It’s Not a Behavioral Problem: It’s the System


Don’t ask systems thinkers for advice on managing performance or staff engagement. They will probably say something pretty fruity, and you’ll wind up frustrated by how fervently they trash conventional wisdom on the subject. Your systems thinking friends will talk about how performance, engagement, and recruitment are all connected, and will proceed to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, when all you want to know is “how to get people to do stuff.” You go to them as a sounding board because there is something you like about the way they think; when you’ve talked previously, they came up with ideas that seemed counterintuitive at first, but were actually surprisingly on the money. However, when it comes to a sticky situation you are actually dealing with, you don’t want to hear them bang on about the system, the system, the system. Isn’t that just a lovely sounding theory that academics spout and doesn’t work in the real world? In an effort to get your friends to answer your simple question, you keep repeating, “Yes, but they are supposed to fill out their daily task logs,” quietly tearing your hair out while they insist it’s not a behavioral problem; it’s a systems issue.

One of the most important things I learned from my past life as a therapist is that if you want behavior change in an individual, you work with them as a whole being and you work with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). You don’t focus on their “problem behaviors.” Similarly, if you want behavior change in an organization, you work on it as a whole. You don’t focus on the dysfunctional parts or the underperforming individuals. In my present life, I apply my understanding of systems to organizations and organizational change, not merely the individuals within them.


Experiment with focusing your attention and energies on the system and not on the individual behaviors of individual people.

As systems thinkers know, we can’t blame individuals for doing what the system expects them to do. And as disturbing as Milgram’s experiments were, I have observed that people behave in ways that surprise themselves and that sometimes go against what they know to be right and true. We do this when our environment, our system, sets up conditions that compel us to behave in particular ways. The system also punishes us for not doing what it wants us to do, just to keep us in line.

If we want organizational transformation, if we want more effective organizations, if we want people to find the work they do meaningful, we need to work with the whole system. A buddy of mine recently observed that most people seem uninterested in effectiveness. Sad but true, I fear. Still desperately clinging on to “scientific” management mythologies, many folks just want the numbers to add up and people to do what they’re told. A scary prospect if your business has just appointed a new global CEO who is a bean-counter by background and disposition, and whose single-minded purpose is to show the shareholders that they are getting richer every quarter. Calling a performance issue a “behavioral problem” comes out of this kind of mechanistic worldview. Yuck.

Phase One: Eliminate Systems Blindness

There is hope, however. Some managers are on the threshold of doing something quite different . . . if we would just hang in with them. They know in their gut that doing the same old, same old is not going to make a real difference. For instance, I’ve been working with three business leaders. I’ve been coaching them to see the bigger picture and assisting them to open their thinking about why things don’t go the way they’d like. This, to me, is phase one of the organizational transformation they are seeking to effect: eliminating systems blindness.

Our sessions usually begin with each of them discussing what so-and-so still hasn’t done yet or what what’s-his-name is doing again, despite that one-to-one chat urging him to stop it. I let them get some things off their chests and jot down a few salient observations that I pick up. As I listen, I make connections in my head and find the patterns they are describing. These patterns are descriptors of the system. After a while, I might say something like, “Haven’t we heard all this before?” They smile. Then they frown. What they are slowly learning to do, however, is to see the behaviors as indicators of the wider patterns at play.

The patterns I’m observing in how they describe the staff illustrate a workplace culture characterized by:

  • Things done at the last minute without much forethought
  • Poor self-discipline with regard to working practices
  • Low self-responsibility
  • Poor follow-up on commitments and promises
  • Distractedness; getting easily side-tracked
  • A reactive rather than proactive mindset
  • A “she’ll be right” mentality (a common expression in New Zealand meaning, it’ll all be fine in the end, don’t worry about it)
  • Inconsistency in work practices
  • An overly laid-back attitude toward work
  • A “can’t do” attitude

Behaviors at work are tempered by the systemic norms at play; you could also say it’s the “culture.” You can read this in many places: the system is responsible for performance. Don’t blame people for doing what the system asks, and similarly, stop rewarding individuals for good performance. According to Deming, “Reward for good performance may be the same as rewarding the weather forecaster for a pleasant day.”

