Awareness of Social Systems


Not until looking back did I realize how Lancelot Law Whyte’s writing
(The Unconscious Before Freud) had influenced my formulation of increasing awareness as the major thrust of evolution.
John B. Calhoun (March 31, 1973)

Social Systems and Relationship Dynamics
Whatever your dreams, ambitions or goals, they can come to life only within a social system. To operate successfully within a social system—to achieve specific objectives—you must be able to spot the critical connections between individuals. This increased awareness of relationship dynamics is your golden road to providing legitimate leadership within any system, be it family or business. My goal is to provide you with a map and a user-friendly compass that will guide you as you build your level of relationship awareness and self-management skills.

Legitimate leaders earn their titles. They are willing to experiment to find better ways of operating in any system in which they participate, be it a family, a job, or a purely social group. Legitimate leaders are realistic; they know that the world is changing and that we must all meet and adapt to new challenges every day. These leaders love to learn and will challenge any psychological blindness that interferes with their ability to get the job done. The good news for legitimate leaders and aspiring legitimate leaders is that developing an awareness of relationship dynamics, although challenging, can also be fun.

To gain a basic knowledge of relationship dynamics requires careful observance of self and others. It also requires some understanding of how social systems operate and of just how “wired together” we really are as small groups and as a species. People are the integral parts of our social systems, and all social systems are wired to notice and react to any small difference in what its members are doing. Humans, after all, care about what “other” people are thinking, feeling and even dreaming. That is easy enough to understand. Less obvious is that all social systems, even those comprising just two or three people, have a memory. This memory can reach far back in time and load (or even overload) the system’s members with great sensitivity to one another.

Memories of the past foreshadow the future by automatically triggering an action response whenever individuals perceive even a slight threat. The brain’s amygdala does not need to think—it simply responds. And the truth is that we do not always have time to think about our reactions. Our perceptions/responses are pre-rigged, and we are pre-loaded with many subtle ways of affecting one another’s bodies and minds in the so-called “now.” Some people say we—and thus our responses—can be manipulated, and that’s true. But we are less vulnerable to manipulation within our various social systems and relationships if we have a map of where we want to go and a compass that we know how to use to get us there.

On the positive side, because we are so sensitive we are able to learn a tremendous amount from just a few facts. We can impose order on our experiences and gain knowledge of more than just our selves. Then we can communicate our knowledge over the generations. We can tell meaning-filled stories. We can look at and learn from our lives and the lives of others. In addition, much knowledge has been formalized into various disciplines that we can study to learn how systems operate in many different arenas.

You are free to take any of these paths on the knowledge map. However there are some obstacles to keep in mind, one of which has already been mentioned: that the human brain is constructed to respond automatically to perceived threats, based in part on our memories. Also, because our brains like to conserve energy, we have a tendency to operate for long periods of time on automatic pilot, or in states of relationship blindness. This can be seen as both good and bad.

Communicating Ideas: Non-linear Systems and Preparing the Brain to See Anew
Because our brains are rigged to ignore many of the fundamental facts of relationship dynamics, it can be tough to step back and really see how social systems work. So the big question is, “How can information about relationship dynamics be communicated?”

We have nice, cause-and-effect brains that feel comfortable with simple answers, shortcuts and simple solutions. Since our brains are constructed to save energy, what’s wrong with finding a simple way to explain how relationships work? The answer is that, contrary to what some believe, we don’t live in a nice, linear, cause-and-effect world. So it stands to reason that social systems and relationship dynamics are not necessarily linear and cause-and-effect either. This makes explanations, well, tricky.

Murray Gell-Mann, who is Distinguished Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, says that we all live in a bubbling sea of nonlinear systems dynamics. He describes the intricate processes used by a child to learn a language as being similar to the complex adaptive processes used by bacteria to develop resistance to drugs. And James Gleick, writing in his 1988 book Chaos: The Making of a New Science, traces the ideas of Mitchell Feigenbaum and his Butterfly Effect. He explains that simple events, like the fluttering of a butterfly in some obscure garden, can create mighty and unpredictable effects in a living system such as ours. In nonlinear systems, small affects become magnified in unbelievable ways.

