Learning is a funny thing isn’t it? – The things you remember and then those things you don’t. I’ve had my learning muscles tested recently as part of my Organisational Development Practitioner Programme which I chose to do as part of my Florence Nightingale Foundation Burdett Leadership Scholarship. My instinct was right, by the way, there is much useful learning in OD for people interested in leadership. I know that some of the theories passed me by and weren’t retained in my pooh bear sized brain but some things have stuck and some of the systems thinking from this week has definitely stuck; it’s all about tops, bottoms and middles.
The theory is quite simple; people in organisations adopt very predictable patterns of behaviour and that breaking out of these is what we need to do before we can really achieve but of course changing behaviours is a real challenge for all of us. Systems thinking is from work by Barry Oshry that explains that organisations are broken down into ‘Tops’, ‘Middles’ and ‘Bottoms’ and that each of these, naturally as part of a system, moves back to unhelpful behaviours that create many of the organisational issues we face. This week we did the organisational workshop to experience the system workings of organisational life in a way designed to magnify these natural and unhelpful behaviours that manifest in the worlds of Tops, Middles and Bottoms; before you say you are never a ‘Top’ etc we all occupy these roles at one time or another, they do not necessarily reflect organisational status (but they might). I had great fun 🙂
The process of allocation to a role in the workshops was random and I was delighted to find myself as a ‘bottom’. That’s where the fun started! I have to say that although in my role I wasn’t unhelpful nor was I as focussed at first as I should have been and I did revert to the behaviours that Oshry would have predicted, for me this was to withdraw to almost a playful space. I was experiencing true ‘bottomness’.
Oshry predicts that people will revert to an unhelpful behaviour and unless we can break from this we will perpetuate the same issues over and over again. Tops at times of pressure suck up responsibility and become ‘burdened’. Middles slide into the middle between tops and bottoms and become weak and ‘torn’. Bottoms hold higher ‘ups’ responsible and become ‘oppressed’. Oshry also explains that Customers also fall into a pattern of unhelpful behaviour where they become ‘righteously done-to’.
Sure enough, as the great workshop panned out, all of these behaviours were exhibited. My bottomness centred on a feeling of no one telling me anything and therefore I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing so along with my mates we had a grand old time – playfulness as withdrawal.
Oshry goes on to explain that we chose how we behave and that these patterns do not need to persist – we can chose to be different.
Partnership is the key and changing and transforming our relationships can stop these behaviours and stop recreating the organisational patterns.
A relationship in which we are jointly committed to the success of whatever project, process or endeavour we are in.’
We can chose to be part of what he describes as the ‘side show’ where we make up stories about it and evaluate others as malicious, insensitive and incompetent or we can take the centre ring and have understanding and empathy for others, staying focussed on the best outcome and take a wider view where you take into account the perspective of others. Tops should take a position where they focus on developing responsibility throughout whole organisation. Middles should maintain independence of thought and act in service of the whole system. Bottoms should take responsibility not only for their thing but also for the whole thing.
I think I recognise Oshry’s organisation in many places I have been in my career, where ‘stuff’ happens and I also recognise my own unhelpful behaviours in those he describes. I can also adopt some of the more helpful behaviours that move to a better position of partnership. If you ever get chance to do the organisational workshop I would recommend you jump at it; it certainly fits with my experiential model of learning.
There is no way I will forget being a hard done to bottom and also the need to stop those old behaviours developing, even without thought, and I will try to take a more helpful partnership position.