It’s not a behavioural problem: it’s the system


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Don’t ask a systems thinker for advice on managing performance or staff engagement. They will probably say something pretty fruity and you’ll wind up frustrated by how fervently they trash conventional wisdom on the subject. Of course performance, engagement, recruitment, they’re all connected, so your systems thinking friend will sound like a fruit loop because they’ll see the whole picture and proceed to suggest that you are asking the wrong questions, when all you wanted to know is “how to get people to do stuff”. You go to them as a sounding board because there is something you like about the way they think; when you’ve talked previously, they come up with ideas that seem counter-intuitive at first, but are actually surprisingly on the money. However, when it comes to a sticky situation you are actually dealing with, you don’t want to hear them bang on about the system, the system, the system. Isn’t that just lovely sounding theories that academics spout? (…wouldn’t work in the real world) In an effort to get them to answer your simple question, you keep repeating “Yes, but they are SUPPOSED to fill out their daily task logs,” quietly tearing your hair out while they insist it’s not a behavioural problem; it’s a systems issue.

One of the most important things I learnt from my past life as a therapist is that if you want behaviour change in an individual, you work with them as a whole being and you work with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). You don’t focus on their “problem behaviours”. Similarly, if you want behaviour change in an organisation, you work on it as a whole. You don’t focus on the dysfunctional parts or the underperforming individuals. In my present life as a sociatrist, I apply my understanding of systems to organisations and organisational change, not merely the individuals within them.

We can’t blame individuals for doing what the system expects them to do. As disturbing as Milgram’s experiments were, one thing I observed (and I may be entirely off the mark here) is that people behave in ways which surprise themselves and which sometimes go against what they know to be right and true. We do this when our environment, our system, sets up conditions which compel us to behave in particular ways. The system also punishes us for not doing what it wants us to do, just to keep us in line. We do what we’re told.

What we need if we want organisational transformation, if we want more effective organisations, if we want people to find the work they do meaningful: we need to work with the whole system. A buddy of mine in England recently observed that most people seem uninterested in effectiveness. Sad but true, I fear. Still desperately clinging on to “scientific” management mythologies, many folks just seem to want the numbers to add up and people to do what they’re told. A scary prospect if your business has just appointed a new global CEO who is a bean-counter by background and disposition and whose single-minded purpose is to show the shareholders that they are getting richer every quarter. Calling a performance issue a “behavioural problem” comes out of a mechanistic worldview. Yuck.

There is hope, however. Some managers are on the threshold of doing something quite different….if we would just hang in with them. They know in their gut that doing the same old, same old is not going to make a real difference. I’ve been working with a manager and his two off-siders, all three of whom lead their business. I’ve been coaching them to see the bigger picture and assisting them to open their thinking about why things don’t go the way they’d like. This, to me, is phase one of the organisational transformation they are seeking to effect. Phase one: eliminating systems blindness. Our sessions usually begin with each of them discussing what so-and-so hasn’t done yet again or what what’s-his-name is still doing, despite that one-to-one chat urging them to stop it. I let them get some things off their chest and jot down a few salient things that I pick up. As I listen, I make connections in my head and find the patterns they are describing. These patterns are descriptors of the system. After a little while, I might say something like, “Haven’t we heard all this before?” They smile. Then they frown. What they are slowly learning to do, however, is to see the behaviours as indicators of the wider patterns at play.

The patterns I’m observing in how they describe the staff illustrate a workplace culture characterised by:

  • things done at the last minute without much fore-thought
  • poor self-discipline with regards working practices
  • low self-reponsibility
  • poor following up of commitments and promises
  • getting easily side-tracked
  • being reactive, rather than proactive
  • a “she’ll be right” mentality (a common expression in New Zealand meaning, it’ll all be fine in the end, don’t worry about it)
  • inconsistency in work practices
  • an overly laidback attitude towards work
  • a “can’t do” attitude

Behaviours at work are tempered by the systemic norms; you could also say it’s the “culture”. You can read this in many places on the interweb: the system is responsible for performance. Don’t blame people for doing what the system asks and similarly, stop rewarding individuals for good performance. The system drives performance.