We really can’t predict the consequences of an event or a decision by using linear thinking alone. A good example of just how dangerous this kind of approach can be is Hurricane Katrina. Based on their past experiences, many people living on the Gulf Coast thought it would be possible to ride out that terrible storm. Some thought it might even be fun to stay and watch the show Mother Nature would put on. Still others thought it would be easy to escape at the last minute, if need be. But, as we all learned so tragically, easy it was not. The past does not always perfectly predict the future. The not-so-easy in the “Big Easy” is a lesson for us all. The fact is that there can be catastrophic consequences to applying short term, cause-and-effect thinking to this “bubbling sea” of systems that we all live and work in

No jazz was playing in the background as, day after day, we watched wrong-headed, short term, cause-and-effect thinking become grim reality. Remember the clogged roads going out of the city while the other side of the road was empty? How long did it take to understand that? We could see it on TV. Remember those trailers? People in New Orleans desperately needed places to stay. But the local system could not adapt to the solution offered by Federal officials. The trailers would spend endless months in Kansas waiting for permits to go to New Orleans—where trailers are not allowed! Hurricane Katrina is a good lesson in how living systems really operate, as opposed to how we might wish them to operate.

I am not saying cause-and-effect thinking is useless. In fact, it works well in many short term situations. Think, I cut myself, I need a bandage, no problem. But when there are unusual events or big issues, cause-and-effect is not so great. In fact, it’s sure to present us with unreliable data for solving long term problems. Complexity rules in systems. If we could see how the whole system operates, just for a moment or so, we could get beyond short term thinking, finger-pointing and blame. We could see how one event or decision will trigger many other changes, and then come up with a solid plan for dealing with the future.

There are many other examples of the results of short term, cause-and-effect thinking. Take a look at your newspaper’s financial section. There you can see the consequences of the tendency to over focus on short term profits at the expense of long term stability. Or how about everyday examples, like lying to your mother (which is sure to be discovered and punished in the long run), or cheating on your spouse (seriously not good for a long term relationship). There will always be a conflict between short and long term goals. But those who think for the long term have decided adaptive advantages if they plan to stay in the same set off relationships for a while.

Being able to postpone gratification (not being seduced by short terms rewards) and seeing the big picture are two traits that we know legitimate leaders possess. The question is, are such leaders just born that way? Or can individuals cultivate the ability to see the big picture and therefore alter their automatic, short term behavior to improve the outcome? Let’s take the optimistic view and say it is possible to learn and change. How, then, do we prepare our brains to see differently, to see the big picture so that we can understand how wired human systems operate?

Relationship Blinders and The Development of “My” World View
Right now, we all have mental models of how relationships work. Our models are formed by our experiences and beliefs. But how accurate those models are, and how accurate our way of seeing, can be debated.

Most of us no longer believe the earth is flat, but because so many people once did, we know that we are continually at risk of accepting any number of limited belief systems. And perhaps it would be easier just to accept things as they seem, as we did when we were young—without questioning or thinking carefully or analyzing facts. But most of us have been to the school of life and have been challenged to think critically. Remember Katrina. The pressure is on to solve more and more complex problems. We have to adapt; therefore, we need to loosen up our brains and we need to take off the relationship blinders that are constricting our view of the big picture.

I know that it is very hard to see beyond cultural norms or the quiet authority of family (or even strangers). I also know that Mother Nature gave us these relationship blinders for a good reason. So before you commit to removing them, let me explain one of their main benefits. “Seeing” is expensive and blinders save us gobs of energy. Blinders allow us to be on automatic pilot for mundane tasks so that we don’t spend our lives in endless states of hyper-alert, hyper-awareness, always on the lookout for danger, always trying to find solutions to the problems we see. It takes a great deal of energy to be aware.

