resourcing strength

Once a year, or so, I make a point of browsing at length in a section of the bookshop I don’t usually go to. Business, home, New Age, Self-help, science, biography — anything other than fiction, poetry, cookbooks, or religion really. And then I come home with whatever strikes me. Good or bad, it will open up new lines of thought. So this time, it was Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.

Friedman has worked variously as an organizational consultant, a family therapist, a White House adviser and a Jewish rabbi, and the book is a mix of all these things. The main thrust of the argument is that when we are driven by anxiety, we tend to make choices that are maladaptive — choices that move us towards regression instead of growth, and that leave us ‘stuck’ instead of freeing us from the problems that threaten to engulf us.

In a society driven by anxiety, therefore, the only hope is for ‘leaders’ (by which he means everyone ‘from parents to presidents’) to gain enough emotional distance from the dominant patterns around them that they can model a different way of being.

So far so obvious.

But he makes one observation that has stayed with me all week. He says that too often, in maladaptive patterns, we herd around weakness. That is, in a poorly functioning group (family, church, community, nation) our group processes adapt to that of the most immature members and we organize around dysfunction.

That seems counter intuitive at first. But it doesn’t take long to think of all the classrooms that fail because of one unruly pupil, all the families that crash because everyone is trying to dance around the most difficult member, all the visions that die because one or two people refuse to engage with change.

Friedman argues that instead of organizing around dysfunction, we should be resourcing strength: throwing all our support behind the strongest members of the group, giving our time, money and energy to those best able to self-differentiate and maintain emotional distance, because it is only when the natural ‘leaders’ are free to lead that the group gets ‘unstuck’ and can begin to grow.

So, I have been wondering: what would it mean to resource strength? Would it mean, in one’s own life, putting more time into the things one does well, and not worrying so much about the rest? Would it mean, in the church, focusing on the points of growth, the points of potential — trusting that the trouble spots would sort themselves out if the climate changed?

It is a strangely liberating idea.

And for a natural pessimist like me (redemption doesn’t allow us to remain pessimists, but we all have an initial base line) — for a natural pessimist like me, the very exercise of naming the strengths and affirming the points of growth seems like a good idea.

So, that’s the game for this week: what strengths should we be resourcing — in ourselves, in our communities, in our churches?

For those who can be bothered, there’s another bit of the argument and a quotation that made me laugh below…
Friedman draws on Paul McLean’s theory of the triune brain which describes the parts of the human brain in terms of their evolutionary origins. The reptilian brain is the oldest part of our brain and controls instinct; the mammalian brain manages emotions, relationships and playfulness; then there is the distinctly human brain that deals with complex and abstract thought. The theory is that no matter how rational we sound, or how rational we think we are being, if there is enough anxiety in a situation, we are thrown back to our reptilian processes. Therefore, in any given situation, you can have people sounding like sound, rational adults, but behaving like snakes — and it helps to recognize that. So, Friedman quotes a CEO’s ‘aha’ moment, in reflecting on his team:

I was fond of using the ‘circle-the-herd’ model when I wanted to ’round-up’ my managers. If you bring in the herd, and find you have left one or two stragglers, it is very hard to get them to come in alone unless you take the entire herd out, circle them round again, and have the togetherness that forces the stragglers in… I never knew why this didn’t work with some of my branch chiefs, but now I understand. Circling the herd works on the mammalian braid, and I’ve been trying to use it on reptiles — rattlers no less.

Ah yes. I’ve always wondered what that slight hissing sound was in the corner of difficult meetings…

7 thoughts on “resourcing strength

  1. Interesting enough that I have resolved to buy the book, anyhow. I earn my money largely doing things I cannot do – which is a shame. (Of course, I also earn it doing things for which there is a huge demand) And I do do it because of fear – this works, lets me eat, lets me appear in public decently dressed – the other options are scarcely near the edge.

    As regards churches it is even more interesting – you not only need to assume they have a clearly demonstrable strength, but that somebody can identify what it is and how to develop it. Currently thinking of the situation near to home, it would suggest developing non Eucharistic worship. BUT the real strength is perhaps sheer friendliness, and that OUGHT to be targeted at the community but it is hard to see HOW.

    Happily, I am not a leader. Today I really really want to be a tortoise with a shell to hide in, and that is what I am shortly going to become.

  2. Rosemary, since the author has died, and we wouldn’t be cheating him of any royalties, may I suggest you borrow the book when I’m done? What sort of work group do you have in mind?

  3. I dunno that I had really got that far. BUT the logic is that ‘we’ are not good at study groups, but ‘we’ are rather better at collaborative action. ‘We’ have lots of people who like to talk, read, lead prayers so if ‘we’ are going to play to our strengths, not make up areas of short fall, and given that ‘we’ plainly want to do something about our non-Eucharistic worship – this would be the moment to seize the bull by the horns, and start exploring doing. ‘ ‘We’ have the strength that ‘we’ don’t define worship in at all a narrow way, and ‘We’ are good, ISTM, at letting people have a chance to shine, furthering the cause of others, etc. et al. ‘We’ would probably enjoy exploring what more and other ‘we’ could do. therefore what ‘we’ need from our leader is a way of doing this. Praxis and not learning or reflection is ‘our’ strength. Something that lets us get on our hind legs and read for starters …. most of us love that. The growing summer was so successful because it was essentially praxis.

    How about – something on the lines of session starts with given materials, discussion on how it is possible to use them, and ends with worship put together involving those there. Just the very bare bones of an idea from a late tired person who ought to be in bed, but as this is last ‘holiday’ day does not feel much like going there. You are much more creative than me. The one essential thing is to trust, and having strapped on a parachute, to step out of the plane.

    This way of working to strengths not weaknesses makes very good sense to me because this is the way I do now and have always taught – both humans and other animals – and I may modestly say I have achieved really rather good results. Often if somebody is failing at a task, the thing to do is to pick something they are good at and make them excellent at it. They then learn how to succeed, not how to fail. Sadly much education is predicated on teaching failure. However, thinking over today, I do realise what I and I am sure others, most yearn for – is friends who make them feel successful, and not a mess.

  4. Thanks Rosemary, lots to think about. My first reaction is: ‘we’ aren’t as bad a at learning groups as you suggest and that is both, not either/or. The first Lent group I did was meant to be interactive and practical. The group quickly went silent, and asked for more direct information and (given the topic, and the fact that this was a ‘first try’) I therefore gave it. But the recent prayer group was much closer to what you describe — very much ‘here’s something, give it a try, how did you find it? what issues does it raise?’

    Enough for now…

  5. This is defo my preferred blog of choice (I’ve been following it avidly since Advent 1) – cats, recipies, inspirational theolology, especially liked the link to LCM and the ambiguity, possibly absence (I think not)of a scriptural context for the reserved sacrament. What more could any thinking piskie need? Well maybe a Molly to sort out the domestic mouse problem.

    I have been compelled to crank up from passive observer to active contributor by your comments on Friedman. We are a congregation about to embark on a totally LCM approach when our NSP moves on in April 2008. Today our post Morning Prayer discussion (happens once a month in order for the ministry of the word to be led by the people)was incredibly upbeat, and led us to consider how we could target our strengths outwards into the community. We agreed to produce a skeleton plan for discussion with out LCM mentors later in the month.

    Truely we are learning how to succeed when it would have been so easy to wallow in mess. So thank you wonderful exchange.

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