Systems thinking has been in the leadership conversation for years, probably most notably associated with The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.
But, I had not thought of it as a trait of servant leaders until I came across The Systems Pyramid in Seven Pillars Of Servant Leadership by James W. Sipe and Don M. Frick.
As I explored this concept, it illuminated a problem that I see in my workplace and I am betting you see it in yours. The problem is this too often we work on the events we see on the surface and we fail to explore the underlying issue or root cause. But, as servant leaders, we must dig deeper than the surface.
In our work, we are constantly faced with “events” or issues or problems that are visible to us. The System Pyramid suggests that we must get underneath the event to understand the root cause.
First Level – The foundation of all events in your team or organization start with the people’s belief systems.
“The beliefs quietly run the show in organizations, just as they do in individuals.”
Essentially, what people believe drives their behavior at work, just as it does at home.
Second Level – After beliefs, the level is culture. Culture is defined as the connections, relationships and historical patterns that have become policies and assumptions in the organization. Andy Grove, former Chairman of Intel, is credited with saying,
Culture eats strategy for lunch every day of the week.
In short, the culture of your team can either support or sabotage your strategy and the events to come.
Third Level – Strategy is, in essence, the vision of what you are trying to accomplish. It defines the desired outcome. It takes a longer view of the situation. It is the process of rising above the current circumstances, to assess the landscape and determine where best to go.
Fourth Level – Lastly, events are situations we see and react to.
Sipe and Frick make the important point that beliefs and culture, while below the surface, are where the greatest opportunity for leverage in solving business problems events lie. If you can tap into beliefs and culture, you can bring the team to deep-rooted alignment on strategy and the subsequent events.
Let’s walk through an example in real life. At one of our restaurants, a front counter team member is rude to the customer who is placing their order. My inclination, as restaurant manager, is to immediately address the problem by jumping in and solving the customer’s concern or pulling aside the team member for some quick coaching. But systems thinking would lead me to back up from the immediate problem and look deeper before trying to address this event.
For example, I could stop and reflect on how I had set up the customer service strategy in the restaurant. Have I established clear expectations for customer service? Have I invested in training each person on the behaviors of good customer service? Are the restaurant operations in good order, setting up the front counter person for success?
Then, I take another step back. What kind of environment or culture have I established at the restaurant that is working to support or defeat my goal of good customer service? Is the culture every man for himself or a strong collaborative team? Is the culture a we can do it positive attitude or everything is against us victim mentality? The environment or culture that I create as a leader can either fuel success or fuel defeat of my strategy of good customer service.
But then, I take one more step back. What beliefs does the front counter person bring to the restaurant that works for or against good customer service? Does the person believe that their role on the team is to win the loyalty of the guest? Or, does the person believe that the guest is a pain in the neck?
The belief of the front counter team member will override all other aspects of the pyramid. If they believe that it their job to take care of the guest, then no matter what the environment, the strategy or the event, that is what they will do. If they believe the guest is a nuisance, no matter what the environment, the strategy or the event, they will treat the guest poorly.
This is systems thinking. Look at the event, but don’t stop there. Back up to the strategy and examine if you have put the detailed strategy into action. Back up again to the culture; have you created the environment to fuel the success of your strategy? Then one more step back; have you explored the core beliefs of the team member to find out if they are truly aligned with the belief that great customer service is important? Servant leaders get to the root cause and that leads to a high performance solution.
This reminds me of the importance of collaboration among the various stakeholders as we strive to be servant leaders and system thinkers. Nothing can be more frustrating to a budding servant leader/ system thinker than to dig deep, identify the beliefs or cultural issues that stand in the way of success, only to experience that not everyone whom we rely on to effect change is on the same page with respect to key elements of our perceived notion of the desired culture. Worse yet, finding out that key stakeholders are not willing or able (often for legitimate business reasons) to implement necessary steps or take corrective action to address the root cause. My point is that the “you” contemplated in the final paragraph of Cheryl’s blog is often “we” so that each of us needs to identify key stakeholders and commence discussions early in the process. Part of the strategy may involve how to influence our peers and supervisors to support (through change or otherwise) the culture and belief system that will enhance the success of our business unit.
Thank you for your comments Brenda. As I think about the situation you describe, when the leader discovers underlying issues that hurt the culture and the performance of the team, I see it as the leader’s responsibility to raise those issues and strive to resolve them on behalf of the people they serve. This requires influence, courage and persistence on the part of the leader, as you mention. But is required to truly serve the people and the enterprise.