Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fixing the Right Thing

Once, a colleague at work stopped by my office to review a communication glitch he was having with a staff person I supervised. The nature of the staff person’s work interfaced with my colleague’s office, but they’d had a history of finding it difficult to work together.

I listened to my colleague for about five minutes as he talked about the staff person, Susan (not her real name), and the problem. I noted that the focus of the content of his talk was Susan (her personality, behavior, etc.), and only peripherally did he identify what the problem was. I discerned that, once again, these two persons were stuck and I was being invited into an anxiety triangle.

Fortunately, my colleague is an emotionally mature person and we have a good working relationship. A student of systems theory, my colleague is a relatively level-headed, non-anxious person. But like many of us, some persons seem to push a reactivity button within him. When Susan pushed my colleague’s reactivity button, the resulting anxiety caused him to triangle someone into the matter, and I was in the position to be the natural candidate. Given our open working relationship I was confident in challenging him on how to approach the situation.

When he finally finished sharing a list of complaints about the staff person in question I asked him, “Can I ask you a systems question?”

“Yes,” he said, now on alert.

“Are you trying to fix Susan or are you trying to fix the problem?” I asked.

My colleague immediately recognized the emotional process at play. He realized that his reactivity was causing him to overfocus on Susan, and that he was triangling me into the situation by hinting that, as her supervisor, I needed to “fix” Susan. With that insight, we were able to shift the conversation from Susan to identifying what the problem was that needed to be fixed, in this case, clarifying a procedural matter between two offices.

Reactivity often manifests itself in anxious behaviors: an overfocus on personalities, a misdirection of an issue, projection, triangling someone into the unresolved issues between two persons, scapegoating, etc. Because I was able to regulate my own anxiety in the midst of the meeting, I was able to ask myself “What’s really going on here? What’s the issue?” I was able to help my colleague  re-frame the problem. He was also able to get in touch with his own reactivity and realized how it was manifesting itself in triangling me into the matter by asking me to take responsibility for another person’s behavior and asking me to  “fix” that person.

If I had been unfocused that day, things may have gone differently. I may have gotten caught up in the anxiety and reactivity, accepted the invitation to enter the triangle, made Susan the IP (Identified Patient), and my colleague and I could have launched into a futile project of trying to “fix Susan.” Furthermore, the real problem needing attention would have gone unresolved, which would serve only to increase the frustration and anxiety.

When faced with reactivity it is helpful to monitor one’s anxiety and cerebrate rather than ventilate by asking oneself questions of discernment:

  • What is going on here, really?
  • Can I identify the triangle?
  • Do I need to accept the invitation into a triangle?
  • Am I responsible for alleviating another person’s frustration, discomfort, or anxiety?
  • Am I being asked to take responsibility for someone else’s behavior?
  • Do we want to try to fix a person or fix a problem?

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Six responses of well-differentiated leaders

Functioning at a high level of differentiation is the golden fleece for most congregational leaders who are students of BFST. Especially in times of acute systemic anxiety and symptomatic reactivity, effective leaders will work on focusing on the repertoire that will help them navigate the storm. In no particular order, here’s a six-action repertoire differentiated leaders tend to follow:

  1. Monitoring their own internal emotional process. Differentiated leaders are self-aware of the experience of their feelings, of how anxiety is being processed physically and emotionally, and awareness of the role family of origin dynamics are coming into play in the situation.
  2. Observing their functioning. Differentiated leaders are centered, clear, and responsive (emotionally present). They know the cues for when reactivity patterns start kicking in.  For example, overfunctioning or underfunctioning at work and at home, obsessing over issues, fantasizing, or distancing.  
  3. Regulating their anxiety. If reactivity patterns begin to manifest (e.g., psychosomatic symptomology), differentiated leaders work on regulating the experience of anxiety and moderate reactivity patterns.
  4. Avoiding reactivity. No matter how much they want to, differentiated leaders don’t call that acting out deacon a jerk or tender their resignation letter when frustrated.
  5. Getting clarity about their guiding principles and values. Differentiated leaders recall and rehearse their values, goals, principles, and vision (“Remind me again, why did I take this job?”).
  6. Seeking out resources. Differentiated leaders are not afraid of asking for help. They avail themselves of their coach or therapist, a spiritual friend, or support group. They don't seek advice about what to do or how to think, but use these resources to navigate through the emotional process in the midst of crises, acute anxiety, or reactivity. 

It may help to write down “The Repertoire” and keep it in your wallet or tape it to your desk at the church office as a reminder for when acute anxiety bubbles up in the system. Acute anxiety will tend to focus on the person in the position of leadership (that’s you), so it will feel personal. The common reaction is to feel under attack or betrayed. When that happens, our most important resource goes out the window: our capacity to think through the problem and realistically assess what is going on in the system. When your brains shuts down in the midst of anxiety, pull out the list to reengage that frontal lobe. 

