Behaviour in Organisations

By May 6, 2020October 19th, 2020Article

It’s not always personal

Recently a colleague approached me somewhat distressed. For the past year she had been working as a consultant for a small niche enterprise advising them on culture and leadership development. She had been so successful and had built up such a positive relationship with the CEO that he had invited her to join the company full time and continue to do her work for him internally to the company. The company was growing rapidly and would need more and more of her capability and services.

She considered the offer carefully and decided to take the position. A few weeks in as the new Head of Culture, some tension started to emerge between her and the CEO. She was very troubled and perplexed by this and as the ‘tension’ and ‘noise’ increased between them, she called me to discuss it and help her figure out what was going on. She explained her distress: She thought she knew the CEO – had she misjudged him? Why was he behaving so strangely towards her? What was she doing wrong? Were some of her negative behaviour patterns she thought she had ‘conquered’ and left behind long ago re-emerging? Had she made a mistake taking the position? All this came tumbling out…nothing made sense…


I invited her up onto the ‘balcony’ to explore what was going on in the system between her and the CEO. As we stepped into observer roles and she described to me the moments of conflict and tension with the CEO, the pattern between them became visible and clear. Until a few weeks ago she was in role of consultant and he was in role of client. They had developed a shared understanding of how this role-relatedness would work and were aligned on the ‘rules of relating’ between them. They were working very well together in a client-consultant system.

However coming into the boundary of the company, her role had changed from being an external consultant to being an employee, and his role had changed from being a client relying on her for expert advice to becoming her manager. This changed everything. It meant they were in a new system of Manager:Employee not just Client:Advisor. She was now also a member of the Executive Team, which meant one of the client groups in the company she had been coaching were now her peers – complex and very tricky! The CEO needed to treat her as one of the team; as one of his direct reports, which she was, and which he had started to do. The team were expecting that too.


She however was still taking up the role of consultant. She had not shifted her mental map of the role, or the role itself. She had not stepped into role of employee, so the system had changed but she was in an ‘old’ role running an ‘old’ map. The CEO however had stepped into role of manager and out of role of ‘client’ – they were now operating in two different systems with different maps. Which is why nothing made sense and the ‘noise’ was increasing as these two systems required different ‘rules of engagement’. They were no longer ‘matched’.

They were both exactly the same people that they were a few weeks before, neither of them was doing anything wrong, but what had changed were their roles and therefore the ‘rules of relating and engagement’ between them. They needed to establish a new pattern of relating.

I watched my colleague’s face relax, her energy shift, her colour return as this systemic pattern became visible. We explored ways for her to go back into the system with this new information and understanding, and together we figured out her adaptive strategy.


She needed to step into role of employee and shift the rules of engagement – ‘recontract’ with the CEO for how she took up her role and did her work in the organisation now as an employee. She had signed a technical legal job contract with him when starting, but they also needed to ‘recontract’ systemically for how they worked together, which they hadn’t done. What a relief! She was ok and so was he…this was a much easier ‘fix’!

“Reframing our mental maps of roles enables us to improve our relationships and performance”

The problem she thought she had was reframed. No need to have a difficult personal conversation, leave the company or go back to therapy! I checked in with my colleague a few weeks after and all was good. She had stepped into her new role, and they were figuring out how to function in this new system together, using the new language and framework of role. The CEO was equally relieved he didn’t have to have an uncomfortable conversation or lose a valuable employee!


I remember sitting there thinking about the power of applying a systemic lens to what appears to be a behavioural and/or interpersonal relationship issue in an organisation. It is such a liberating way of ‘seeing’ and understanding, and such an empowering practice:

  1. Whilst it is not always easy to change role, it is much easier than trying to change the person;
  2. It is far easier to change the role you are playing than it is to try and get someone else to change;
  3. It brings a neutrality and ease of change because it doesn’t make someone ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’

“Our dominant psychological and interpersonal lens has become an implicit world view that is creating a ‘blindspot’ for us”

We frame problems and opportunities as being of the person – their character, personality, style, values and biases, or in the relationship between people or the organisation – is it one of trust, respect, good intention, shared values or care?

Learning to think systemically, to see the systems we are in and the roles we play in these systems, is becoming more and more critical in our complex, networked, matrixed organisations.

“In our new agile organisations too, where people are expected to play multiple roles, step in and out of roles with ease and adapt to new roles at ‘speed’ developing a capacity for role reframing and recontracting is an imperative”

The good news is we can all learn to rewire our operating system of mind to develop this
sense-making and build our capability for applying these new systemic practices.

I think its time has come!