

Yep, absenteeism is a “wicked problem”. Resolving an increasing absenteeism problem will often not be possible with a one-time training for operational managers (= technical solution). When I pointed to that during the meeting and invited the Managing Director to become part of the solution, an interesting shift followed. In the meantime, I can almost predict this shift.

When you invite the client to step into the dance and make it clear that it could be difficult, a nuancing of the problem follows by exactly the same person that expressed urgency at the start of the conversation. In this specific case – I still remember, even after more than 10 years – the conversation changed from: “We want to reduce the cost of absenteeism” to “In fact, our absenteeism rate is not so high yet. Within our sector, there are organizations that are doing even worse.”

Very often, nuancing comes into play when it turns out that the solution will not work through ‘changing others’ or ‘change through others’. It reminds me of the story of the chicken inviting the pig to do business by selling bacon with eggs until the pig suddenly realises that its investment will be of a different kind. Here people show what’s really important. For me, this is a litmus test for true leadership.

Therapy failure or drop-out is one of the most persistent problems of manual therapists, doctors and therefore unfortunately also organization developers, just because we have gone looking for too much salvation in technical solutions. This is also the frustration of many trainers who notice that the effect of their work is often very quickly neutralized by the familiar patterns of the organization. I invite you to pay attention to any advertising message in the coming period and you will see how persistent this pattern – offering technical solutions for developmental challenges – is. And yes, this is happening to me too and most of the time when I really want something and when at the same time I don’t have the time, energy, … to really go for it. In those cases I’m particularly vulnerable to this kind of solutions (e.g. Become a master guitar player with this online course -> don’t tell my wife !!).

Inviting the client on the dancefloor

At this crossroad the real work as an organizational developer starts. Can I get the client on the dancefloor even if it becomes clear to him that it could be difficult too or frustrating. A few years ago I discovered an interesting technique via “Provocative Coaching”. I do not remember the exact name of the technique, but I do use it regularly:

“So you want to tackle the absenteeism problem in your organization? Are you aware of the fact that this will involve a lot of work? I’m sure your managers are not eager to have these kind of conversations? There’s a good chance that you’ll have to go after them in order to engage them in absenteeism talks? And all those conversations, that will take your people even more away from the real work, no? I can imagine that the trade union is on the brink of destroying your absenteeism policy, don’t you think so?”

You don’t reduce the effort that the organization – more specific, the people you need on the dancefloor – will have to make to get your services sold, you do the exact opposite and if they still want to get started, there is a good chance that a nice process and a great collaboration will unfold. I have to confess, I have lost some assignments as a result of this technique and sometimes I am disappointed about that although I know that – in most of those cases – I have saved myself a lot of frustration.

The solution is rarely found close to the symptom

And so I come to the difference between a mechanistic approach and a systemic approach. If you work systemically, you are aware of the fact that certain problems (cf. absenteeism) could be a symptom of something else, something bigger or something systemic.

The people or groups of people where the problem shows up, could be symptom carriers. In that case, working with them is working on a symptom and that will rarely lead to a sustainable solution. Even worse, it could deepen the problem. At best, it will shift the problem to another symptom. This is currently happening on both a small and a large scale in our rather mechanistic oriented society. And so in a lot of our Western companies. Here too, I invite you to look around what brings us to a framework that could support you in doing that.

Real change needs strong leadership

The first years of my career, as an organizational coach, I ended up too often in the left/above quadrant of this framework. It started draining tons of energy. I had earned some money but I didn’t feel like making a difference. I saw the same happening with my colleagues but also with managers. Training my systemic lens helped me to move out of this quadrant and it showed me a more attractive path to work with organizations.

It has become clear that this step, is the first one to become a trauma-informed leader or facilitator. From a leadership perspective, it means you have to move first. No idea if we are cultivating this kind of leadership at the moment. But that’s the kind of development I want to support with my work as a teacher and writer. From a facilitator perspective, it means you have to outgrow the ‘selling-of-attractive- services’ pattern and move towards the capacity to create safe containers or holding spaces that invite all parties to step in …