Thought Thursday – Seeing Systems: Part One
In Barry Oshry’s brilliant work Seeing Systems: Unraveling the Mysteries of Organizational Life, he talks about the spaces we occupy in an organization. He calls those spaces quite simply: Top, Middle, Bottom and Customer. You know you are Top when you have overall responsibility for the action and you are the only one waking up at two or three in the morning for things related to the issue. You know you are Middle when you are between two parties with differing interest and you are fairly convinced that if you please one of the parties with the actions you take, you are likely to displease another. You know you are Bottom when you experience the vulnerability of not knowing what you will be asked to do, who you will be asked to work with, and what the conditions related to the assignment will be. You especially know you are in the Bottom space when you are convinced that if “They” (meaning the higher ups), would get their act together, all would be good. You know you are in the Customer space when you are waiting for others to deliver the goods and services you need to complete your work or meet your goals and objectives.
Here’s the big idea. We are moving in and out of all of these spaces within a given half hour. You were top on one assignment, middle on another, bottom on another and a customer on a different assignment. Oshry’s theory goes on to explain the conditions that await us regardless of who we are as individuals in each space and the reflexive responses, or predictable responses, to those conditions. It’s as if you are a dog jumping into a lake. You will get wet with a set of predictable conditions. Here’s what I mean- jump into the lake while being a Top and you get complexity and responsibility. Jump into the lake while being a Middle and you will get the condition of being torn. Jump into the lake while you are a Bottom and you will get wet with vulnerability. Jump into the lake while you are a Customer and you will get wet with neglect. To take Oshry’s lessons a little further, after you get wet, you will shake to get the water off, just as a dog does instinctively. Top roles shake by sucking up more responsibility which results in them feeling burdened. Middles shake by trying to please everyone, which causes them to feel even more torn. Bottoms shake by blaming others for their condition and result in feeling oppressed. Customers shake by staying aloof and waiting to be served, which gets them to feel righteously ripped off.
Oshry states that these are lousy, dysfunctional responses but are inevitable unless we take a strong stand to respond differently. In essence, there is such a strong pull to shake this way that we need to be very intentional about our responses or we will continue to react and create more dysfunction throughout our system. During the next four Thought Thursdays, I will talk about each of the leadership stands for each of the 4 “spaces” and the strategies that can truly bring us into partnership with others in your organization. Stay tuned next week for The Top stand and Top strategies…
To read about all 4 spaces, click the following links:
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