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Field Theory and Its Implications for Organizations

By Stan Nabozny and Cathe Carlson

 

"To understand the world, look within.

To understand yourself, look to the world." 

 

Rudolph Steiner

 

Customary forms of leadership and consultation donít match endemic problems found in organizations and in peopleís lives today.

 

Field theory has major implications for organizational leaders and consultants. It provides a sound basis for understanding the social interactions that are the very essence of organizational life. Our familiar way of understanding organizations and practicing organization management is not always consistent with the basic tenants of field theory. It is our intention to clarify some of the tenants of field theory and highlight the implications we see for organizational leaders and consultants. 

 

A Field Perspective 

 

The tenants of field theory come from modern physics and the theory of relativity. A field perspective views all phenomena as inextricably linked, part of a network of interactions, which form a continuous whole called the organism/environment field.  Field theory assumes that the organism and environment co-regulate one another and change of the organism happens as a result of interactions at the boundary of the organism / environment field. Everything affects everything else as the field is viewed as a unitary whole.

 

From a field perspective, people are considered to be "of a field", they are inextricably linked with the environment, they actually co-create and sustain themselves with the environment. Being "of a field" means that people are actually constituted by the field and its structures and dynamics. We are part of what we are observing. Everything is relative depending on your perspective in the field. This is different than systems theory where people are defined as being "in a field", a separate organism irrespective of the environment that happens to interact with or be placed in an environment for context. From a field perspective, people are defined by the environment of which they are a part and the environment can only be defined by someone via their experience. The distinction between "of a field" and "in a field" has been missed and often field theory and systems theory have been seen as similar. This distinguishing characteristic has profound implication for leaders and consultants.

 

What follows are some basic tenants of field theory and its implications for leaders and consultants:

 

         Perception is relative and reality is co-constructed. Everything that is perceived is perceived by someone. Therefore, all perception is interpreted. Perception is the relationship between the perceiver and that which is perceived. There is no objective or subjective truth, only different perspectives of the same phenomena. Every person's point of view is just a perspective; we cannot assume that anotherís perspective (especially when opposite of ours) is not relevant. No view is more privileged or right than another. One implication for leaders is that they need to become more interested in how others see and experience the organization, particularly those who's view are most different than theirs. They need to appreciate that only by engaging others can they develop a more complete picture of the organization. 

 

Consultants face the same issue as leaders as mentioned. They need to appreciate that their perspective is just one perspective. In addition, a common belief among consultants is that their value is their marginality and "objectivity". Many think that the optimal way to work with an organization is to stay outside of it, to remain separate from it. From this stance, they are not appreciating the field view of how they co-create what they are seeing. Their orientation is one of being outside to study the system. They diagnose it, assess it and make recommendations on what it needs to do. They follow carefully designed methodologies and see themselves influencing decisions because "they know what works." They are not acknowledging that they are operating from a certain lens, and they are not acknowledging they co-create what they are seeing. There is a collusion that somehow the consultant's view is more accurate and privileged because they are not part of the organization.  Field theory holds that you cannot study an organization as if it is separate from you; your relationship to it influences how it takes shape. To study an organization from a field perspective means including yourself in the study and being interested in the ways they take shape in relation to you and how you take shape in relation to them. 

 

 

 

         All experience is contextual. Nothing can be understood separate from the context within which it occurs. Behavior and experience cannot be understood separate from the current context, what is happening now. Other contexts also play a part (ethnicity, race, gender, etc).

 

In our western culture, we tend to see the individual as separate from the environment. We undervalue the impact of the environment on individual behavior and performance. Many systems and processes in organizations reinforce this belief that the individual is separate from the organization context (i.e. performance management systems, assessment tools, management training, blaming cultures). From a field perspective, individuals are not separate from the environment; they are "of" the field. You cannot look at a person, group or organization as separate from its context as if what you are seeing is about them. What you are seeing is a function of them in relation to their current context. Similarly, you cannot consider anything you do as a function of your individual competence, it is a function of you in the context you are in.

 

Leaders and consultants need to better appreciate that some of the most critical contexts are the relationships that they are part of and ask themselves "what is it about this context (mainly, my influence) that is creating conditions that are facilitative of growth or inhibiting growth.  (I.e. boss/subordinate relationships, the leader/leadership team relationship, the client/consultant relationship, the leader/ customer relationship). Their behavior is a function of the relationships of which they are a part and which they co-create, rather that a reflection of the individual. The next time you do a performance review, ask yourself the question "What is it about my influence that has co-created the behavior or result I am attributing to the other?"

