Leading in a Dysfunctional System, by Todd W. Hall, PhD

Understanding your own underlying connection strategies can make or break survival in a dysfunctional working environment

by Todd W. Hall, PhD

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Recently, I met with a manager I’ve been working with who is working in a very dysfunctional system. Two executives are in a political battle for the area in which she works and she is caught in the middle of the conflict. Several of her colleagues are rude, disrespectful, and explosive. Her direct reports are becoming disillusioned by projects stalling out due to the political turf wars. Work feels like a land mine; she never knows when something will blow up and so, naturally, she is constantly on guard. This is decreasing her effectiveness and leaving her feeling bitter and burned out.

Chances are you have experienced working in some capacity in a dysfunctional system. After all, every system is dysfunctional to some extent. I have worked in systems like this and have worked with many leaders trying to survive chaotic systems. Leading in a system like this can start to eat away at your soul.

While there are many things outside of our control, there are six practical strategies (among others) you can focus on to make a positive impact and prevent burnout. In this blog, I’ll discuss the first practical strategy. In the next five entries in this series, I’ll discuss the other five strategies.

Practical Strategy #1: Understand your own connection strategies. There are three common strategies most of us use to manage our sense of connection with others. These strategies stem from how we connected with important authority figures in our lives. These experiences become “connection filters” that influence our gut level perceptions of relational experiences, particularly with authority figures such as leaders, and groups. The challenging thing is that this filtering process happens outside our conscious awareness in real time. There is a substantial body of research suggesting that our connection filters operate with groups and leaders with whom we work. Understanding your typical connection strategies can help you navigate a dysfunctional system. The three most common connection strategies are:

– a secure strategy promotes: 1) a balance between connection and autonomy–or the ability to inhabit your true self, 2) perspective, and 3) flexibility in responding.

– an anxious strategy promotes fear and anxiety that groups and leaders will not be consistently available for connection. When this is operating, you expect and look for leaders and groups you work with to do a bait and switch. So you are always on guard, and this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.

– a distant strategy promotes a lack of awareness of your own and others’ emotions. When this is operating, leaders feel like they’re the only reliable people on the planet, and so they dismiss others in numerous ways. When people on your team feel dismissed, they will shut down to what you have to offer, and true dialogue comes to a screeching halt.

Which strategy kicks in for you when the system gets particularly crazy? (Keep in mind that you may use different strategies with different people). If it’s one of the insecure ones (anxious or distant), here are two practices you can do to help:

1. Reflect on what experiences contribute to your strategy, and spend some time trying to separate your filters (based on your past experiences) from the system’s dysfunction.

2. Then look for ways you can change the cycle of your perceptions by taking some risks. If you’re anxious, try to give others and yourself more space and seek out support outside of work to help you manage your anxiety. If you’re distant, try to tune into your own and others’ emotions, and focus on hearing others’ perspectives before responding.

Reflect: What is your primary connection strategy and how do you see it operating in dysfunctional systems?

Next Post in series: Staying Above the Fray: Leading in a Dysfunctional System, Part 2: by Todd W. Hall, PhD