When it comes to our work and daily life, we all have patterns. Similarly, firms, organisations and families, which are all made up of people, reflect the same phenomenon. For example, we may have a pattern of taking up a similar role at work as we hold in our family. Let us say you are the first born in your family. It is likely that you will have a natural tendency to want to lead: the family system asks this of you because you are the first born with the most experience, the one who “should know better than your younger sister.” It may not be true, but that is what family systems do. Familiarised with this role growing up you are more inclined to present yourself as a leader at work, until you make contact with a senior either by age or rank.

Patterns and change in the workplace

Zita Tulyahikayo
Zita Tulyahikayo

Patterns are distinct from habits – ingrained unconscious behaviour – because patterns are created by the conscience of the system. They are formed by the way the conscience of the system operates. Members of a firm may develop a particular way of communicating with each other that will be unique to them because it is based on the unique qualities of its founding members and their vision.  We are all familiar with the particular “feel” or “culture” of different firms even though we are unable to pinpoint exactly how or why we sense it. As the firm grows and new members join, the system naturally adjusts itself to reflect the change.

Some adjustments may be easier to accommodate than others. In recent times, as more women enter the workforce, our pattern of language and communication styles have felt the pressure to leave outmoded behaviour at the office door, even if the same behaviour is sustained outside the work place. It is no longer acceptable for men or women to show their appreciation for each other at work by complimenting their appearance or through flirtation, even though the human desire to find a sexual partner is one of the main drivers of social intercourse.

Patterns and change in leadership

These changes also require us to create new patterns of leadership. An increasing number of leaders behind closed doors report feeling confused, impotent and overwhelmed by the rate of change taking place in a relatively short period of time. It took hundreds of years to design workplaces specifically for men and in just over 50 years we have radically disrupted that system to include women, people of colour and those with disabilities. It is a phenomenal on going feat when we consider that humans are intrinsically predisposed to resist change. Many leaders have privately admitted that they have struggled to prepare for these unimaginable changes or to even find effective solutions for them. Our beliefs and patterns of behaviour are not yet fully calibrated to this new ongoing reality.

Dialogue as a tool for change

James Pereira QC
James Pereira QC

Change is a process, similar to our evolution: it remains influenced by those who came before us. As humans we are loyal to the past, sometimes overtly, more often secretly. Few dare to live happier or more fulfilled lives than their predecessors and parents, and so we faithfully repeat the road they carved. The road may look different but the results are often the same. Without intervention, we should organisations to behave in much the same way. If we are genuine in our desire to upgrade the patterns of the past, so that leadership and work places are truly fit for the purpose of being all inclusive, then we are required to make some fundamental shifts in our perspective.

Shifting perspective starts with dialogue. Dialogue is a way of taking the charge of our perceived difference and guiding that charge towards creating something that has not existed before. Dialogue elevates us from our polar positions into the centre. It is in the centre where we can meet and unite to access our collective intelligence and strength. Fear is a feeling that holds us in place. Fear supports conflict. Our fear is frequently activated by leaders as an effective means of control, simply because it stifles dissent. When we view dissent as a danger we remain stuck. Meaningful discourse and dialogue is active and challenging – but most importantly it allows the system to be heard rather than running and operating on hidden dynamics.

Dialogue, particularly in a corporate context, leads to aligned action across the whole system. Leaders, partners, managers, support staff and most significantly clients all benefit considerably.

The need for safe, purposeful dialogue

People speaking openly and honestly about what is affecting them supports rich and valuable dialogue that can be mined to strengthen the system. When we find the courage to be authentic in our speaking, and in our listening, a container is created for difficult conversations to be shared and heard without ruining working relationships. Our interdependence is acknowledged and supported.

By way of purposefully contributing to growth through change we might ask: “What is my role here?” “What part do I play in sustaining the status quo?” “Is my resentment of a seeming lack of change disrupting the process of change?” “How willing and available am I to listen to the needs of others, as I demand that my own needs are met?”

And as we listen to the voices of others, we might enquire: “What voices within the system are asking to be heard?” “What information do they have about the current state of the organisation?” “What is asking to be acknowledged?” “What is asking to change?”

Survival of the fittest

In this modern world of business we have created enough fiscal wealth that we should feel safe. This very real security has the potential to alleviate the fears our forbears in medieval times could not afford. We are rich enough to explore our emotional wealth and wellbeing. This is important because our interdependence is now our most precious and valuable resource. We live in a time where there are so many people on the planet the strength of our business as a community is dependent on wholehearted active engagement of all its parts. Survival of the fittest has a new meaning that now centres around mental and emotional wealth.

Dialogue tells us how to transform the performance of business in order to transcend the limitations of the past.