That being said, taking off the blinders once in a while so that we can see the beauty of complexity, of habits, subtle connections, and the overriding influence of relationship processes, would be a good thing. Often we live in highly anxious states because we see problems as being one person’s fault, when in reality this is almost never true. Take off the blinders, and we can see this. If we could take off the blinders, just for a moment, we could see the interaction of many different and seemingly unconnected parts of a system. So, what can we do about this now?

Getting Personal – Social Preferences
We can get personal. To give yourself some preliminary perspective on how you operate as a leader in a social system, step back and ask yourself a couple of questions:

(1) To what extent are the positions I take based on my reactions to people and events in my social systems?
(2) Do I have principles that I can stick with even when the people I love oppose me?
(3) When people are upset with me, can I relate to all the different factions in my group without taking sides with any one individual or any one faction?”

That third question deserves a bit of explanation. If you are like me, you have spent way more time taking various people’s sides and listening to gossip than you have spent trying to be a separate individual analyzing the situation from outside the fray. The fact is, most people are not overly fond of a person who does not seem, at least for a moment or two, to take their side. But over the long term you may learn, as I did, that side-taking results in increasing emotional intensity in the group without the benefit of a problem being solved. And it doesn’t help you adapt well to greater complexity.

Refusing to takes sides also increases the tension in a group, and it leaves you out in the cold. (The lone cowboy is usually just that—not loved, but alone.) However, standing alone makes you a far better observer—which in turn makes you a better problem-solver. When you stand alone, you are not subject to the intense pollution that comes with needing to accept others’ viewpoints just to reduce the tension. Plus, when you stand alone, you have the added benefit of watching how the rest of the group adapts when you are not overly involved in helping them make the right decisions.

Most of us who take sides do so based on office gossip or what we hear in our social systems, with scant attention paid to facts. Inevitably, this means that we side with the people we need the most, as they will be the easiest to believe. It may be part of nature’s automatic programming for our very social species that we find quick ways to know who to be close to and who to avoid. But those of you who want to be legitimate leaders will look at this blind spot (you can call it social preference) and select observational and factual knowledge over automatic alignments within the social system. Hopefully, it will not be that hard for you to become aware of the emotional gossip that runs through the system, and to find some way to stand alone while relating to one and all. Those of you who want more clarity as you increase your leadership skills will know that the first step in making a decision that matters is to always to consider evidence that has been organized into a perspective—and how your social system is wired is a key perspective.

More Personal Questions
When you are in the process of decision-making, do you carefully ask yourself

(1) What are the rewards for going in this or that direction?
(2) Who will oppose me, and for what reasons?
(3) Where can I build alliances?
(4) What are the incentives for making this change?
(5) Have I carefully thought about the consequences, even if this decision entails minor risk?

These and many other questions can form the basis for a realistic decision-making process in a wired social system.

Now that we’ve considered a few ideas on how to operate in social systems, let’s consider a deeper question: How can we build on our past experiences to rediscover and re-energize our particular relationship strengths? The sort answer is “stories.” The longer answer follows.

The Hidden Wealth of Stories
A person who is motivated to understand a group or even another individual is probably able to recall real-life stories, and perhaps even collects them. Stories are organized to enable us to listen and learn. We are able to sort out who the main characters are and what helped them make good decisions, and also what happen to the characters when they became emotionally vulnerable. Shakespeare, for example, was a genius at focusing our attention on how people fail to think carefully about the relationship consequences of decisions.

Stories are our earliest way (speaking both developmentally and historically) of highlighting what we deem important and then passing on what we have learned—something we have been doing for thousands of years. It’s even possible that we emerged from the Stone Age just because we were finally able to tell our stories.

