Breaking out of Gridlock

Breaking out of Gridlock

June 17, 2019—I consulted with a couple of organizations that were “stuck” but motivated enough to get moving toward becoming “healthier.” As I worked with the leaders and employees of both organizations I was reminded of some fundamental truths about systems. First, while motivation is a necessary component for bringing about change, it is not sufficient. For example, if the motivation is to simply ease acute anxiety or pain a system will settle on pragmatic “instant” solutions that will simply ease the symptoms.

Once the pain (the symptom) eases, the temptation is to ignore working on the fundamental issues that will move the system toward health. That’s logical since working toward health often brings about more, or different, “pain.” Any system that lacks tolerance for pain will always settle on being medicated rather than go the “no pain, no gain” route.

Second, the role and the function of the leader are key. I’ve witnessed two common leadership liabilities in these organizations. In one, the leader had a pattern of adapting to weakness. Specifically, rather than moving toward the most mature persons in the system by soliciting their input and giving them permission to act, the leader tended to give over-attention to the most fearful, anxious, and needy in the system, in that case, it was a group of persons who self-identified as “victims” seeking “protection” and “privileges.” The natural tendency of that group to “herd” and “glom together” was perceived by the leader as a “voting block,” when in fact, it was the leader’s coddling and over-attention to the “needs” and feelings of this group that empowered them.

In the other, the leader lacked an appreciation for the tenacity of the destructive forces in the system, and failed to appreciate the necessary corrective function that the leader must provide, namely, to inhibit the capacity of those forces to sabotage progress toward a vision. Admittedly this is tough since those “forces” often are manifested in the form of personalities in the organization.

Third, both organizations exhibited what Edwin H. Friedman called “imaginative gridlock.” Friedman identified three characteristics of imaginative gridlock:1

The Treadmill Effect. Both organizations were very busy doing the same things and following the same procedures they had been doing for years, and, which had gotten then stuck. Yet they seemed to have an inability to get off the treadmill. Breaking patterns of behaviors and practice proved to be a huge challenge to both organizations. It seems it was just easier to run in place and get nowhere than to get off the treadmill, change their ways, and make progress.

A focus on answers. It’s always amazing how quickly the call for answers comes when acute anxiety is present. In one organization this happened in the first meeting! They weren’t interested in exploring what the problem may be or what their part in it was. They wanted to know not only what I was going to do, but how I was going to do whatever it was that would help them get out of their stuckness (I jokingly had to remind them that a consultant doesn’t actually “do” anything).

Focusing on answers is different than focusing on solutions. In the second organization one person kept pushing for “data.” That’s a sure sign of imaginative gridlock: an inability to move toward risk, vision, and imagination rather than a search for certitude. When certitude is your highest value, boldness goes out the window as a resource. The fact is that innovators, visionaries, and trendsetters don’t work off of “data.” They move on imagination fueled by vision.

The polarization of false dichotomies. The third characteristic of imaginative gridlock is “either-or thinking.” When the mind is anxious it cannot be imaginative. It tends, therefore, to create false dichotomies and to polarize concepts, options, and opinions. It doesn’t take long to begin labeling and personalizing issues, leading to an inability to listen and dialogue. In one organization the result was the formation of “factions” or “camps.” Once someone became associated with a “camp” his or her opinions and thoughts were always discounted by another faction—regardless of the merit of the content, opinion, or argument.

Change comes hard to organizations, but even harder to systems that suffer from imaginative gridlock. In these cases it is necessary to focus on changing the way the culture thinks. As Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”


(1)See Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2007), p. 29ff. This post adapted from Perspectives on Congregational Leadership


Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

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