Three Responses to Differentiation

Assuming we’ve followed “The Repertoire” successfully and have managed to differentiate from out of our position of leadership in the system, we need to also take into consideration its aftermath. Experienced differentiated leaders know enough not to expect anyone to say “Thank you!” But there are three other predictable responses to a leader’s act of self-differentiation in the midst of an anxious system:

  1. Those who have the capacity will be able to self-regulate and also begin to self-differentiate. That deacon you wanted to call a jerk may now be saying, “Wow, I don’t know what happened to me. I got caught up in something and went crazy for a moment there.” These people are now resources for you and the system.
  2. A second group of persons will tend to fuse with you. A self-differentiated leader is “attractive,” even to those who lack a capacity for self-definition. Fusion can be seductive. It feels great to have a room full of people nod at your every word and eagerly agree with your every opinion. However, this group of people are not a resource to the system—the next loudest voice can just as easily redirect their passions.
  3. The third group of persons will be the ones who will withdraw or cut off from you. Clarity about one’s stance will feel like a line drawn on the sand to some folks. Self-definition demands a response and responsibility on the part of others. For those who lack resilience in thinking, or who are too insecure or too rigid in their beliefs, cutting off may be their only repertoire for dealing with challenge.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Don't do these 10 things when dealing with reactivity

All leaders will deal with reactivity at one point or another. It can be caused by a proposed change from the leader, it may be the result of direct and necessary action taken by the leader, or, it can come out of the blue. Leaders of necessity will have to deal with reactivity, but here are ten things NOT to do when reactivity makes its appearance:

  1. Confront it head on. Taking on reactivity head on rarely is an effective tactic. For one thing we will find ourselves addressing the reactivity rather than its cause. A frontal assault on reactivity is merely reactivity to reactivity. 
  2. Maintain an unreasonable faith in reasonableness. Persons caught in the grips reactivity are immune to data, or reasonableness. They are operating out of perceived threat, so their instincts have taken over the rational part of their brain. Allow time for the feeling of threat to pass before attempting a meeting of minds. There will be those who refuse to be reasonable for a number of reasons. The rules are different when dealing with those who refuse to reason. 
  3. Question or ascribe motive to poor behavior. Because reactivity is a product of by-passing cognition it's not helpful to question people's motives. They are, literally, not in their right mind. Realize that people in acting out their reactivity are not at their best and are not acting out of principled thinking. Most likely, persons caught in the grip of reactivity don't know why they are acting the way they are.
  4. Take it personally. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the reactivity that comes your way is not about you, even when it feels like it. Occupying the leader position means you're the point person for reactivity, it comes with the job. Some reactivity will be projection of other people's issues, perceptions, or unresolved conflicts. Some will come your way just because it's convenient to dump it on your desk. Some will come to your just because people are feeling powerless and need someone to "do something" about it. 
  5. Make it personal. Being on the receiving end of reactivity comes with the job. Often you'll be surprised at who vents frustration on you. Others will engage in a pattern of reactivity with you as the focus. Either way, focusing on the emotional process (people's functioning in the system) rather than focusing on the person, or personality, will help you get to the cause behind the reactivity. Personal attacks not withstanding, leaders do well not to take systemic problems worse by making it personal.  
  6. Neglect to assess your part of it. There are fives sides to every story, and three you'll never find out about. There will be occasions when the reactivity (and accusations) leveled at you will, to some degree, actually be "about you." Our tendency will be to deny culpability, deflect blame, made excuses, avoid the discomfort of the situation, or simply convince ourselves we are not part of the problem. Mature and effective leaders have capacity to self-assess honestly their roles in systemic problems, and they are able to sincerely apologize and work at doing better. 
  7. Forget to breath. When faced with reactivity we experience threat, and the biological response to it (fight or flight). Give your brain the oxygen it needs to think and reason--it's your most important resource in the midst of reactivity. So, breathe! 
  8. Neglect to step back. Whether physically or emotionally, taking a step back from reactivity provides perspective. Taking a step back physically from a person engaged in reactivity helps remove a sense of psychological threat. Thinking to oneself, "Will this matter six months from now," can provide emotional distance and offer perspective to the existentially painful moment. 
  9. Let your feelings rule over your principles. Informed values and principles are the two resources that provide correctives in the midst of reactivity. What values guide your relationship with persons--in whatever circumstance? What is your guiding principle when dealing with reactivity? 
  10. Forget your place. You are the leader in the system, and you can't forget that. One of the burdens of leadership is that those in leadership do not have the luxury of giving in to the baser emotions. Getting angry, feeling outraged, nurturing feelings of  victim-hood, holding a grudge, and lashing out may be emotionally cathartic, but once a leader gives in to them he or she ceases to be the leader in the system. When others in the system are loosing control of their emotions, that's the time a system needs its leader to be the most centered, non-reactive, and principled person in the system. 

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Fascinating Power of Homeostasis

One phenomena of the power of homeostasis is that whenever a leader attempts to bring about change he or she will most certainly encounter sabotage. While we can find some comfort in the notion that reactivity is unimaginative, and therefore predictable, sabotage has a thousand faces. The fun thing about sabotage (if one can be non‐reactive about it), is that while we can expect it, we will always be surprised at the forms it takes.