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‘Rupture and Repair’ is a concept widely used in the fields of social work and community services. It has origins in attachment theory founded by John Bowlby (1958) and is well known in therapeutic disciplines such as psychology, psychiatry and contemporary trauma-informed practice disciplines such as neurobiology. It is also something I have adapted to my leadership practice with great benefit.

In simple terms, ‘Rupture and Repair’ is about relationships. Specifically, it’s is about a breach or disconnect in a relationship followed by the restoration and positive continuation of that relationship.

My experience with ‘Rupture and Repair’ primarily comes from my work with children and young people with trauma/abuse histories in ‘state’ care or what we would call ‘Out of Home Care’ or ‘Care Services’ in Victoria. As practitioners, we would practice this concept after a conflict with our clients and also coach the carers of the children/young people to do the same. This model’s healthy relationships and conflict resolution with children and young people that have been abused and betrayed by their loved ones and as a result have trouble forming secure attachments with people. After a time we have the potential to assist in their healing by utilising this type of approach as we are promoting that there are safe and appropriate people in the world.

This concept can apply extremely well professionally from a leadership perspective. Conflict is absolutely inevitable In the workplace but a leader reaching out and re-connecting with their employee after a conflict situation models emotional intelligence, self-awareness and care for the employees. Some research even shows that this can improve and strengthen relationships as people now know they have been through some adversity in their relationship with you and there is strength and durability in their connection (Pinsof, 2009).

 

Rupture

Recently I received an email from a staff member that works under one of the leaders I manage. This individual asked me what I was doing about a new government initiative I had been involved in as he felt it was making him look incompetent to external stakeholders when he was being asked about it continuously and didn’t have the information to give. The message was delivered bluntly and somewhat aggressively with not much ownership on this person’s part. In a moment of weakness, I matched the bluntness and lack of ownership and added in some ego so I replied in a defensive manner and shut him down. Maybe it was the 16-hour days, maybe it was the pressure I was under in another area, maybe it was the fact that I had been in the hospital the past couple of days with a family member undergoing surgery. Who knows, but one thing was for sure it was a leadership failure on my part and there really aren’t any excuses for that. I had created a rupture in the professional relationship.

My experience with the ‘Rupture and Repair’ concept taught me that as a leader it was up to me to have the self-awareness and humility to reach out and repair things, regardless of petty details.

Repair

The day went on and many meetings later I received a text message from this staff member telling me how he had been feeling down all day and the email reply I had sent really rocked his confidence. At first, I was annoyed as my ego and defensive mindset crept back in but then I stopped, took a deep breath and realised this guy was reaching out to me. I had made a mistake and needed to repair the rupture now.

This staff member is a hard worker; a silent achiever and his bluntness are authentic. Most importantly, he was right! I hadn’t deciphered the information from the government and communicated clearly to the teams as was my job as their leader. I allowed the confusion of the information to get the better of me and let this staff member down.

I called the staff member and promptly apologised to him. I spent no time making excuses and telling him about my family member’s surgery, or my workload or anything for that matter. I just genuinely apologised for my poor communication and my lack of ownership and advised him that he was right and I would get onto the task at hand and get some clear information to him and the team as a matter of priority. I brought him on board and asked him to support me in disseminating the information once I had clarified it as he was knowledgeable and a well-respected team member (I also wanted him to take some ownership).

We both ended that phone call feeling positive, connected and had a plan where we both were accountable to get the task completed. He advised how much better he felt that we had talked it out and let me know about some personal troubles he was having which gave me some insight into his original communications to me. I followed up with a text to him before the end of the day advising that I appreciate him, the skills he brings and am very glad we have him in the team. I genuinely believe we come away from that situation with a stronger professional relationship and were able to work together effectively on a complex task and support our teams together.

 

Learning

 

The above example is just one of many mistakes I have made as a leader but what the Eighth Mile team have taught me is that mistakes are an opportune time for reflection, review and improvement. A quick after-action review and some utilisation of my knowledge as a welfare practitioner allowed me to pick up this therapeutic concept and apply it to my leadership practice.

