Family Systems Theory Applied To Executive Coaching

Published: 18th May 2010
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Copyright (c) 2010 Natalie Michael

If you are thinking about working with an Executive Coach, this article will help you to pick a coach that understands the interplay between individual and organizational dynamics. Specifically, it explains how Bowen's Family Systems Theory can be used in executive coaching and why it is valuable to work with an Executive Coach who understands how to apply Systems Theory to organizations. It also clarifies why it is valuable to work with an executive coach who is outside of your organization and who is not caught up in the emotional dynamics in your workplace, but instead is a calm observer who can help you clarify your thinking and sharpen your perception and decision making.

When originally developed in the 1950's, Bowen proposed a broader way of thinking about human behaviour and relationship dynamics compared to many psychologists at the time. Unlike Freud who focused his theory of human behaviour on the individual, Bowen focused on larger groups, with the primary emphasis being the family. He believed that if there were individual problems, it was often rooted in the context of the family system.

He spent a considerable portion of his career researching how anxiety shows up in family dynamics and he pointed out that within families there are predictable ways of dealing with emotions, and that familiar patterns of emotional reactions get developed and locked into place. When one person becomes emotionally intense, another person reacts in a predictable way. The way a family responds to emotions becomes like a circuit board, with emotional currents being sent from person to person, and generation to generation. When problems occur in families, he found it was much more useful to look at the 'broader family system' and the patterns of emotional functioning, instead of just focusing on the individual. He applied 'systems thinking' when analyzing and approaching issues.

This theory has considerable application for organizations and executives and by reviewing the theory, it illustrates the power of executive coaching and the value of having an external partner who is not caught up in the dynamics that Bowen describes, but is instead an objective observer who can help an executive make sense of what is going on, and offer interventions at the individual, team, and organizational level.

Following Bowen's theory, an executive coach who uses a Systems Lens, will always start an engagement by understanding the broader picture and 'system' as a whole. They will look at the economy, industry, organization, roles, formal and informal authority, relationships and team dynamics. Understanding this macro context, allows the executive coach to consider how the broader system is impacting the individual executive, including the power dynamics and emotional climate in the workplace, and how the leader reacts to and contributes to this.

One aspect of this inquiry is to understand the individual and togetherness force and how it plays out for the executive and the organization. Bowen says that one of the fundamental aspects of the human condition is the struggle that arises from the need to strike a balance between two basic needs: the need to be an individual and the need to be with others together in relationship. Ideally, these two things come together in a positive and fulfilling way, but more often, there is tension, especially in organizations.

An Executive Coach using a Whole System Lens will ask questions to understand this tension, and they will play close attention to how the leader fuses with and reacts to the team. They will notice how the individual force pushes leaders away from the team in an attempt to maintain boundaries, and maintain their individuality, and how the togetherness force propels them towards affiliation, belonging, and approval from group members. They will also pay attention to how the team and individual responds to emotional issues like anxiety, stress, rejecting team members, and negative feedback ' noticing whether the executive feels like they are losing their sense of self in the team dynamic, or can maintain a healthy level of functioning when emotional tension increases.

Of course the leader needs to adopt some of the principles, practices, and behaviour patterns of the team to 'fit,' yet in an ideal world, this fusion is tolerable and does not create cognitive dissonance to the extent that it negatively impacts the leader's fulfillment. Ideally the leader wants to feel genuine and authentic, and express their ideas and share their views with team members. In reality, this ideal can be difficult to attain. An executive's ability to do this is often tied to their emotional maturity and sense of self, and the level of fusion on the team overall.

If a leader has low emotional maturity or self-esteem, they will likely get caught up in the emotional dynamics on the team, take things too personally, and they will tie their group membership to their identity. These executives will feel more emotional intensity at work, and if they sense rejection, or get negative feedback, they may feel like their sense of self is threatened, and have a reaction to it that is disproportionate to the situation.

With greater emotional maturity, executives are better able to manage the emotional forces and team dynamics without feeling like they are losing themselves. They are less likely to get caught up in the emotional patterns because their sense of self is not tied to the emotional attachments with others. Even when they don't agree with the group, they are able to express themselves calmly, and although they can't help but get caught up in the emotional intensity to some degree, they are able to bounce back quicker. For all executives, when there is constant pressure and stress, it wears the team member's down, and can create a host of emotional reactions and behavioural patterns which can be difficult to see and deconstruct when in 'the thick of things.'

An Executive Coach with a Whole Systems Lens will also pay attention to the how the team operates as a whole and the degree of individuality versus collective team work. If a team is too focused on the individual, they are not a team in the true sense, and they are likely operating in silos. They are merely a 'collection of individuals' and this is likely having a negative impact on the team results. In this case, the Executive Coach needs to inquire, 'What is the value of working as a team? Why did you become a team in the first place? What are you hoping to get out of this team?' Answering these questions can create buy-in and rationale for bringing the team together as a stronger unit, and shifting team dynamics and behaviour, and it helps the team to understand the link between team functioning and the desired business results.

If, on the other hand, a team is too tightly fused, and relationship and emotional patterns are locked into place, an Executive Coach using a Whole Systems Lens will notice that individual leaders find it difficult to think for themselves when part of the team, and they start to automatically adopt the views and emotional patterns of the group. If they don't, they may risk being rejected by the team. This dynamic negatively impacts decision making, and leads to emotionally intense interactions. The team loses their ability to thoughtfully examine issues as they relate to key principles, and they shut out diverse perspectives which can benefit effective decision making. A Whole Systems Executive Coach will be able to see this, and has the ability to intervene and at the individual, team, or organizational level.

As you can see, there is tremendous value in working with an Executive Coach who uses a Whole Systems Lens. As an outside thinking partner who is trained in this methodology, they will be able to see these dynamics and how it is impacting the executive on a personal, team, and organizational level. As an executive, it is human nature to get caught up in these dynamics without even knowing it. Just by nature of being in a team, an executive will adopt some of the norms, behaviours, and emotional patterns of the team. Having a coach who can comprehend this, stay calm, and observe the complex emotional dynamics without getting triggered, or getting caught up in them, will lead to increased effectiveness. It allows the executive to see what is happening with clarity and new insights, and to make judgment calls about where the shift needs to take place ' at the individual, team, or organizational level ' and how these systems interact and impact one another.


Natalie Michael is an Executive Coach in Vancouver, Canada. She uses Whole Systems Coaching with her clients. She has a Masters in Organizational Development and is a Certified Coach. For a complimentary introductory session, contact Natalie at

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