Leading through the Relationship Jungle


Leading Through the Relationship Jungle:


You can’t be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel. Philip Zimbardo (Stanford Prison Experiment) 

Long-term commitment to new learning and new philosophy is requiredof any management that seeks transformation. The timid and the fainthearted,and the people who expect quick results, are doomed to disappointment.W. Edwards Deming  Habits of Interacting and the Forces

In the first chapters of this book I encouraged you to reflect on the habits of interacting and thinking that you learned in your family, using your own family stories as a guide. I also introduced you to The Mindful Compass, and asked you to think about what it would take to alter old, useless patterns of behavior. As Philip Zimbardo pointed out in his research, our behavior is regulated by our social situation.  Therefore let us spend some time looking at how the system, or the above mentioned vinegar barrel, is wired.  It is in our best interest to be aware of the signals that are influencing our behavior, be they from our family or from our organization. How we “see” our social situation and its influence on us can, in and of itself, alter the social situation.  One way to “see” our social situation, which we’ve already talked about, is to listen to ourselves telling our own story. If we are willing to be honest, we might be able to thoughtfully consider what has and continues to influence us to behave in certain predictable ways.

Only you can answer the questions about your level of sensitivity at home and at work.  Only you know if you are you more or less sensitive after considering your life stories. Our own stories may help us see how we interact in family relationships and how we interact with people at work.  Those of us willing to write up their early family experiences, are more likely to see how relationships and events imparted a certain spin and/or level of intensity, which is reflected in their current world view. The big question is, do we really know how we affect others?  

If this book has helped any of you to answer yes, then it will have succeeded.

In these first chapters, you hopefully learned about the togetherness force and its opposite, individuality, the force that drives each of us to stand alone and be ourselves. Those two forces, which every one of us struggles to balance, help shape our perception of reality and therefore our actions. They are impersonal and knowable.  But knowing their various manifestations requires time to reflect. Our conscious mind is but the tip of the ice burg.

Clearly we humans take part in all kinds of group activity without being conscious of our social interactions. How do we each play a role in group-level membership?  We will be looking at some of the psychological research on social situations to see how the individual is influenced with out awareness.  I am often amazed at how hard it is for people to understand the influence of forces larger than they can see. But since fewer than fifty percent of people in the
United States believe that evolution is a theory that has moved close to being a fact, it will clearly take a great many more scientific projects to make participation in group life scientifically knowable and acceptable.

One way for us to approach this topic is to see these group forces operating by creating greater ability to recognize interactional patterns.  Pattern recognition takes time.  This is one reason that looking at the psychological research is useful.  Think how long it takes to be an expert in anything. Managing self is no different. The ongoing presence of the forces to go along with the group or the automatic ways of “paying attention” requires us to use some discipline, like the point of the Mindful Compass, to increase knowledge and build our inner courage as we navigate through our various relationship systems.

Reviewing the Basic Ideas: (1) Bowen theory offers a way to see how individual functioning is derived from relationships with other members in the group, or system, setting up a balance between the individual, and the force to be a part of a group- the togetherness forces. (2) Humans have instinctive ways of functioning in a group that are similar to but not the same as behaviors found in other mammalian social groups.(3) Mechanisms in the brain influence people to go along with the social group.

(4) During times of stress, many individuals’ ability to function degrades. The balance is tipped toward more togetherness with others, and less ability to be a more separate self.

(5) Awareness of past patterns of behavior gives individuals greater ability to define a self based on knowledge and principles. Creating a “Thinking Space” Clearly, learning how relationship systems work and how best to manage your self in them is extremely useful to developing and enhancing your leadership skills. People have different needs to know about this. I am always curious and a searcher by nature. Therefore, I’ve been working for 30-plus years and am still learning how families and businesses function as emotional systems. You, however, don’t need to work that long or hard, unless your interests take you there.  “Good enough” knowledge about how systems work can help any of us to create more mindful relationships with important people – be they in your family, extended family or organizational environment.  Just having this goal in mind will help your leadership backbone become stronger. And P.S.— you can never predict just how building and strengthening your relationships with people in your family and at work will result in the larger family and business systems becoming more mindful, calmer and more productive.   

As a family systems coach, I see the complexity in relationship systems being addressed in startling ways. The people I was supposedly coaching often surprised me by tossing my best ideas in the trash and making their own strategic moves. Time and again, they would find unexpected ways to work through their emotional jungles. How does this happen and what is the coach’s role in making it happen?  People create “thinking spaces” with their coach. To break up old ways of thinking we often need a new infusion of ideas.  Not all ideas need to be directly useful.  Some can be funny and even off the wall. Ideas are simply stimulations for the thinking and feeling systems within your brain.  