Our brains love stories. Stories are chock full of facts and fantasy, and often reveal the connections between events. Instead of examining one car on a train, you can, with stories, get on the train, feel the ride, and experience the thrill of personal exploration. Stories let us look at a process of events rather than a simple cause-and-effect sequence. Of course, events do have causes. To justify a forbidden act, someone might say, “The devil made me do it!” But that’s not really enough. There is also complexity. Just why did the devil become a fallen angel, and what lessons we should all learn from that event? There are as many answers to those questions as there are religions. You might decide, for example, that God needed the devil and was therefore implicated in his arrival, leaving each of us to struggle with the problem of good and evil. My point is only that stories are powerful tools to promote complex thinking and are a fun learning tool.

Stories do vary in their degrees of fact and emotionality, but nonetheless are often valuable evidence of a process called development. How do you think you got from there to here? And what did you discover along the way? This is what I want to learn from leaders’ life stories, and what you can learn from your own stories.

Stories contain enormous amounts of knowledge woven from many interrelated strands of memories, emotions and “facts.” Because of the richness of this knowledge and the inferences we can draw from stories based on our own experiences, it is possible to listen to them over and over and constantly gain new perspective. The good stories are also entertaining. Have you noticed how much easier learning is when you are being entertained? Entertaining stories summarize our best guess of how things appear, not necessarily how things are.

Three Approaches to Building Your Knowledge Base
In this book, I am offering you a thinking adventure, a journey where changing your self is the way to influence and lead others. It is the road to wisdom. To change your self, you need facts about your social system—whether that social system is your family or your business environment. But facts alone mean little because they are unconnected to life. You need the facts woven into an entertaining story. To gather the facts about your social systems, I suggest these three paths.

(1) Become more aware of your own personal life/leadership journey. Describe, in story format, the real people who made a significant difference in your ongoing life. This chapter will help you get started on that.
(2) Listen to others’ stories of how they acquired the relationship knowledge/skills that led to their leadership positions. Learning from others shows you variations on a theme, the process-approach to change. Chapter Three begins these stories from the 10 leaders I interviewed.
(3) Investigate knowledge from other disciplines. This will create a university without walls for you. Broad knowledge will allow you to gain multiple perspectives. It will give you a better chance to move from the limits of cause-and-effect thinking to a wider perspective. This book will offer you the beginnings of this learning, and you can add to it by reading other books that I’ll refer to. If you are really motivated, enroll in some classes. Pick out people you really want to learn from, but always begin by observing self and others.

Reflect on Your Life and Tell Your Story
The best way to start your personal life/leadership journey is to gather evidence of how you have functioned in various social systems. This can be a one-page summery/story, and should be about what really matters to you. If it is, you will discover new things about your self. Just keep in mind the important variables:

1. Where do your strengths come from?
2. What are the important relationships and events that have influenced you?
3. How did you overcome adversity?

One way to gather evidence, and an easy (but not necessarily happy) way to see how a family system operates, is watch what happens after a family leader/patriarch/matriarch dies.

First, you’ll see how people in the system follow a prescribed ritual for expressing grief. This does not solve all of the problems that come when someone dies. The person who dies leaves a hole in the system. It is almost like one of the planets in the solar system jumped out of its orbit. The added stress, and the lack of the person to relate to can leave people dazed and out of sync. In that state, they make decisions that are just not as good as decisions they made when the system was more intact. It can be as simple as the father dies and one of his sons suddenly gets a slew of speeding tickets.

The system is trying to adapt to the increase in stress. Individuals and the system as a whole are attempting to find a new, healthy configuration of new relationships that function well. For example, if a mother dies, a grandmother might fill in with some of the functional duties until the father remarries. If the mother was older when she died, perhaps an aunt will become more significant and have more contact with the rest of the family. The loss of old relationships and the need to adapt to new people who function in different ways creates more stress as people adjust. The cost of adapting may be the reason we often see many symptoms in families in the year following the loss of a major leader. These symptoms may reveal circumstantial evidence of how people are connected to one another at deep levels.

Corporations may have similar problems when new leadership takes over and the old familiar people are gone.