 

Another example that reflects a set of assumptions not consistent with a field perspective is the way most development is done in organizations. Training is usually focused on developing individual knowledge and skill and does not focus on the individual in relationship to their context. This results in most training being relatively ineffective. By focusing on the individual in relation to their context, training should address what is it that needs strengthening or development at this interface? What is the quality of the exchange, how effective is the individual / context functioning. (I.e. individual/individual, individual/group, etc) A field perspective says that the context shapes the individual and the individual shapes the context. For training to have a contextual orientation, the focus needs to be on the relational aspects of the individuals in their context.

 

         People take shape in relation to present field conditions. Field theory assumes that we take shape in relation to what is happening now. We are constantly recreating ourselves, each and every moment.  This acknowledges human choice; we are free agents as different from a deterministic view.  We are not influenced by the past; we may be affected by our memories of the past only when they are in the present. Only what is present now can produce present behavior and experience. This means that the present situation that is happening now is a unique co-creation. Even if we think a situation is repeating itself, we recognize that this is not possible. If we consider the situation fully, we come to recognize that the situation is unique; different to any other that has preceded it. 

 

This tenant of people taking shape to present field conditions has implications for how individuals and groups actually develop as contrasted with what many models of development suggest.  Many development models for groups (and individuals) are based on a sequence of repeating patterns and predictable stages.  Consultants often use these models to move clients from a "less developed" to a "more developed" or higher performing state. They operate in a deterministic way, providing feedback on what the client should be doing depending where the client is according to the model. Often, these models create a self-fulfilling prophecy as well as shape how we see the world. Operating from a field perspective means appreciating what a group (or individual) is doing rather than focusing on what they should be doing. Being interested in how people take shape in relationship to each other. Leaders and consultants need to be interested in how people do what they do rather than having a model of what people should be doing. 

 

 

         Everything is constantly changing. Field theory assumes that the structures and dynamics of the field move though time and space. Everything is always in flux, in motion, nothing stays the same. Everything is in process, the process of evolving and changing. 

 

The constantly changing organism/environment field creates circumstances, which makes it impossible for it to be fully understood. An implication is that searching for a total solution for a problem is not possible. Rather, we need to appreciate the ever-changing nature of the environment and come up with approaches to dilemmas that we can implement and use this to inform and evolve our thinking. The current wave of "finding the right solution" and framing organizational issues as "problems to be solved" rather than "dilemmas to be managed" does not appreciate the ever changing nature of the organism/environment field. The implication for leaders and consultants is to put less energy in finding the "right" solution and devote more energy into trying things out as temporary solutions to dilemmas. This requires us to be more imaginative and courageous in developing experiments we can learn from. A secondary implication is that we need to be able to support to ourselves living with uncertainty and allow ourselves to sit with our own dilemmas and allow others to sit in theirs rather than quickly moving to solutions.

 

 

         Relationships a have mutual and reciprocal influence. Both sides of any relationship are being regulated, influenced and shaped by the other. The influence may not be equal, but it is reciprocal. Both parties co-regulate each other to ignore what they are not ready to address and to move on what they are ready to address.  An implication for leaders and consultants is that they must be aware of the ways they co-regulate and influence various relationships they are in. For example, a conflict avoidant leader or consultant may unconsciously suggest actions that don't allow conflict to be surfaced and dealt with because this is outside their range of what is permissible in the environment.

 

The previous two tenants combine for another implication that influences how we think about leading change. The dominant assumption for most leaders and change agents is that change is something they have to "make happen". We have been taught to be leaders and change agents who need methodologies and tools to "make it happen" as if change takes a prescribed path. The phrase "driving change" is common in today's organizations and it illustrates the underlying mindset of the leader pushing their reality or regulating the environment through "shoulds". A field perspectives holds that leaders and consultants don't have to make it happen because people change and regulate constantly.  The previous two tenants assume that people do this by being in touch with present field conditions and by being influenced and co-regulated by each other in an environment that is constantly changing. Obviously, we cannot be in touch with present field conditions constantly; we develop habitual ways of dealing with a constantly changing field. A leaders role is to become an awareness expert who supports others in being aware of present field conditions so that others can take shape an adapt appropriately. Leaders can also support their organizations by creating awareness of how the mutual co-regulation creates blind spots and stop us from becoming. The conflict avoidant leader or consultant who may suggest actions that don't allow conflict to be surfaced because this is not permissible in the environment is one such example. The implication is that leaders and consultant must be aware of what is the range of permissible contact in their environments and how this limits or supports what is happening. From a field perspective, change happens paradoxically; quite different from how we have been taught to think about it. 

 

The perspective that field theory provides is new for most organizations. Our familiar way of understanding organizations, developing people, practicing leadership is not always consistent with a field perspective or contextual worldview. Field theory is a framework for understanding people and events thought as being "of a field" and meaning is achieved though direct experience in the field. We hope this short summary stimulates your thinking about your own beliefs and offers another perspective for how to understand organizational life and its challenges

 

 

 

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