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For a long time, I have resisted calling leaders a ‘father’ or ‘mother’, and their employees ‘children.’ I felt that was a pretty paternalistic way of looking at it, and I don’t like the notion of authority. But parallels between family relationships and relationships within teams and organisations are indisputably big. Additionally, almost all of us have grown up in a family. The patterns and stories in this family have partially formed the glasses that we see through when we look at the world.

For most of our lives, we are part of various systems. The first and most influential system is our family. Your father, mother, brothers and sisters have taught you how things work, what is appropriate and what isn’t. What love is, how love is shown (or not shown) is what you first saw between your father and mother. How you handle conflicts, what you do in your spare time, how important it is what the neighbours think, the meaning of God, work, music, appearances, being critical, humour. All these things shape the voice of your conscience. And this voice, in turn, echoes the consciences of your parents that were, in turn, shaped by their own families.

Although every new system you become a part of harbours slightly different patterns, you take in your patterns from the first system you took part in. The dynamic of your family largely determines how you behave in a new system of people, for example an organisation, which I will call an ‘organisation system.’

That’s why this blog on organisation systems starts with the family system. The family system is the glasses through with which we will look at the organisation system.

Family systems

The core idea behind system therapy (helping families in difficulty) is that tough problems in families tend to have a systemic cause rather than an individual cause. On the other hand, an individual can disrupt the balance of the entire system. If that one person’s problem is indeed a systemic one, solving it requires an intervention at the systemic level. 

The middle child in a three-children family always takes on the role of negotiator. Already as a child, when her brother and sister used to be in a lot of fights, she was the referee. She always made sure that she, herself, was never the cause of any fight. Later, when her parents divorced, she was the ‘family therapist.’ At school her friends came to her for help or advice all the time. It made her feel good, strong, and important. In her late teens, this child starts having a difficult time with herself. She is anxious, has trouble sleeping and suffers from inexplicable stomach aches. Her mother encourages her to see a psychotherapist.

When we zoom in on this girl, we may reach the conclusion that we are looking at a girl in puberty with puberty-related problems. But when we zoom out, we can see that her problem is a problem at family-level. No therapy directed just at herself will help her.

In a family, it is important that every member knows his or her ‘place.’ It creates a restful system. Family members moving away from their place or role creates restlessness. So, older sisters shouldn’t raise the little ones. A mother shouldn’t claim her son when she gets too little attention from her husband. And teenagers shouldn’t take care of their parents. Still, these things happen all the time and it can create problems. The little brother suffers from a latent feeling of inferiority in his further life. The claimed son looks for clones of his mother in his relationships that never turn out to be what he needs. The “parent-ified” child (for example, the girl in the example above) becomes an employee that can’t cope with having a boss who tells her what to do. The child’s parents feel they have failed at being good parents to her and find it difficult to look back at their lives with satisfaction.  

Family systems therapy gives a lot of attention to family members that have passed away because their influence can explain patterns between the family members that are still alive. Sometimes, for example, a child that has passed away becomes a subject that is consciously avoided within a family. This dead child’s influence on the family system is extremely powerful. The more the subject is avoided, the greater the child’s influence on the other children within the family, on the relationship between the parents, and on the expectations that parents have of their remaining children (for example: “the child that had to make up for everything”).


Everything affects everything. By looking at the system as a whole, people can find out why they are leading their lives suffering such an immeasurable burden: a burden that was never their own. They can understand why their parents never seemed satisfied no matter how hard they studied for their exams. Why they are never satisfied with themselves no matter how well their career is going. Why there is always this little voice that tells them: “Whatever you’re doing, it is never good enough.”


Organisational systems

Every system looks for stability. When people group themselves into a system (organisation or team) they form an unconscious agreement: this is how we do things together. We call this the group conscience, which is often stronger than the individual. As soon as an individual does something that disrupts the harmony, he will feel guilt (tension or unsafe). Organisations in transition are often confronted with this underlying force, that sometimes dictates for things to stay the same. Despite all desires and initiatives to change, at the unconscious level, an organisation has the tendency to maintain its existing social structure. A new and more effective collaboration form – a new harmony – can be found by feeling what is really happening in an organisation and by recognising existing patterns.