Next time you enter into some conflict and/or experience a rupture with someone at work, I challenge you to spend the extra ten minutes genuinely repairing things with that person regardless of who was at fault. I guarantee you both come away feeling better, you will build trust with the team and you may even see improvements in areas such as performance and productivity.

Mitchell Burney – Member of The Eighth Mile Community

 

References

Pinsof, W. M., Zinbarg, R. E., Lebow, J. L., Knobloch-Fedders, L. M.,

Durbin, E., Chambers, A., Latta, T., Karam, E., Goldsmith, J., & Friedman,

  1. (2009). Laying the foundation for progress research in family, couple,

and individual therapy: The development and psychometric features of

the initial systemic therapy inventory of change. Psychotherapy Research,

19(2), 143-156.

 

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the childs tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371

The world has always been an insanely chaotic place defined by constant change, creation, destruction, and an ever-increasing competition for finite resources and space. This coupled with exponentially changing environmental conditions creates for one confusing place.

So, what does this have to do with leadership? 

Those species and organisms which have developed the ability to coordinate and synchronise their efforts have found resilience, robustness and success that often far supersedes those ‘lone wolf’ characters. There is no clearer evidence of this than humans dragging their way to the top of the evolutionary ladder by working in teams.

We could even argue that our ability to create teams has in some ways become too successful, as it has:

  • Increased our average life expectancy from ‘below 40’ in the 1800’s to now over ’Over 83’ in some developed Western cultures, resulting in over population and an unsustainable drain on environmental resources and space.
  • Allowed us to develop technologies that provide the ability to collaborate, often at the expense of interpersonal interactions and face-to-face engagements.
  • Resulted in us living in cities, sometimes completely devoid of any connection with nature and the environment we are concurrently destroying

The need for strong leaders who are morally and ethically aligned has never been more important.

Teaming allows us to hunt big

‘Hunting big’ originally referred to our ability to take down larger prey by working as a pack. By being able to attack, trap and shape an animal on multiple fronts resulted in the animal becoming overwhelmed and making mistakes. This in turn increased our likelihood of taking down larger animals, coupled with the convenience of having to do less hunts. Less hunts equated to less risk on individuals, which in turn allowed us to live safer and longer. Concurrently whilst other members of a tribe were hunting big game, there were others foraging and sourcing key raw materials which would support the broader community.

Leadership would have been required at all levels in order to coordinate and synchronise the efforts of different teams. This would have also included prioritising their efforts in order to ensure their precious collective energy could be invested in those initiatives that would provide them the greatest returns.

In today’s current corporate context there is little to no difference. The teams that are able to coordinate their efforts and invest their precious resources towards an agreed strategy, win.

Teams help us cover our personal gaps

Teams provide the necessary platform and mechanism in order to capitalise on the unique abilities of the people within them. This is achieved by allowing individuals to capitalise on emerging opportunities and gaps, whilst being personally protected by the team’s ability to absorb risk and danger.

In days of old, this would have looked like an individual taking the opportunity to throw their spear, knowing that another member of the team would be able to protect them whilst they were disarmed.

This would have also looked like community members providing for injured or sick members of the community, only to have the favour reciprocated when the roles were reversed.

The corporate world is very similar. The teams that are able to adjust rapidly to their dynamic industry environments are the ones that will ultimately thrive. This can only be achieved if the members of our team are looking outwards for opportunities, instead of looking inwards for danger.

Teams allow specialisation

Our ability to form and establish teams with specialist capabilities allows us to adjust to an ever complex and changing world. The difficult for leaders is meshing the complex array of personalities and character types into one unified group, and then refocusing their efforts. This takes significant skill and finesse in order to get right.