Reward for good performance may be the same as rewarding the weather forecaster for a pleasant day. Deming

I’m utterly convinced (from my experience) that the organisational changes they want will come about when they focus their attention and their energies on the system and not on the individual behaviours of individual people. So when I share my observations with the three of them, they nod and smile and say, “That’s exactly what they’re like; that absolutely describes the culture.”

I then enquire as to what they’ve tried, in order to put a stop to the things they don’t like. Again, I listen for patterns. With all good intentions (for they are really lovely people), they tell me things like:

  • “Well, I was going to schedule another one-to-one meeting and go through their KPIs again, but something urgent came up.”
  • “I had it written in my diary but I couldn’t remember which page I’d written it on.”
  • “I’ve confronted him about it before but it didn’t make a difference, so I couldn’t see the point of following him up again.”
  • “He knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s been here for 10 years, I don’t see why I should have to tell him again and again.”
  • “They’re like a bunch of children; you have to keep on at them, otherwise nothing gets done.”
  • “Yes, I had a chat with him and said I’d meet again a week later to see how he was getting on, but I let it slip.”
  • “He was fine for a week after I talked to him, but he’s slipped back and I don’t know how I can get it across.”

After they report what they’ve tried, I ask them to reflect on how similar their patterns are to the patterns they bemoan in the staff: inconsistent, side-tracked etc etc…. Again, they smile. Again they frown. They (fortunately) find it mildly amusing that they are doing much the same as the staff. Here is when I reinforce the idea of systems. They are part of the same system and that very same system will be exerting itself on them. In our conversations, they are becoming more adept at seeing. I mean really seeing.

Remember, Deming said that a system cannot understand itself. It’s not just true because Deming said it. It’s true because it’s true. It doesn’t matter how frustrating we find it, but the systems to which we belong will be exerting their influences on us. We struggle to know this. We struggle to know how much. We find ourselves at times frustrated with ourselves, as well as others. It takes an outside eye, a disinterested party, an objective mirror, to help us to see what we can’t. They’re called blind spots for a reason. Obvious to me, previously hidden to these three leaders, their system is screwy, not the people within it.

These three lovely, well-intentioned leaders have warmed up to the current phase of their work together. Phase two: creating the vision of what you want. Now they are aware of this thing called “culture”, and that it impacts on them and that no one person is to blame for doing what the system urges them to do, they are excited to create a vision for the culture they want. They are beginning to see the wood for the trees and are more able to make connections to the elements within the system that maintain its status quo. They are excited. I ask them naive questions like, “What is your purpose?” “What does your business exist for?” “How would you like it to be here?” and they eagerly discuss things that they feel should be so obvious but when asked directly, need to stop and really think about it.

Lately, rather than see themselves as victims to all those awful things the staff do, they are excited to recast their roles as stewards of the system. They get the paradox of systems thinking: they are in it and subject to it, and at the same time, if they can begin to manage their systems blindness with the help of an outside eye, have the power to do something about it. They are seeing themselves less and less as managers-who-need-to-be-in-control and more as leaders-who-guide-the-culture. They are more infused with hope for the future. The things over which they do have control (policy and procedure manuals, resourcing, their own attitudes, their individual relationships with staff members) are the influencers which they can apply to generate the culture they believe will be more effective and, in the long run, more efficient.

Rather than trying to find new ways to get people to do what they want them to do (re-sharpening their sticks or coating their carrots with glitter), they are thrilled to devote more and more time in our sessions to the thing they want, rather than the multitude of things they don’t. They are thinking bigger: about themselves, about the staff and about the business.

Systems thinking, for me, is not merely an academic exercise. It is real world. It changes lives and workplaces.

Next steps for these three? Well, it’s emergent, a work in progress. We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had times when they felt a little like they were banging their heads against a brick wall. At this stage, however, they are hopeful, they are positive and they are now talking more about modelling and leading the change they want to see. (Didn’t some famous peace-loving figure from history say something about that?) They are truly interested in being different themselves. They are considering how to steward a culture of self-responsibility, flexibility and “can do”, learning from mistakes and “just enough” structure….and for me, they are approaching phase three: grappling with the “how-to”.

