System variables are those components that are bigger than any one person but may have a profound influence on an individual’s ability to do the work. System variables include those within an organization (i.e., the culture, the communication flow) and those which affect the organization (i.e., the healthcare system, rules and regulations).
“Is it me or is it them?” Assessing this answer is crucial in determining career decisions. When a person is assessing an unhealthy system, it’s necessary to determine the root and the route of dysfunction. Where does it start and how does it flow? How likely is it to change? Frequently, I have clients who acknowledge that they are working in a dysfunctional system but behaviorally are still acting as if working harder or doing their best might make things better. High achieving clients tend to have the perspective that they SHOULD be able to fix the system. Generally, this is only true if the person has the authority to change the system.
It is equally necessary to assess systems when things are going well. What is making the system work? If it all leads back to a single person, and that person moves to a different organization, will the system still be positive and stable?
Assessing system variables is necessary for the cost-benefit analysis of staying within a career path or within an organization for “the potential.” The statement I usually hear is “if this facet changes, things could be great. I don’t want to give up too soon.” This thought process works only if a system is new or in a current state of change that allows a person to pinpoint specific variables and timeframes of change. When people are aware of what changes need to occur and the reasonable amount of time attached, it helps them figure out the likelihood of the potential coming to fruition. Vague statements such as ‘I’m going to give it a little longer’ or “hopefully, things will get better” reflects that a person is probably wasting his/her time.
After over twenty years in the development field, I can definitely attest to the fact that any success achieved has been highest in organizations that encourage success over hierarchy and function over dysfunction. I’ve learned that you cannot “fix” the system so it’s critical to make sure you and the system are a match! Sounds easy, right. Wrong! I spent a lot of what I now believe was unnecessary time figuring out whether or not I could fix the system, or fix myself or fix somebody else. At one time, my password was “thefixer.” It was a difficult journey and it wasn’t until the road became impossible that I realized I wasn’t qualified to figure it out—at least not on my own!
An outside perspective is especially helpful on systems because this professional is removed from the daily details and better able to see an overall pattern. For example, a person working in the environment may focus only on the current CEO. The outside professional’s perspective is more likely to focus on the pattern of CEO’s. Is this one an anomaly or does the board tend to pull in those who are technically smart but lack emotional intelligence?
The component of the system that affects daily happiness is the interpersonal relationships and the general social culture. Social contagion is a concept in psychology used to describe how attitudes and emotions are transferred from one person to another. This is why toxic people, if lleft unchecked, can quickly contribute to a toxic culture. A system which allows bacteria to breed will have difficulties with organizational health despite changes in individual personnel. High achievers often try to cope by working harder. “I’ll keep my head down and do my job.” The problem with this approach is that the emotional impact of a negative atmosphere erodes energy, motivation and confidence, gradually making it more and more difficult for a person to excel in his/her position.