Anxious Response to Change: the Leader's Role in Calming the System
Katherine Kott, Assistant Manager, Implementation Services, Innovative Interfaces, Inc.

Bowen family systems theory was originated by Dr. Murray Bowen during the 1950s and '60s and is undergoing further development by Michael Kerr and others at the Georgetown Family Center in Washington, D.C. Dr. Bowen, a psychiatrist, developed the theory as a tool for improving individual and family functioning. Recently, organizational development specialists have been extending the application of Bowen's theory to organizations. The following material outlines the major components of family systems theory and explains its relevance to organizations. It examines the particular applicability of the theory during times of change, such as these currently affecting libraries.

Dr. Bowen's theory was developed through years of study, both of human families and other natural systems. He asserted that much could be learned about human behavior through the study of other species. The primary difference between humans and other animals is the ability to think about feelings generated by stimuli and decide what to do about these feelings, rather than reacting through programmed responses.

Using some of the basic elements of Bowen's theory, function of anxiety in relationship systems, importance of definition of self and the triangle as the basic emotional unit, the role of a calm leader with a strongly differentiated self becomes clear. However, bringing the theory into practice is not easy or a "quick fix".

Anxiety is a basic human condition. There are two categories of anxiety, chronic and acute. Acute anxiety is "real" anxiety, generated by stressful occurrences. Chronic anxiety is the "fretting" people do over imagined worries. How well an individual manages anxiety has a strong impact on ability to function. An individual's "definition of self" is closely related to the ability to manage anxiety. A well-defined self is an understanding of one's own principles, and an ability to think about one's own feelings and decide how to behave before acting. Individuals interact in relation to others in terms of "relationship systems". Like individuals in families, individuals in organizations spend enough time together to form relationship systems. The primary unit of the relationship system is the triangle. Triangles are the most stable emotional unit for people, as intensity in one-on-one relationships often causes one or the other person to bring in the third to bring the anxiety down to a manageable level.

The unpredictability of change generates anxiety. When people perceive that they do not have control over what happens to them, they experience stress, which causes physiological and behavioral changes such as loss of mental flexibility and heightened sensitivity to stimuli. In times of rapid change, anxiety generated by uncertainty can show up in altered cognitive processes, such as inability to make decisions and in exaggerated responsiveness to the environment, such as "personality clashes" or sick building syndrome. As individuals attempt to rid themselves of anxiety, they find ways to involve others in the issues that are perceived to be causing it. In this way, anxiety travels through the relationship system.

Bowen theory posits that any individual in a relationship system can calm an anxious system by "defining a self". In organizational relationship systems, an individual has the most influence on the relationship systems at the same hierarchical level, below and just above. The more highly placed an individual is in the organization, the greater the influence he or she can have on agitating or calming the system.

An individual defines a self in the organizational context by explaining his or her position and setting the expectation that each individual has responsibility for his or her own behavior. To do this, the leader must be certain of his or her own principles and stands and take the time to state them clearly and calmly. When difficult relationships must be managed, the calming leader stays connected to all parties but expects the individuals involved to solve the problem.

Defining a self is a lifelong process but it is the foundation for leadership in times of change. Applying Bowen theory to organizational leadership is not a technique or a set of scripts. It requires that the individual rise to the challenges of defining principles, taking stands and thinking before acting rather than reacting.

The following areas may provide interesting connections to Bowen theory as it applies to organizations:

Selected Bibliography

Bowen Theory Readings

The Emotional Side of Organizations: Applications of Bowen Theory. Proceedings from the April 22-23, 1995 Conference on Organizations, Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Family Center, 1996.

Kerr, Michael E. "Chronic Anxiety and Defining a Self." The Atlantic Monthly, September 1988: 35-58.

Kerr, Michael E. and Bowen, Murray. Family Evaluation, New York: Norton, 1988.

Other Readings

Covey, Stephen, Merrill, A. Roger, Merrill, Rebecca R. First Things First, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York: Currency Doubleday, 1990.

Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 1992.

Poster Session Materials



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