All leaders, regardless of industry, position, education, or experience, have at least one thing in common: They all work with humans. In fact, leaders are humans themselves! And as frustrating as it can be, humans often behave in ways that don’t make sense. Understanding living systems and the impact anxiety has on a system is the first tool of leadership we’ll be examining. Looking at interactions between humans through the lens of living systems can help leaders better understand human behavior, including why smart people sometimes do really stupid things, and how to lower the level of anxiety in a system so people can make better decisions and do better work.

Let’s review what we know about living systems:

  • Any time two or more people are together, a living system is formed. We enter and exit multiple living systems every day. We can carry anxiety from one system to another. For example, if you get in a fight with your partner first thing in the morning, you likely are not in the best mood when you get to work.
  • Humans are social, emotional creatures. We are affected by the behavior of others, and our behavior affects other people. Much of this takes place without us being consciously aware of it. The longer we are a part of a living system, the more entrenched our patterns of behavior become. Wherever we go, there we are.
  • Humans don’t like uncertainty. Change, even good change, causes some level of uncertainty in a system, and we are physiologically hardwired to be on alert when there is uncertainty.
  • Anxiety in a system spreads like wildfire, and anxiety makes us stupid. As emotional, social creatures, we pick up on the anxiety other people are feeling, which can add to our own anxiety. We become more reactive and less logical.
  • We don’t make the best decisions when we are stupid. We engage in unhealthy behaviors like gossiping (triangulation and projection), not speaking up when we should so we can avoid confrontation (distancing), going on a tirade and slamming our fists on the conference room table (conflict), and so on. We do these things because they make us feel better in the moment, but they do nothing to remove anxiety from the system.
  • Leaders are just as vulnerable as any other human to becoming stupid in an anxious system.
  • A leader reacting out of anxiety (being stupid) adds even more anxiety to the system.
  • Your job as a leader is to rise above all that anxiety in the system. To stay calm, stay connected to other people in the system, and choose your best responses out of beliefs and values, not fear and anxiety.

It’s so easy to get sucked into the vortex of an anxious system and to unintentionally add to the anxiety in the system by doing the dysfunctional behaviors that make us feel better in the moment (conflict, distancing, overfunctioning, underfunctioning, projection, and triangulation) but do absolutely nothing to help the system get healthier. Great leaders must keep their living systems lenses on in order to recognize when there is anxiety in their team, who is adding to the anxiety through unhealthy behavior, and how to help the team operate out of beliefs and values and purpose and vision, not fear and anxiety.

So how can a leader ease the anxiety in a living system so people can start thinking clearly again? Reach for other tools in your leadership toolbox! Here are the tools we will be looking at over the next few weeks:

  • Listening
  • Feedback
  • Healthy conflict
  • Effective communication

I believe that if you have a deep understanding of living systems and work to master the other tools of leadership listed above, you have a much greater chance of being seen as a person worth following, of building a great team, and of creating clarity around purpose, vision, and values.

This week, I hope that you will take some time to view your team, your organization, and yourself through the lens of living systems. Where is anxiety creeping in? What will help you stay calm? How can you stay connected to the anxious people in the system without becoming anxious yourself? What decisions do you need to make out of your beliefs and values that will help the system get healthier?

Next week we will examine listening, both how to listen well and when to use this tool of leadership to have the greatest impact.

Until then, lead on;

Image by alanreeves001. Used under CC by 2.0 license.