After a death, people are often challenged to alter their functional position within the family group. In the interviews with Steve Waite, Ned Powell, Gary Resnick and Bob Di Florio, you’ll read how each, after the death of a significant family member, was able to shift the role he played within his family to better meet the changing challenges. Their stories make it easy to see the connections and dependencies between people.

Stories in general reveal the key ingredients that make transformation possible. They also give us a chance to reflect, which is important because, among other things, without reflection there can be no trial-and-error learning. Mistakes happen for a reason. We do not have to be perfect; we just have to be able to learn from our mistakes. And to do that, we need and must have trial-and-error opportunities.

Building on your personal strengths (which you will see more clearly in your own personal stories) to make you a better leader is more likely to be successful than simply appending other people’s ideas to your self. Often, for example, the ideas presented in workshops will have no real long term personal meaning or legitimacy for your life. Therefore, as good as these ideas are, thousands of them fall by the wayside once the workshops end. This is not the fault of our relatively small short term memory. Rather, it has to do with sustaining attention and, perhaps most of all, with the blind force behind habits. What does that mean? It means that there are many automatic ways that you function that kick in when you return to the familiar—your family and your workplace.

Telling your personal story is a challenge. What you learned when you were young may be stored in the back recesses of your mind. It may not seem important. It may not look like a useful tool for building your personal strengths. But once you try writing out your story, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Building a Mindful Compass from Your Story
Everyone has an automatic, internal guidance system, or compass, that helps us decide what to do or which way to go in any given situation. This guidance system, a blend of intuition and instinct, is based in part on our past experiences and incorporates at least a degree of analytical thinking. But most of the time, it operates almost entirely outside our awareness. Intuition and instinct are fine, as is habit, and I propose that you use them. But I also propose that you build your own, more Mindful Compass.

Telling your story will give you some insights into your past. but you can organize your life stories into more meaning-filled points by thinking about them from the perspective of the four directions on your Mindful Compass.

At any moment, any one of us can peek around our blinders and ask, “What is the best thing for me to do in this social system, at this moment?” That kind of thinking involves work, however, and when it gets too tiring, you can always go back to blaming Mother Nature and or your family for the issues and problems you find yourself facing. Then, when you are ready, you can ask, “How do I take off these darn relationship blinders so I can see what is really going on all around me and deal with it effectively? I want to really look at the system so I can move forward with an action plan.”

As part of helping you learn to see, I will show you (later in this chapter) how to discover your strengths and weakness by telling yourself more stories about your relationships with those who were and are important in your life. As you tell yourself these stories, you will learn that many of the events they describe were precipitated by your having to adapt to forces outside yourself. A family relocation may have deposited you in a new school; there might have been an unexpected death or serious illness in your family; or maybe you met the person of your dreams and decided to rearrange your entire, and unexpectedly joyful, life.

Managing major (and minor) life changes is infinitely easier if you are aware of how you deal with other people. Understanding the influences of the social system and how the people in any system react to change is the bottom line for making thoughtful choices and decisions. The skillful use of the Mindful Compass is one way to help you make the thoughtful decisions and choices (with the blinders off) that will lead to a more positive future.

The Mindful Compass has four important points to consider when you are in a decision-making situation.

The Compass Points
North – This is the point on your compass that represents your goals, or your life vision. One way to develop this point is to consider how relationships have helped you to define your passions. Some people say, “This is the way I envision the future and this is what I am going to do to bring this future into being. “This” may involve managing more effectively the relationships you are in (a less-than-supportive parent, for example, or a doubtful boss).

The following is a four-step guide for the practical minded who are determined to develop north on their compass.

Four Nuggets of “North” Wisdom
1. Ask yourself, “Where did the idea come from?”
2. Observe how other people within the system respond to your idea.
3. Measure your own reactions to the other people’s responses and input.
4. And finally, predict the various responses and outcomes to your proposed goal or changes, and then prepare for them.

If you follow this approach, your goals and vision will become grounded in reality, and this book will have offered you more than pie in the sky.