Systems Theory

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Early Warning System (Systems)

Waiting for Santa Claus when you are six, waiting for your first date to arrive and meet your parents, waiting for the bridal march to begin…..all are examples of anxiety. Sometimes just remembering a moment like these brings the same visceral response as the original moment. Anxiety is a natural state of being in that it is designed to warn us of impending danger or joy. Should we run or keep our eyes peeled so we don’t miss a thing? Our nervous system is designed to be alert to these signals and make a snap judgment about what action to take. We are designed to seek safety.

Each person’s anxiety response is fine tuned to its own level and that tuning began before they were even born. Babies in the womb learn to respond to the calm or anxiety they detect in their mother’s voice. My own definition of anxiety is ‘the energy of anticipation’. What usually triggers anxiety? Change.

Change triggers anxiety because during a more primitive time, change could signal danger, or a potential food source. Our nervous system has us constantly scanning our environment for change. The more unruly our anxiety is, the more we seek to calm it. Sometimes the way one chooses to soothe their self is healthy, other times not so much.

Within a system, there exists system anxiety. An entire group is alert to potential change and ready to evaluate in a flash to decide how to respond. Anxiety is contagious. If one person in a group is anxious, it can spread. Within a group of animals, if one is spooked and begins to run, the whole group joins in even before they know what they are running from. On an organizational level, witness the rumor mill that quickly begins based on small pieces of information.

Like an individual, a group will also focus its energy of anticipation. Heighten the change potential and the energy is heightened. The higher the energy, the greater the dynamic exchanges between the members of the group. Sometimes the way the group handles the energy is healthy, other times not so much.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Systems Theory

Systems Theory is a framework for looking at the dynamics within any size group. Groups are considered to be made up of the individuals as well as subgroups. For instance, in a couple, each partner is a part of the system. In a family, each member is a part of the system. Within a family, two typical subsystems are the parent system and the child(ren) system. Within a congregation, each person is a part of the system, each family can be considered a subsystem, and each committee can also be a subsystem. Depending on the current activity within the larger system, subsystems may reconfigure in response to the issue at hand. Taken to the next level, an entire congregation can be considered a subsystem in the context of an entire community. Many of the dynamics within a system have a predictable pattern.

Systems theory also posits that every member within a system has an impact on the system - thereby creating a dynamic system. The passive person, the dominant person, the worker bee, the occasional attender, the clergy - all play a role. Learning what each of these roles entails, recognizing your own role in the system, and recognizing the impact your role has are all a part of understanding systems theory and using it to help your congregation. An accurate description of the dynamic and your part in it, often called the dance, is the beginning of understanding how to change the dance.