Systemic thinking and acting at the workplace
The systemic approach is not only helpful and highly appreciated as a counselling, coaching and therapy tool for individuals, couples, groups, especially in a social context, but is also becoming increasingly popular in the world of work. It also seems to me to be helpful for each and every one of us to communicate with each other in a more relaxed way and to shape relationships differently.
With this article, I would like to introduce you to the attitude and basics of systemic thinking and thus offer you an opportunity to find out how each and every one of us can positively influence our respective working world and, above all, each other.
The systemic approach in consulting, coaching, therapy
Basically, systemics is about the consideration of individuals or groups in relation to their respective social system in the respective context.
The systemic approach is characterised by the fact that one does not concentrate on the problem carrier, but takes a look at an entire system.
Attitude, values and behaviour
Systemicists assume that each system under consideration (individual, couple, group, organisation) is itself an expert in the solution of its problem (self-efficacy).
Instead of the ever better “grasp” of individuals and systems, the recognising person (observer) and his or her personal background (previous experiences, belief systems, taboos and “blind spots”) comes to the fore. Systemically oriented therapists, counsellors and supervisors assume the autonomy of those seeking advice and help and regard them as “experts of themselves”. The individual experience of each person is understood as a personal processing of their life-historical, affective and cognitive relationship experiences.
- The system exists in interaction with its environment.
- Problems are basically attempts at solutions.
- Systems act on themselves out of good intention.
Resources and objectives
It is more helpful to deal with solutions than to constantly talk about problems.
Systemicists refrain from attributing and naming “diseases” of their clients. Problems are seen as a challenge which can – and want to – awaken new powers in the affected person and the important people around him or her. The starting point is what the person wants to change and what can be changed. Instead of resignation, constriction and self-pity, the focus is on the recognition of already existing abilities, on future perspectives and self-determination, even with seemingly hopeless problems.
Cooperative relationship between the person seeking help and the helper
Solutions are developed together and new possibilities are created.
The basis is the open dialogue. The aim is always to strengthen or restore the self-efficacy of the client system. Problems are recognised and considered in such a way that existing patterns and behaviour can be helpful in finding solutions.
Each person constructs his own reality.
Communication connects them, sometimes more – sometimes less well. The goal of a change process can thus be that previous ways of thinking and behaving are “disturbed” by an impulse from outside in order to stimulate the client system to rethink its previous ways of thinking and behaving and thus to overcome problematic patterns.
Description instead of rigid attribution
According to its theoretical approach, systemic practice neither pursues the goal of merely diagnosing and classifying the problems nor of changing them monocausally. Rather, it attempts to develop descriptions in dialogue with those affected, which expand the possibilities of all participants to perceive, think and act. She is therefore looking for conditions with the help of which the clients can activate their resources in order to be able to reach their goals independently.²
It should also be mentioned that a systemic accompaniment process always benefits from a change of perspective. The counsellor repeatedly invites the client to such a change, makes offers to the client system in the direction of new ways of thinking and behaviour, supported above all by a multitude of systemic dialogue-opening questions and creative interventions. In contrast to a specialist consultation, no advice is given. One principle here is: “Consultation without advice, because advice is not always nice”.³
The attitude behind the systemic approach to counselling, coaching and therapy is that of a very positive view of humanity. Systemic thinking and acting people view their environment in a friendly, affectionate and accepting way. Situations, problems and systems are always viewed from different perspectives. The focus is on the resources already available and the solution to be developed.
The transfer to the world of work
How can the attitude of counselling, coaching and therapy be transferred to cooperation in the working world? Let’s look at a few concrete examples and typical work situations.
Looking beyond the horizon
Let’s assume you have an employee who some time ago was still highly motivated to perform his tasks. However, a few months ago, carelessness and a lack of drive have become apparent. Surely you could now act on the surface and ask him to change something about his behaviour. The question is whether this really leads to the goal and has a lasting positive effect on the situation. Alternatively, how about sharing your observations with him and exploring together whether anything could change? What would he need in order to be motivated to carry out his tasks again? What about the relationship with colleagues, how about the relationship between you as a superior and your employee? What might he currently be missing? Are there any private circumstances that influence work behaviour? It is often worthwhile to look beyond the concrete situation in order to find a solution.
