August 31, 2015—Few things escape the consequences of their own success. This axiom seems true even of Bowen Family Systems Theory. It seems that systems theory is now the “in” thing—never have there been as many courses on it, or more “experts” on the matter. And a sure sign of its popularity is the rate of books being turned out that claim to have a “systems approach to” something or other. This is, overall, a good thing. The more the theory is propagated, the better, I say. But one consequence of the theory’s fast dissemination is the risk of misunderstandings—like in a global game of that old parlor game, “telegraph.” What goes in one ear at one end may come out as something completely different at the other—the message lost in translation as it is passed from one person to another.
I continue to overhear “misunderstandings” related to Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST). And while I’m no self-appointed guardian of theory orthodoxy, I am enough of an advocate for critical thinking—and admittedly have little patience for “fuzzy thinking”—that I often find myself offering correctives when I hear a misapplication or misunderstanding of the theory. After all, both, I think, can have dire consequences—misunderstanding often leads to misapplication. Below, then, are “correctives” to some of the more common “systems misunderstandings” I’ve heard.
Systems theory is about leadership. The fact is that BFST is primarily about therapy. But the theory identifies principles about relationships and human relationship systems that are universally applicable to any context in which people form attachments or live and work together. This “applied theory” to the concerns of leadership is appropriate. To believe that systems theory is a “style of leadership” is a fundamental misunderstanding.
Systems theory is about managing conflict. For those unfortunate enough to occupy a leadership position, this is the cold hard truth: conflict exists and it cannot be managed. To assume that systems theory provides a way to manage other people’s behaviors, emotions, believes, or anxiety is a fundamental error. What system theory offers the leader is a way to mange him or herself amid the natural conflict that arises in relationship systems.
Systems theory is about managing change. Sorry, it’s not about this either. How do you “manage” the nature of the cosmos? Change, in both evolution and entropy, is the nature of the world we live in. The typical misunderstanding here is that systems is a tool to use in managing other people, relationships, organizations, and circumstance. Holding on to that misunderstanding will do a leader in every time. If systems theory is about anything, it is about managing self in the midst of the constant changes around us. Busy-ness is equivalent to “overfunctioning.”
Self-definition is the same as Self-differentiation. This is a big one. Self-definition is merely the act of stating what you believe about yourself or about an issue. While that is important, it is not equivalent to self-differentiation, which is qualitatively different. A bigot can self-define his position about a class of people—but self-differentiation allows the freedom and dignity of the other without feeling threatened or denying the other the right to define self also.
Talking to another person is equivalent to “staying connected.” BFST is about emotional process. Talking to another person is not equivalent to functioning. Staying connected with another person in the system means making an emotional connection. That requires a form of communication that is deeper, reciprocal, and affective than merely giving orders, stating an opinion, or airing our feelings.
Systems is about getting out of triangles. Whether we like it or not, we are always in triangles. And if you are in the leadership position, you likely are in some monster triangles that span a couple of generations. BFST is about being able to choose how we will function in the triangles we are in.
The leader’s job is to lower systemic anxiety. Yeah, good luck with that. Besides, a savvy and playful leader knows when to allow the anxiety in the system to climb in order to facilitate emotional process or functioning on the part of those who need to own the anxiety that belongs to them.
The above is from a presentation at the Leadership in Ministry Workshops, an ongoing pastoral leadership development program at the Center for Lifelong Learning. To learn more, or to register for the workshop, visit the workshop information site. Registration is now open and space is limited.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. 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 and Don Reagan.