As tops we can suck up all the responsibility and call it leadership, when we’re bottoms we can hold ourselves aloof from easing our conditions because that’s for “them” to sort out, and as middles we can tear ourselves into pieces trying to connect the top and bottoms meaningfully whilst actually pleasing no-one, including ourselves. And because we’re all responding to the pressure unconditionally, and are the heroes of our own narratives, we often fail to see that the organisational world we’re creating is not real but a construction of our own making.
Barry Oshry, the organisational anthropologist, offers a means of making a conditioned response to creating our organisational world by posing a confronting question to all of us: What if, instead of warfare and blame, we tried partnership and collaboration? What creative and productive possibilities might this create for us all? Possibilities for greater accomplishment, for more satisfying and more productive relationships and for a higher quality of service to our customers perhaps?
Initially the familiar disempowering response to this question tends to run as follows:
Tops immediately say “More complications! Am I going to lose control?..…Can I trust them? What’s wrong with how I’ve been doing things” Followed closely by the bottoms saying “What are they up to now? Is this a new trick? More work, same money! What came of last year’s engagement initiative?” And in the middle: “Ah! Now if they’re going to be in partnership with one another, I might feel less torn” gradually becoming though “What value do I now add if they’re in partnership? What difference is there left for me to make?”
These groups hook on speaking out to others of what makes sense in their world only, and fail to recognise and address the endless challenge of speaking appropriately into others’ worlds and then wonder why they are so misunderstood.
This is the Side Show of organisational life. The side show has good guys and bad guys, crises, suspense, success and failure. It offers drama and the chance to play a part in which we are righteous, virtuous, helpless, blameless and the victim of others. It is a rich and dramatic place enabling dynamic, gossipy, sometimes toxic, conversations over coffee, over lunch, in the loo and over a drink after work. It appears to have everything including a membership made up of work colleagues that we know so well. Being there is so easy and so very predictable.
So where else can we be?
Oshry offers an alternative called the Centre Ring. Centre Ring folk make happen what the organisation needs to have happen with empathy for other people and their efforts to survive in their worlds. They are strategic and are not distracted by “stuff” lobbed in from other worlds because they do not take it personally. They go out of their way to make it easier for people to do what they need to and move ahead in their work. It’s not so busy in the Centre Ring, there are fewer people that we know, so it’s difficult to remain there but it is still a very human possibility.
And what can help us to get there? Well how about reflection and thoughtfulness and a guiding leadership stand that provides us with an alternative way of responding to the predictability of the side show. Oshry asks, “If you don’t want to be a burdened top, if you don’t want to be a vulnerable bottom, if you don’t want to be a torn middle what is your stand regarding the kind of top, bottom and middle you do want to be?
What if, instead of unconditionally sucking up responsibility, we create a leadership stand that enables us to push power out rather than cling onto it. Something like: My business as a top is not to suck up and shoulder all of the responsibility for this operation. My business as a top is to create responsibility and do whatever it takes so that people throughout this organisation feel personally responsible not only for their condition in the organisation but also for the condition of the organisation itself.
What if, instead of unconditionally holding higher ups responsible for our condition and for the condition of the organisation, we create a leadership stand that empowers us to take that responsibility on for ourselves: My business as a bottom is not to hand over to others responsibility for either my life in this organisation or the life of this organisation. My business as a bottom is to be responsible for my condition in this organisation and to be responsible for the condition of the organisation. My business is to do whatever it takes to make my condition in this organisation secure, satisfying, and productive, and to make this organisation secure and productive in its environment.
And finally, what if, instead of tearing around and apart, we create a stand that positions us as central to the success of our organisations and not as a creature belonging to the tops and bottoms: In the presence of middle tearing, my business as a middle is not to disappear in the middle of other people’s issues and conflicts and lose my independence of thought and action. My business as a middle is to maintain my independence of thought and action, and to empower myself and others.
In article 3, written from the centre ring, we will look at how these leadership stands can, be used practically on a day to day basis, to transform our organisations. What else is possible, rather than predictable, and what are the more powerful strategies available to us?
This is the second in a series of articles where John Woodward-Roberts, senior consultant at Roffey Park, using the research of the organisational anthropologist Barry Oshry, explores what work can really feel like for the overloaded, torn and burdened, how they typically respond and what more positive and optimistic alternatives are available to them.