Good intention of colleagues, superiors, employees
How often do we experience colleagues who often react irritably? Have you ever asked yourself why they behave in this way? What could be behind this? What does the person try to achieve for himself/herself through his/her behaviour, which often leads to distance and sometimes even rejection? It is not uncommon for people to try to set themselves apart from others through such behaviour. Perhaps this is their way of taking good care of themselves and being able to continue working undisturbed. What good intentions can you recognise or suspect? With a little goodwill, relationships can become much more relaxed. However, limits should be shown when your own needs are repeatedly pushed into the background by the behaviour of others.
Away from the problem trance – towards the solution
Do you know the moments when meetings go round and round in circles or conversations in the corridor always revolve around the same circumstances that are hard to bear? How much energy do people invest in complaints and “mottling” that are apparently and notoriously unchangeable?
Sometimes you need to “mothball”, but then you should look ahead.
Or do you really believe that repeated grumbling about circumstances that cannot be changed will change anything? Thus, mindfulness is required when the problem spreads in meetings, in the corridor or even in staff meetings and does not want to leave. I like to offer my clients time-limited “moping” sessions in meetings so that they can be heard and noticed and are not swept under the carpet. A time is agreed upon, the time is stopped. After the agreed time, the group then switches to the constructive discussion level.
No matter whether it is about the training or induction of new employees or, for example, the training of a new IT system: Questions upon questions arise. Sometimes such a question is answered more quickly as a superior or even as a colleague, or a to-do is taken over, rather than giving the sender help to help himself or herself and trusting that he or she will independently come closer to a solution. Thus it often helps to react to a question not with an answer but with a question and to develop answers together. What could be helpful? What do you suggest? What has already worked well in other situations? Thus, away from giving advice and towards developing solutions independently. Yes, such an approach takes longer. At least in the short term, but usually this investment of time pays off in the medium or long term, doesn’t it?
People are different
A good example was given recently by an acquaintance. She told me about a colleague in the office who was talking very loudly on the phone. She and the other colleagues felt considerably disturbed. My first question was, does the colleague know that she is talking loudly on the phone? Or another hypothesis: she may be hard of hearing and therefore has to speak louder. Perhaps she is not even aware that she is disturbing others, but is simply following the way she talks on the telephone? With the basic assumption that she is not up to any harm and that people are fundamentally different, you could share your own perception with your colleague and then negotiate whether something could be changed. Often open questions are helpful here, which do not judge or condemn.
Have you ever noticed how many times a day we do valuations? This is not unusual, especially in everyday working life. This is where the attitude from systemics meets the teaching of mindfulness: Why don’t you just try to register every now and then whether you are currently making an assessment or description? No matter whether it is about situations or people. How much truth is in your statements? Is it only guesswork and “your” truth? Wouldn’t descriptions sometimes be more helpful in dealing and communicating with superiors, employees and colleagues?
Studies repeatedly cite a poor working atmosphere, emotional stress, bullying and a lack of social support at work as stress factors.
I am firmly convinced that if each and every one of us trains the above-mentioned ways of thinking and communicating, togetherness (in the world of work) can be significantly improved. Such ways of thinking and communicating are often an expression – no matter in which role – of appreciation, acceptance, openness and friendliness.
Social systems are strengthened and stable through precisely these values. A stable social network (professional and private) is in turn one of the factors that positively influences our resistance to changes and crises (resilience). This is indispensable in times of digital structural change. The good thing is that each and every one of us can have an influence here every day and again and again by changing our way of thinking, our behaviour and our language, as we wish.
Notes (in German):
Sandra Brauer would also like to recommend a book: https://www.carl-auer.de/fragen-konnen-wie-kusse-schmecken
 https://systemische-gesellschaft.de/systemischer-ansatz/was-ist-systemisch/, retrieved on 02 March 2020
 https://systemische-gesellschaft.de/systemischer-ansatz/was-ist-systemisch/ retrieved on 02 March 2020
 Book recommendation/advertising without order: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11613-002-0054-3
Further information on the systemic approach can be found here:
– Masculine, feminine, diverse are equally meant when using the masculine form
– All systemically acting specialists are meant in the enumerations, not only consultants, coaches and therapists, but also organisational developers. 😃
Sandra Brauer has published further articles in the t2informatik blog:
Sandra Brauer – change management with system – is a systemic consultant and trainer for stress management, mindfulness and relaxation. The studied business economist accompanies companies and individuals in change processes. Her main focus is on the accompaniment of digitalisation and change projects, especially in the course of cultural change. Sandra Brauer can be booked for workshops, team reflections, individual consulting and coaching, moderation of panel discussions and impulse lectures.