I admit it: The Anxious Organization springs from my own anxiety as a consultant. Over the years, it became evident to me that, despite the essentially similar work I was doing with a number of clients, their outcomes would differ greatly. More disturbingly, there seemed to be little middle ground. Clients either enjoyed impressive gains in productivity from our collaboration, or went away feeling they had wasted their time and money. What would explain these differences?
Among my clients it was not unusual to see managers of considerable skill and knowledge who brought with them impressive records of success from previous situations. Though many of these people connected well with others and developed tactics and strategies that made perfect sense to me, they didn’t see much in the way of results. At the other end of the spectrum were inexperienced executives, criticized by their own people as amateurs or dilettantes. Inexplicably, many of their businesses were vibrant and growing. Leader attributes alone could not explain why some companies did better than others. There appeared to be something intrinsically different about the organizations themselves that led them to thrive or languish.
Various theories I explored shed some light on what I was observing, but none really hit the nail on the head. Nevertheless, I sensed that I was developing a sort of internal divining rod, an ability to know quickly when entering the world of a client whether or not our work was destined to bear fruit. My early hunches proved surprisingly accurate, even though I had no theoretical framework on which to base them. It seemed to have something to do with my own anxiety level in dealing with my client. Looking back, I discovered that the organizations that had done well were those in which I had experienced the least personal discomfort. And I realized I wasn't the only one who felt anxious in the organizations that weren’t doing well. Most everyone else did too--from employees to suppliers to customers.
It was just as this idea was beginning to gel that I first encountered Dr. Murray Bowen’s Natural Systems Theory. Bowen, a psychiatrist, had discovered that patients who did not engage in therapy, or who were too seriously disturbed to benefit from it, could still be helped by focusing treatment on their immediate families instead. Even if only one member of the family—typically a parent, sibling or spouse—changed their behavior, the dynamics of the entire family would begin to change in a way that benefited its most troubled member
What is true of families is true of other human groups as well. Each is an emotional unit. The functioning of its individuals depends to a great extent on the functioning of the group. Over the last 40 years, Bowen Theory has been applied successfully by scores of consultants, clergymen and psychotherapists. What works in families has been shown to work equally well in business, government, military and religious communities. When I began to apply Bowen Theory to my own consulting work, I was able to make headway in organizations where, previously, I had been stymied by my own and everyone else’s unmanaged anxiety.
My purpose in writing The Anxious Organization was to make Bowen’s practical, commonsense approach available to all readers. I hope it will stimulate your thinking and enable you to create the workplace experience you desire. If you wish to learn more about Bowen Theory and its applications, see the Resources section for further reading.