Exactly how the cognitive system functions to influence feelings and automatic ways of dealing with others is complex and our knowledge primitive.  We do know that thinking differently about our feelings often has a better result then just expressing our feelings as though they were facts. Successful coaching relationships contribute to another person’s ability to think broadly and to function in more thoughtful ways, though it’s not always clear how this happens.  I believe, however, that expanding knowledge (in one’s head and gut) by outlining the impersonal forces at work in a system is a central factor in helping others develop their capacity to think more broadly and function more thoughtfully.  In our information filled society with high demands for solutions, it is critical that people become aware of interpersonal boundaries and the more subtle influences at work in relationships with important others. As noted, often the biggest challenge facing people is to grasp how they affect others. The problem is, when things are not going well in a relationship, it often feels just too complicated to slow down (or stop) and try to identify the problem. So we just keep going in the same (mis)direction. However when something feels or goes terribly wrong, stopping to ask “Hey, what the heck is happening here?” is a good strategy.  Saying “no” is hard, especially if we have an impulsive idea. Saying “no” is often the first step in opening the door to a new way of thinking and being.  

It is hard to break habitual ways of interacting.  When we are having a continual negative impact on someone or on a situation but we “feel” this is the right way to be, well, this is the hardest moment to stop and look and see what is really going on.  Sometimes sports analogies are an easy way to see how one person affects others. If you drop the ball or the person next to you drops the ball, the rest of the team has to respond but there are a variety of ways that people might respond. This variation in individuals and team behavior produces different outcomes over time.  It is the differences that are make for wining and losing teams.  Social relationships are the same way.  We are constantly being affected by changes in others with whom we interact.     

People around us are always influencing us, even when we are not playing in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, how intimately we are tied together, and how we are programmed at a cellular level to react to one another in our various social systems is not easy to see.  We are not always aware of what made the difference in our performance.  With effort, however, this knowledge can be brought into consciousness and used to build our leadership skills. (One good book to consider on a different type of awareness of team building is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.) Perhaps in our evolutionary past, when the world was less populated, noticing all the subtleties of how we function in a social system was less important. With the world population growing, group functioning has become ever more important.  

In the past running on automatic with out tribal groups was perhaps less of a danger. Today, however, we need to manage our selves in the most aware ways. If we are more aware of our impact on others and their impact on us people can take more responsibility for interactions.  If we run on automatic we can claim ignorance.  The point is that increasing our awareness affects our ability to lead—or be led.  Sapolsky and Physiological Feedback in the Emotional JungleAs I was gathering basic knowledge about how to understand social systems back in the 1980s, I saw very little about how anxiety in the larger system leads to variation in performance among leaders. The exception was research from Robert Sapolsky, who studied stress on the leaders of troops of baboons in the wild. After reading his article in Scientific American, I saw that there were different types of leaders who managed the diversity in groups either well or poorly.  (Individual rank was determined by the use of approach-avoidance criteria of individual baboons, defined to indicate active avoidance on the part of the loser rather than overt aggression on the part of the winner.)[2] I had an “Aha!” moment. Stress and anxiety in the troop formed a feedback loop, and the leader’s physiology was affected by the group’s reaction to the leader, just as it happens in human groups.   Leaders obviously can affect the physiology of the followers.  This is easily seen when the leader threatens the group or threatens an individual in the group.  Since 1978, Sapolsky has examined the relationship between health, behavior and rank in a population of wild baboons in the Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa. He noted that the troop leaders, as long as they remained in leadership roles, often had stronger immune systems. Sapolsky sees applications of primatology in everyday life—for example, in the struggle for dominance at faculty meetings. His strategies for academic survival borrow from the baboons’ diplomatic skills: “I’ve learned to make coalitions and occasionally stick my rear in the air in a subordinate manner,” Sapolsky says. He has also taken to heart his finding that the healthiest, least stressed baboons have strong social connections.[3] 

Evidence showed that troop leaders were motivated to retain their functional roles in the hierarchy in order to maintain their healthy immune systems, even though this led to many a nasty fight and other aggressive behaviors.

In recent studies, Sapolsky found that, males with the lowest levels of stress hormones also spend the most time grooming and being groomed by females who are not in heat (and so not of immediate sexual interest) and playing with infants. Second, monkeys who cannot gauge the seriousness of a threat have stress hormone levels that are twice as high as those who can distinguish real danger from histrionics. Similarly, baboons that wait for a fight are more stressed than animals that take control of a situation and strike first. In other words, make friends and keep things in perspective.  Baboons’ pecking order is based on who can beat up whom. Weaklings are picked on, they are the last to get food and they stand little chance of winning mates—all of which contributes to high stress levels. Working at the cellular level in his Stanford lab, Sapolsky has shown that chronically high stress levels weaken immune systems and can harm or destroy other cells throughout the body. His team was among the first to show that elevated levels of stress hormones can kill cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for forming new memories.[4] 

