Monday, June 28, 2010

Systems Ju-jitsu Part 6: Tactic 3. Kick up the reactivity

This week’s Systems Ju-jitsu tactic is called Kick up the Reactivity.  I witness many leaders expending a lot of energy trying to avoid conflict, working hard at “lowering the anxiety,” or trying to keep peace among all parties. My challenge to leaders when I see this is, “Good luck with that,” or, “Keep trying, I’m sure you’ll do it” (see Tactic 1).  I also think those actions are often misguided in that they are informed by two wrong assumptions: (1) that conflict is bad and should be avoided at all cost, and (2) that the leader’s job is to lower the anxiety and keep the peace in the system. Edwin Friedman once suggested that clergy should try to bring out the reactivity in the system as soon as possible into their tenure, just to get it out in the open. Granted, Friedman was characteristically subversive and outrageous, and sometimes it was hard to know if he did so to merely make a point or was being prescriptive.

Recently, I decided to take Friedman’s advice literally. One year I attempted to get a group to deal with a simple budgeting procedure by changing an outdated policy. At the time I first brought up the matter the group was experiencing a time of high anxiety. The group members were not able to focus on the issue or make any headway in dealing with it on a rational level. Sensing we weren’t going to be able to solve the issue I called the discussion of the matter to a close and moved on to the next item on the agenda. The following year I found myself dealing with the pesky budgetary procedure again and determined that I wanted it solved, but I needed the group to take some ownership for the decision. Recalling how stuck the group got the previous year I pondered how to get the group unstuck.

I chose to follow Friedman’s lead and used a tactic that brought out reactivity in the system. Admittedly, it wasn’t pretty. One third of the group went on the attack (some of it personal), one third reacted by engaging in “rescuing” or personally tried to take care of my feelings (not that I needed it), and, predictably, one third was silent. The flurry of reactivity went through its cycles, but by the time the group gathered to consider the item on the agenda there was little discussion, no reactivity, and the policy change I desired (suggested by a member of the group) passed swiftly and unanimously. Basically, bringing out the reactivity got the system unstuck. When the issue came to the table the group was able to focus on that issue rather than the anxiety under the table.

Next week’s Systems Ju-jitsu tactic: “De-triangle”


  1. Just curious, did Friedman write this advice somewhere or did he present it? I'm just familiar with this approach.

  2. ...just NOT familiar...(I need an editor for comments)