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Human Systems

When I was in my 20’s, I decided to get a Masters Degree and I did, and it was a good experience. It was not a traditional program, it was focused on human systems consulting and leadership, and it was both academic and experiential.The program was highly idealistic, born out of the minds of quite a few leaders themselves, and ones who had come of age in the late 50’s and 60’s and had a Human Potential mindset without the cult like feel.

Strongly focused on group dynamic work, it also held Family of Origin Theory (Virginia Satir) as a cornerstone of the work. In short you form patterns and traumas and joys and rhythms with your family of origin that you then, if unresolved and unexamined, may play out in future group and couple relationships. Why do you keep dating strong silent types like your dad who never would tell you he loved you? Well, Family Of Origin might suggest you are working that relationship out through other people.

That’s a simplistic take and there are myriad other societal and cultural dynamics at play into why we act the way we act in groups, but so far as it goes, FOO is a great lens to understand the self, and how one reacts in groups and to others. There were far more other layers in place for group work-conflict resolution, coaching, helping skills, understanding group norms, cultural dynamics, interpersonal communication. And things would get intense because not only did we study them, we practiced the skills in real life and in simulated situations.

Most of the people in my cohort either wanted to be a business consultant or a therapist (there were two main MA tracks, one for each of those, but we mostly all studied together). I was in a new track, Leadership in Human Systems, which was a bit of both, but very short lived and more on that in a moment. All of us were very idealistic, forward thinking, progressive, and hopeful that we’d be able to help change the world, or at least some of the people in the world.

I say that the school was born out of the Human Potential movement. That’s probably an exaggeration, but it was staffed by folks of that era and used curriculum from leaders of that era, and employed a technique called the Skill Group (you sit in small groups of four and you have to stay in the “I” the “hear and now” and use very precise physical or emotional observations. You talk about nothing, but good goddamn the shit that comes up. I believe places like Landmark use techniques like this, but one of the differences with LIOS was that they felt early Human Potential work was overly intimate and created a false sense of that intimacy too quickly. “Touch and Tell” groups they called them. Participants would feel love-bombed and connected immediately, their remaining resistance seens as a problem. Mix that with charismatic leaders and you are in dangerous territory.

The leaders of LIOS seemed to grapple with that dynamic, trying to ensure that the growth and health of the participant and group was real and stable. It was messy work nonetheless. Real emotions brought up things to deal with and examine and come down from, and then the group dynamics work, or theory would be applied and examined. I found much of the work very profound and I grew immeasurably both personally and professional during that time. Now that I am a parent and have seen my own parent pass on, I think the work would have been even more profound.

All this to say, and this was a long and meandering way to begin, I think the core ethics of the program was highly idealistic and focused on an ideal that human beings, with the right communication skills, curiosity about each other, and self examination could really make the world a better place. It’s not conflict! It’s just a lack of “I” statements!!!

Again, I’m mocking my own desires here. I came into the program after a childhood that looked relatively ideal on the surface, but was marred by death, alcoholism, and a lot of conflict leaving the household fearful and sad most of the time. It’s quite possible there was some covert narcissism happening, or some other disorderly dynamic that often left me feeling gaslit and afraid. I was carrying a LOT of desire to find a communication style that would somehow magically end that feeling and immediately heal my relationship with my mother.

Dear reader, it did not.

It did give me more skills to manage myself and understand where I played that Family of Origin relationship out.

I still though, either to my credit or detriment or both, carry the idealistic and probably childish hope that if we could JUST communicate better, be more transparent, explain though our history and feelings, that things “things meaning…work dynamics, or poor politics or….” would improve. And, of course, there are places where that work.

You try using Family Of Origin and Group Dynamics techniques to get an angry anti-reproductive justice, ant-LGBTQ, hyper religious protester to leave the queer kids alone at PRIDE and see how far you get. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t work at PRIDE. It might work (on some micro level) one on one. The techniques help ME though, do better deescalation work.

So, I have issues. I have some weird built in naivete, or idealistic belief in humanity or at least how humanity could be somehow if we just owned our own feelings.

What’s the point, Julie.

