Sometimes a person leaves an organisation, and everybody breathes a big sigh of relief and says, “Thank God.” There has been a sense for a while that all the problems are caused by this one person, and if they left everything would be fine. Now that they are finally gone, we can just get on with things instead of wasting all our time on the trouble caused by this one person.
What we tend to forget, however, is that the ‘trouble-maker’ never exists in isolation, but is part of a broader organisational dynamic. How is this person allowed to get away with their bad behaviour? Why aren’t people challenging him? In what way is the person passing on pressures that have been placed on her? Why aren’t appropriate boundaries in place to guide the person’s work? In what way is the person ‘acting out’ a culture that exists more broadly in the organisation: for example, of control, or secrecy?
Grievance processes tend to take an adversarial approach, where it is presumed that one person is in the right and other person in the wrong. We are geared up to “expel the wicked brother” – but what happens when the ‘wickedness’ is not found in a single person, but pervades the organisation as a whole?
I think that generally, it is the latter that is the case, and what we need is processes that help us to discern and uncover the deeper, systemic problems that exist within organisations. Processes that resist laying blame on individuals, but presume that all of us, to a degree, are both responsible for and victim to pathology within organisations.
Pointing the blame at a single person is lazy. It feels good at the time to purge the organisation of perceived evil, but inevitably the problem, if it exists in the life-blood of the broader group, will re-emerge elsewhere. Processes that ask, “How are these problems systemic?” require time, and courage, and a great capacity for us to listen well to each other.
Some ideas that have informed this post include Rene Girard’s theories around mimetic desire and scapegoating, family systems theory, nonviolent communication methodology and a recent conversation I’ve been having with a friend about restorative justice.