In his clever book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky clarifies what happens when we worry or experience stress. Unfortunately, our bodies automatically turn on the same damaging physiological responses and unleash the same stress-related hormones that animal bodies do, even though we do not resolve conflicts the same way that animals do. We do not automatically lunge for the jugular when a potential enemy encroaches on our territory, or initiate aggressive posturing when a perceived threat approaches. Instead, we seem to worry a lot more and have peculiar ways of internalizing stress. Over time, the repeated activation of a stress response, without any accompanying coping behavior, makes us sick.  There are many things we can do to minimize or neutralize the automatic nature of the stress response. But first we have to become aware of it—at least until the day we each have that nice watch that emits warning beeps when we enter stressful situations. Then maybe we could just put an electrode on our head to give our brain/body enough information to redirect and regulate the release of cortisol, thereby dodging the deadly cortisol bullet.   Being healthy can mean more to leaders then stock options.  If you need an example of this you might look at Ken Lay, the one time president of Enron, who had a heart attack just as he was about to go to jail after his conviction for fraud and conspiracy in the Enron collapse. Of course, not all bosses desire a positive relationship with their followers.  If the leader knows that the followers will dislike him or her, then a different dynamic is set up.  Sapolsky simply showed us that the feedback loop, which operates at a physiological level between the leader and his/her group, works both ways.   

My hope is that, in thinking about the evolutionary roots of psychological blindness and how it manifests in relationship systems, you will find information to help you build your leadership skills. How far outside the box you choose to wander in search of clues to puzzles inside the box is your choice.

The overall goal is for you, as a leader, to acquire the insight and skills you need to tackle head on, with eyes wide open, the most difficult problems you face. To do that, you will need to figure out how to take responsibility for self, because above all, leaders know that each of us has some part in every problem we see.  Having Fun When the Anxiety Goes UpIf I cannot make a problem fun, I am not going to do well with it.[5]
Murray Bowen

We might accept that there is wisdom in trying to address our part in any problem, but would be delighted to have a sense of humor as we search for useful answers to the following three questions: 

(1) How do I spot anxiety in relationships? (2) If I feel anxious, can I still be loose in the moment? (3) Can I develop new strategies, have fun rather than react and be uptight? 

We can have the right answers and a wrong approach if any of us gets too serious.

This idea of having “fun” is a simple guideline that lets you know if you are “in the zone” or not. If you are not “in the zone,” you are probably trying too hard and could pass on stress to others. And if stress is regulating your performance, your team or your family will feel it and react poorly or automatically. 

One example is the man whose boss gives him what the employee thinks is a look that means he is not going to get promoted.  This employee comes home and gets upset with his wife. Perhaps he gives her the look because she was busy working on a project for the kids and forgot to (fill in the blank). The father leaves and goes somewhere to relax.  The wife/mother then becomes more and more upset with the whining child. Meanwhile, and seemingly out of the blue, the youngest child is bitten by the family dog.  In the almost too perfect, loose family, the man asks his boss, “Is there something in your eye? Or is there something you would like to talk to me about? ” This somewhat disruptive or negative feedback is followed by a positive comment on the bosses position on x, y, or g. The employee then goes home, gives his wife credit for managing the whining child, and then takes his children and the dog outside for a brisk walk in the woods. Both he and the family need the cooling down time. In summary, these are the principles that one can use:  1) Try addressing the problematic issues lightly. 2) Be positive.  3) Spend low key time with the important people in your life. 4) Never run from problems.  (Run for the joy of it, or for cardiovascular improvement, or stress reduction or when you need time to think.)   

As a leader, we are all well advised to take the time to find ways to stay cool and manage ourselves even as we learn and try out new ideas.

New ideas will inevitably challenge old beliefs and values, both yours and those of the group you lead. New learning always increases anxiety and makes us just a bit less sure of ourselves. One of the hardest tasks is to tolerate our own and others’ anxiety as we examine and perhaps even throw out some of our cherished old beliefs about the right way to be with others.

The “right way” is often the automatic way that feels better or at least familiar. A new way may feel uncomfortable and create some uncertainty in us, but at the same time it can also be based on principles and or create great opportunities for higher levels of functioning in self, and over time, even in the group. 

Do We Inherit A Little Bit of Our Relationship Bias?

For any of us to successfully manage our way through the emotional jungle, we need to know something about the automatic mechanisms in both our brains and social systems. It can be a challenge to understand just how deep the “ingrained rules” in our social systems and brains are, but thinking about such difficult topics is better than being stuck in a relationship ditch.

Often people ask me, “What is so important about understanding our past? That is just old stuff and means nothing.”  

I could just reply that it’s extremely hard to live in the here and now, separate from both past and future, but most people don’t like that answer. They want more proof of why it’s important to think about the how the past can rule us. So I point out that at one level, the stories people tell us about themselves and their lives contain experiential proof of the automatic nature of the social system.



[1] Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson  pg. 216

[2] “Stress Management Tips from the Serengeti,”  by Kristin Leutwyler, published in Scientific American, 2/20/2001   

[3] http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/2001/novdec/features/sapolsky.html

[4] Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky

[5] Personal communication