Imagine an organisation of around a hundred employees that has existed for over 60 years. The current management team has just come into office and notices a culture of rabble-rousing, negativity and a lack of decisiveness at all levels. Remarkably, two-thirds of employees have been employed for less than two years. However, all new people admit that they get drawn into this culture in no time. The management decides to organise a series of organisation culture workshops to change this behaviour. During the first workshop, a company history timeline is put up on the wall. All members present from the middle and top management teams tell their stories in order of their seniority: stories that are exemplary of the time when they joined the organisation. The one-thirds of the people that are longest-serving talk for a long time. They tell their newer colleagues how the company had a long tradition of cast-out leaders and crown princes. These leaders were fired one after the other without the employees being told what was going on. All of a sudden they would be gone and a lot of mystery surrounded it. Nobody dared to ask about it. Slowly, a culture of anxiety and mistrust started to grow among the employees, but even more so towards the management. After some time, it didn’t even matter anymore who the new managers were: a new culture had been born and no workshop could do anything about it.

In many cases, you can see a leader’s influence in the organisation culture. Patterns alone are difficult to explain. But when you look at the company’s history, and at the roles of each of the leaders that have created it, and how they left, these patterns can suddenly start to make sense.

Leadership with a systemic view of your company requires you to be as strong as a brick house. You can only be strong like a house when you know how the house stands, and on what type of soil the house is built. You have to know which are the load bearing walls in order to know which walls you can break down. And it’s very important to know the history of the house. Because next door’s renovation – fifty years ago – caused a crack in your facade. The crack has since been filled, but it’s still there. When you are unaware of your own foundation, cracks and sagging, you are looking at your organisation with a distorted view. You are looking, thinking and acting – unconsciously – in transference. This makes it impossible for you to see clearly what your organisation needs. You’re actually feeling what you need, and you’re projecting it onto what you see.

Imagine being in the thick of a tough reorganisation that is causing a lot of anxiety among your people. You’re thinking: I won’t tell them anything yet because they won’t be able to handle it. This is a typical Parent-Child way of thinking. The question is: what is this reaction saying about them and what is it saying about you?

In the same way authoritarian fathers, neurotic mothers, and absent or evasive parents influence their children, leaders influence their organisations. This is explained well in the Neurotic Organisation (Kets de Vries, 1984). The author describes various types of ineffective leaders. First of all, the controlling leader: a perfectionistic, bureaucratic and short-sighted control freak who is so convinced that he is right, that he walks off a cliff with his eyes open (and takes big risks like making a risky acquisition). Next, the depressed leader, who is pessimistic and has little confidence. Then, the cynic leader who is so fearful of change that he prefers regurgitating old strategies. The distant leader that manages from his ivory tower without understanding his company, people and customers. The dramatic leader, addicted to risks: extremely competitive, everything is about being the market leader, he makes big sacrifices to that end. The suspicious leader, who over-analyses every situation, decision and scenario, out of fear to fail.

You may have noticed already that the type of mistakes our parents make are also made by leaders. And this affects organisations tremendously. Even years after someone has departed, it seems like he or she is still there. Let’s take a look at another story.

A director in an international organisation has served in the company for a long time. He has been running this division of the company for over ten years and will be retiring soon. His management team members have been on the job for quite a few years, too. In fact, the whole division hasn’t seen much change: only 20% of employees have been on the job for less than three years.

The atmosphere is tense. Slow. Suffocating. New people complain how quickly you get drawn into this joint lethargy. The organisation is highly bureaucratic and there is poor collaboration and communication among the departments. They are all working for themselves. Inside the MT, people are anxious. If you speak out, you can be sure that you’ll pay for it. Maybe not straight away, but one day you will. This fear and reluctance to speak out seep through to the management layer underneath the MT – unabated. And to the layer underneath that layer.

A few people from the MT take the initiative to talk about the organisational culture. They convince the director too. Reluctantly, he shows up at the off-site they organised. But as soon as things get too personal and he is criticised directly, he lashes out. He is infuriated when it is suggested that his leadership style is partially responsible for the negative atmosphere within the company. Everyone feels terrible during the off-site. The atmosphere is negative and tense. It feels like being pulled down with a landslide.

The managers panic. Was this a bad idea? Aren’t we damaging something? Can we still go back after this?

But then, suddenly, just before the end of the off-site, something happens with the director. In the middle of another tantrum, he suddenly becomes emotional. He can’t continue talking. At first, the managers don’t dare to say anything. They have never seen him like this. With a lump in their throat, they watch their stable, self-assured high-and-mighty boss who, it seems for the first time, doesn’t know what to say. The emotional outburst was real. It moved them but scared them too. He seems to be saying: I know you guys are not my children but that’s what it feels like for me. 

The days following this outburst are very exciting. What is going to happen? Will the director pull back into his shell? He doesn’t. He seems awakened, open. He listens to his people. Every now and then, he still barks at them but is quick to come around when he realises what kind of effect it has. The managers start to talk as well and tell each other about their doubts. Although still brittle, an atmosphere of safety is starting to be felt within the MT.