We watched the first half of Alex Gibney’s “Crime of the Century” last night. If you want to watch a film that will nip your idealism in the bud, watch that one. It’s about Purdue Pharma and Oxycontin. All the Contins actually. It’s about how Purdue flooded the world with opioids, knew there was a problem, hid the problem, and allowed nay encouraged sales reps to just hook people on dope. Even with lawsuits, open records, evidence discovery, and more, Purdue is banking on their products, literally. My husband, who is delightfully more cynical about humanity than me said, “Capitalism removes ethics from the equation, or externalities like people dying of addiction,” referring to the clear grand scheme of profit.

Purdue might have believed this was a humanistic solution to pain care AND they might have realized the sales potential would make them all ultra rich AND they might themselves be cynical enough to think that only bad people get addicted, AND none of that matters because the end result is a mass opioid crisis in many areas of the US BUT it’s made them billions and billions and even the Justice Department and Congress won’t stop them. And in fact, didn’t stop them and now it’s not just Contins but Fentanyl. A lot of sociopathy on display in that documentary and I just came away wondering what I don’t let myself see, or can’t see all the poison in the world-Maybe I’d explode if I did. Maybe I try hard to live in that idealistic space because I do see, but I am beginning to believe the “it’s possible to change things” vibe I give off is foolish.

Like, if you have a problem of immense size, and it’s killing people but it makes you and quite a few others on high governmental levels obscenely right, I guess you just don’t solve that problem. See-White Supremacy. See-Misogyny and Homophobia. See-Health Care. See-Renters Rights. See-so many things to see and the dynamic underlying it all seems to have to do with capitalism. Hyper, unbridled, unregulated, cynical, death-eating, consuming capitalism where the body of the earth and the body of the human are just materials to exploit. Maybe there is no other kind.

And, this was one of the things that my degree program did not prepare me or any other person for, at last not in my recollections. Many of the idealistic creators and students of the curriculum were extremely well paid consultants themselves, working in fields like….the oil industry for one, but there were a lot of business people working or getting trained to help consult with corporations. Taking the gospel of transformational human systems into the gulf coast where they might make their working and administration systems much more functional, warm, and effective all while that newfound improvement helps to rob the planet of oil, which then…well, the rest of it right?

The track I was in was Leadership in Human Systems, right? It was neither counseling, nor corporate consulting. Imagine a coach/consultant who might help your church board be less toxic. Or your PTA or a nonprofit. That would be me, I guess. As I said earlier, it was a track that didn’t last long and I think in part because the graduates wouldn’t be making much money since the above examples don’t pay well. Not sure. My idealistic self though was all over it.

But here’s the thing about human systems. First, they are only as healthy as the humans in them, and secondly, I think that the system itself takes on an energy and power of its own. We are the country that allowed for the magical idea that corporations were individuals!!! Imagine that level of magic telling a thing made up of people that it is a people itself!! A corporation then (in my mostly metaphoric way of thinking) might take on life and a will of its own. And with most living things, there is a will to consume and survive and I guess replicate itself. What I’m trying to get to is that you can get the humans in a system to examine themselves, and you can probably even get a lot of those humans in the system to examine themselves and the system, but without a compelling moral reason, to move the whole system into health, that strategy will eat culture for breakfast (as Peter Drucker has said).

If a system’s mission is to make money at all costs (which is the underlying mission of all large scale corporate systems), then it doesn’t matter how healthy the humans are. They might come in healthy and leave in tears. There were clearly some whistle-blowers in Purdue, who joined up thinking they were bringing visionary pain support to people in need, and left realizing they (and the company)were addicting people to drugs. They couldn’t change the system, they had to leave.

And if you are a highly paid consultant, and get hired to help a wealthy corporation treat their employees better/build more efficient work systems/shift company culture to some vague state of betterness but you are helping a company that makes air to ground missiles, I don’t know what to tell you. I think you are part of the bigger problem, no matter how idealistic the techniques you use.

I mean maybe your work might encourage a few people to leave and walk away from Omelas, and for that I’d be grateful, but I just don’t know.

This was long. It wasn’t well thought out, because it is the first thing in the morning, but it’s just what I’m thinking about today, about myself and my own naivete born of trauma (or perhaps it’s been some magical built in personality dynamic), the level of cynicism that exists, and how on earth I find my place in it with the limited skills I have.

Can we make human systems better? Or is the biggest cultural system we are in so unhealthy that it should be chucked in the bin? Probably. Maybe not. I don’t know. I still have a whole two hours to go on Gibney’s film, so check back tomorrow.

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