I’m convinced that the organizational changes these managers want will come about when they focus their attention and energies on the system and not on the individual behaviors of individual people. When I share my observations with them about the patterns I see, they nod and smile and say, “That absolutely describes the culture.”

I then inquire as to what they’ve tried to put a stop to the things they don’t like. Again, I listen for patterns. With all good intentions, they tell me things like:

  • “Well, I was going to schedule another one-to-one meeting and go through their KPIs again, but something urgent came up.”
  • “I had it written in my diary but I couldn’t remember which page I’d written it on.”
  • “I’ve confronted him about it before but it didn’t make a difference, so I couldn’t see the point of following up again.”
  • “He knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s been here for 10 years, I don’t see why I should have to tell him again and again.”
  • “They’re like a bunch of children; you have to keep on at them, otherwise nothing gets done.”
  • “He was fine for a week after I talked to him, but he’s slipped back, and I don’t know how I can get it across.”

After they report what they’ve tried, I ask them to reflect on how similar their patterns are to the patterns they bemoan in the staff: inconsistent, sidetracked, etc. Again, they smile. Again they frown. They find it mildly amusing that they are doing much the same as the staff. Here is when I reinforce the idea of systems. They are part of the same system, and that very same system is exerting itself on them. In our conversations, they are becoming more adept at seeing. I mean really seeing.

Remember, Deming said that a system cannot understand itself. It’s not true just because Deming said it. It’s true because it’s true. The systems to which we belong exert their influence on us. We struggle to know this. We struggle to know how much. We find ourselves at times frustrated with ourselves and with others. It takes an outside eye, a disinterested party, an objective mirror to help us to see what we can’t. They’re called blind spots for a reason. Obvious to me, previously hidden to these three leaders, their system is screwy, not the people within it.

Phase Two: Create the Vision

These three lovely, well-intentioned leaders have warmed up to the second phase of their work together: creating the vision of what you want. Now that they are aware of this thing called “culture” and that it impacts them and that no one person is to blame for doing what the system urges them to do, they are excited to create a vision for the culture they want. They are beginning to identify the elements within the system that maintain its status quo. They are excited. I ask them naive questions like, “What is your purpose?” “What does your business exist for?” How would you like it to be here?” and they eagerly discuss things that they feel should be so obvious but when asked directly, they need to stop and really think about them.

Lately, rather than see themselves as victims of all those awful things the staff do, they are excited to recast their roles as stewards of the system. They get the paradox of systems thinking: they are in it and subject to it, and at the same time, if they can begin to manage their systems blindness with the help of an outside eye, they have the power to do something about it. They are seeing themselves less as managers-who-need-to-be-in-control and more as leaders-who-guide-the-culture. They are more infused with hope for the future. They can use the things over which they do have control (policy and procedure manuals, resourcing, their own attitudes, their individual relationships with staff members) to generate the culture they believe will be more effective and, in the long run, more efficient.

Rather than trying to find new ways to get people to do what they want them to do, rather than focusing on the multitude of things they don’t want, they are thrilled to devote more time to the things they do want. They are thinking bigger: about themselves, the staff, and the business.

Phase Three: Grapple with the “How-to”

Systems thinking, for me, is not merely an academic exercise. It is real world. It changes lives and workplaces.

Next steps for these three? Well, it’s emergent, a work in progress. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had times when they felt like they were banging their heads against a brick wall. At this stage, however, they are hopeful, they are positive, and they are now talking more about modeling and leading the change they want to see. (Didn’t some famous peace-loving figure from history say something about that?) They are truly interested in being different themselves. They are considering how to steward a culture of self-responsibility, flexibility, a “can do” attitude, learning from mistakes, and “just enough” structure. They are approaching phase three: grappling with the “how-to.”

In truth, it is an absolute pleasure.

John Wegner is the co-owner of Quantum Shift. He integrates 20 years experience and knowledge from the fields of education and counseling to create learning environments that are focused, purposeful, and engaging for all. The piece is adapted from John’s blog and is reprinted with permission.

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