In the past this would later set the conditions for agriculture and industrialisation. By allowing individuals to perfect a trade or skill, the community was able to elevate its collective standard of life. We would have seen blacksmiths manipulating precious metals, butchers sourcing and preparing meat, farmers and millers creating larger more efficient methodologies for mass producing product. You get the idea…

The point is that the most effective teams are those that understand that each of their members is inherently different and uses that to their advantage. In this way, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

When teams and leadership go wrong

A commonly overlooked aspect of leadership is the impact when it goes wrong. All we have to do is look briefly back in our history to see when poor leadership influences the masses to do terrible things (genocides, religious wars, cults, unethical corporate organisations, etc)

My time on this world has shown me the good and bad sides of teams. The bad sides include:

  • Cliques & nasty social groups
  • Unnecessary wars and conflicts
  • Misuse of precious resources
  • Manipulation of weaker groups
  • Exploitation of people and the environment

Forbes’ provides this definition, “leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal”. But this doesn’t speak to the morality, ethics or utility of what we are ultimately working towards. I would like to think that the world has progressed to a point where we not only judge our leaders on their ability to empower others, but also towards the validity of the cause itself.

If our leaders are guiding followers towards goals and objectives that only seek to exploit or displace other teams and organisations, then surely, we cannot consider this effective leadership under a contemporary definition. Using our precious (and ever reducing) resources at the expense of others does not seem like a sound long-term or survivable strategy to me. Surely, morality and ethical decision making must come into it.

At The Eighth Mile Consulting we routinely use the mantra ‘Good People, Helping Good People’, not only as a means to keep us honest but also as a filter to screen our clients. Our values are clear and concise and can be used to screen our operational objectives and we categorically refuse to support organisations that leave a wake of destruction wherever they go. This has been a guiding characteristic for our team, and we have found ourselves blessed in supporting positive projects, people and initiatives. We are making the world a better place one little bit at a time, and we are using strong moral leadership to achieve it.

Make sure you are leading your teams towards goal that leave a positive legacy worth talking about…

When I joined the Australian Army as an Officer Cadet in 2006, my goals were to:

  • Lead soldiers into battle,
  • Positively influence their lives, and
  • Make a positive difference in the world.

Throughout my time in the military my understanding of successful leadership techniques has dramatically evolved from a rigid, authoritative and top-down approach to a more inclusive, group-influenced and adaptive approach. But more importantly my approach to problem solving and decision making is what has potentially evolved the most, and that is what I would like to discuss in this paper.

I once read a book by a late Chinese militarist and philosopher named Sun Tzu, his most famous work being ‘The Art of War’, written to provide context to war and conflict. Originally written to consolidate some of the constants that define war, a large number of its themes can be applied to modern environments, organisations and situations. I found that one particular selection of his quotes stood apart from the rest:

“Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

Sun Tzu

This collection of references has colloquially been referred to, or summarised, as Sun Tzu’s ‘flow like water’ and is often loosely referred to in conversations everywhere. What is of particular relevance from this quote is its application to problem solving.

Throughout my life, I have observed leaders, managers and decision makers preach and assess others against throw away terms such as: flexibility, adaptability, initiative and effectiveness, however I personally do not believe that many individuals fully reach their potential in these areas, not through a lack of trying, but through a lack of awareness.

BYPASS OBSTRUCTIONISM

To apply Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘flow like water’ to problem solving we must first apply its relevance to our modern context by drawing a number of constants. Suppose, that an obstacle, hurdle or obstruction (or worse yet an obstructionist!) is likened to a rock within a flowing stream. Suppose further, that water (under Sun Tzu’s concept) is ever moving, constantly changing and reshaping, and is heading in one direction.

Every one of us has encountered a number of obstructionists throughout our own experiences. Characterised as that one irritable individual who has an inability to think laterally, who begins group conversations with ‘that can’t be done’, and lives happily in a world self-defined by boundaries and corporate governance. In the past I have likened such individuals to the’ Vogon Constructor Fleet’ from Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy;’ an officious group of aliens responsible for maintaining the bureaucratic processes of the universe, with no regard for innovation. Please note, when I refer to obstructionists, I do not refer to bureaucratic styled professions, in fact, adaptive thinkers within such job categories have the ability to transform whole organisations by streamlining processes and cutting red tape. I refer primarily to individuals who have turned to the dark side. A team of obstructionists can often lead to toxic relationships, and without fail will hamper an organisation or team’s competitive edge, particularly when delivering projects.