In truth, it is an absolute pleasure.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


  1. Oddly enough, I think of myself as a systems thinker, have read Deming, AND, I’ve written a number of books about performance MANAGEMENT, trying to integrate some of the knowledge together. I’d probably disagree with you (and Deming) on a few points, but I DO agree with your general ideas that the system itself is a major determinant of performance.

    However, the individual is also, so the trick is to manage performance in a way that is psychologically sound — unfortunately, IMO, Deming’s was brilliant in a number of ways, but he was certainly not all that expert on the Psychology side.

    So, the trick, and in some ways, my work of decades, involves trying to integrate all this stuff.

    Can’t say I’ve had much influence trying to do this from a managing performance perspective, but…well, I ain’t dead yet.

  2. Robert, I’m with you. As an aside, one of the delightful things about the whole body of work that we might call ‘systems thinking’ is how clueless I continue to feel even after I have learnt something or applied something…..I ain’t dead yet either. I feel it’s a little like the scientific method, we keep trying, reflecting and adjusting our ideas and theories and when they reach the end of their useful lives, we build on them to create the next cultural conserve.

    I’ve read Deming, Senge, Uhl-Bien….and…and…and. The task is, as you say, to integrate. To make meaning of this, to try things, watch what emerges…this, to me, is the point of systems thinking, constantly emergent understanding.

    I’m no expert, just a practitioner and I appreciate you adding your comments that Deming was not all that expert on the psychology side of things…gives me more to contemplate

  3. Thanks for the reply, John. I think one of the things that makes it so hard to integrate, is that there’s a LOT to pull together. So, systems thinking intersects with complexity theory, and then there’s the issue of whether it’s possible to go to far as a systems thinker such that one actually encourages a lack of personal accountability.

    Add to that stuff like having to ask “Well, WHAT system? since the boundaries of any one system are fuzzy, and arbitrary. Each system is embedded in another system which in turn is within another system. So, if you look at let’s say corporate performance, and consider the organization as a system, why stop there? Why not move up and consider capitalism the system of importance, or society as a system, or the universe as a system to look at.

    Deming was a statistician so he didn’t deal with system issues that he didn’t need to address. So, with Deming it’s important to consider that he brought a unique and powerful way of thinking, but like all ways of thinking, it is both incomplete and flawed.

    Having watched the Demingites from when they were prominent to now, when he’s really not mentioned much, I think that was part of the problem, that a lot of those committed to Deming were zealots, and zealots are not all that good at making permanent changes in how organizations work. They get faddish, then they go away.

    Kind of sad.

  4. make there Robert, especially the one about zealots. Zealots are great in that they champion something strongly, but they get a little fixed, or conserved, in how they go about creating the changes they say they advocate, so it’s good for me to remember that I need to remain open, flexible and spontaneous in my thinking and practice….good reminder, thanks.

    In my training, I was continually coached, when doing a piece of work, to expand the system, expand the system, expand the system. Sometimes, some aspects of the wider cosmos would be on the stage. This depended greatly on the purpose of the work I was doing, however. We can get overwhelmed by having so much out there (as you say, there is so much to integrate), but I think we can reasonably expand the system sufficiently so that we can reach the enabling solutions that individuals or organisations are looking for (again, speaking from experience). We expand it just enough, in other words; we look at just enough to help us to find the solutions to the thing that is in front of us in this moment.

    That said, I’m still learning and renewing my own practice. In many cases, it’s only necessary for me to have a relatively smaller sub-system of the wider system on the stage; other times, the solutions don’t come so I need to expand the system further. It’s a funny sort of thing, having trained for so long and applied the method for so long, I’m at the stage where I “know” when we’ve got enough of the system on the stage that would help us answer the sociodramatic question that we are considering(e.g. How can we craft a better customer experience with our increasingly limited resources? or How can we find improved ways of understanding our customers? …or whatever the question at hand is)

    ..without sounding like too much of a “I’m going to save the world” zealot, I think we can still create the changes we need by dealing with one question at a time, while keeping the others in our consciousness and remaining as conscious of the wider system as possible.


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