Leaders must be able to identify obstructionists, acknowledge their concerns, and then bypass them in order to ensure that momentum is maintained on overall task/project success. Many a leader has become unstuck by becoming bogged down in obstructionist detail, whilst losing oversight of the original task and purpose. In the Army a term known as ‘marking and bypassing’ is used to explain a procedure by which a team identifies an issue on the battlefield which is outside their scope and capability. This team will then promptly mark it and pass the responsibility to other more specialist teams in depth as opposed to dwelling on the problem. This term can also be applied to explain the process of identifying an obstacle in the workplace, marking its existence and then bypassing it in order to complete the task in time, on budget, and within specifications.

DEVELOP A POSITIVE CULTURE WHICH REJECTS OBSTRUCTIONISM

It is one thing to be able to apply Sun Tzu’s, ‘flow like water’ to your own practices, but how does one influence a team to apply the same forward-leaning, positive approach to problem solving?

Employ the right type of people

If organisations intend to recruit individuals long-term then employ those people that are right for ‘a task’, not necessarily ‘the task’. This meaning, that organisations need to ensure the longevity of their investment (their people), and ensure that when Project A is finalised, the same person might be able to easily transition onto Project B which might have an entirely different scope, stakeholder contribution and design. This is the true meaning of ‘flexibility’ when referring to planning. In practical terms, this might mean that organisations make an assessment on an individual’s potential as opposed to their qualifications. This might also mean that individuals are assessed on whether they are likely to fit the culture of the organisation based on personality, approach to problem solving, and their work ethic. If you have obstructionists in your team, find a way to negate their effects, re-train them, re-assign them (to a better suited role), or worse case remove them completely.

Publicly encourage adaptive and ‘out of the box’ thinking

Leaders must always encourage adaptive thinking by individuals who demonstrate initiative. Ideas and concepts from staff are simply that, nothing more, nothing less – it’s not personal! Furthermore, leaders must be able to identify those contributions that are obstructionist versus those that are complimentary or constructive to the planning process. Positive contributions must be acknowledged publicly to the entire team, and similarly, obstructionism must be identified and as such bypassed or negated. Just remember, you do not need to use everyone’s contributions, but you do need to acknowledge its existence and intent.

Leaders must take risks and accept responsibility

Leaders must apply the principle of ‘risk versus return’. A team which consistently adapts, evolves and adjusts to changing conditions needs to take risks in order to maintain pace with competitors. This ultimately results in higher risk for mistakes. Good leaders must accept the full responsibility for their team’s mistakes, and in return they will receive greater followership and continued involvement from their team. Remember, never blame your team! Also, a successful leader does not blame other areas or departments in order to shift blame and make a common enemy. The most successful leaders I have seen have demonstrated humility and have gone to extensive efforts to provide context as to why other teams within their organisation have made their decisions. Word travels quickly, and this positive gesture may be returned to your team at a later date.

Train your team to be able to plan in the absence of information

Successful and adaptive teams are those that get ahead of the game. They demonstrate the ability to plan in the absence of all the information. They make experience based assumptions that allow them to get to further stages of planning. These assumptions are then either confirmed or denied concurrently, or in subsequent stages of planning. In any case, the team maintains its momentum in the correct general direction. Obstructionists by their nature, feel extremely uncomfortable planning without all the information, and can be seen using it as a means to hamper/halt the planning process – do not let this happen!

In summary, do not be a Vogon! If people provide you with constructive ideas, first think how that information may practicably be utilised to better your cause, or your organisation. If you identify obstructionists, mark and bypass them, to find another way to win, and do not get caught in their detail. Remember, there is always a way to reach an end-state, it might just take a zig-zag path around multiple obstacles to reach it.

Flow like water – Avoiding obstructionism

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.