Tag Archives: psychology

Leadership, Stress, & Triangles

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.
Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

What if stress is less about working too much or too hard, and more about how we function in relationships? If you are a leader (check and see if anyone is following you if unsure), Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is a must-read.  Subtitled “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friedman’s final work (completed by family and colleagues posthumously) applies his theory of family systems to leadership.  The Psychiatrist-Rabbi offers this provocative claim near the end of the book:

“A leader’s stress and his or her effectiveness are opposite sides of the same coin…not because failure to be effective creates stress, but because the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.”

Of course, it is possible to be stressed from overwork; it’s not as if there no limits a leader’s stamina, regardless of how wise her or his functioning might be.  “There are limits to everyone’s strength,” says Friedman, “but it takes less weight to strain your body if you attempt to lift the object from certain positions.”  So it is with our position in relational systems.

For Friedman, the primary relational unit of concern is the triangle: a triangle is a relationship between any three persons, organizations, or entities.  Two parents and a child, or a husband, wife, and mother-in law, or you, your supervisor, and the company – all of these are examples of triangles.  As you may guess, they are all around us.  Friedman insists that it is how we function in these relational triangles that determines our effectiveness as leaders (which, as we’ve established, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress).  Here’s where leadership, stress, and triangles come together:

“The stress on leaders (parents, healers, mentors, managers) primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons (members of the family, and two sides to an argument) or any person or system plus a problem or a goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates detriangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating.  Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.”failure of nerve

In other words, there is a “sweet spot” for leaders, somewhere between being aloof and unconnected and being over-identified and in the muck.  Friedman describes this this carefully negotiated relational position as “differentiation,” in which one is connected to two others in conflict while maintaining a healthy sense of self with the boundaries which that entails.

Friedman’s language is somewhat arcane, and you would need to read this and/or Generation to Generation to grasp the full lexicon.  Hopefully this sample is helpful, and encourages you to go out and read more for yourself.  A Failure of Nerve tops my list when other pastors and leaders ask me for book recommendations.

For now, think of it this way: how much of your work or family stress is related to undo ownership for the relationships of others?  When I think about my early ministry, that question is downright scary.  But I’ve found Friedman’s concept of differentiation to be immensely helpful to me as a leader, as I negotiate a variety of triangles and seek maximum effectiveness.  We’ll give Rabbi Friedman the last word:

“Leaders who are most likely to function poorly…are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to the irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.”

P.S. For further clarification on Friedman’s theory of leadership, check out this very helpful (and brief) video:

Source: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 219-221.

Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins [Review]

olkholm book

“What happens when we listen to premoderns who did not know they were doing theology and psychology at the same time?” 

What can ancient Christian ascetics teach us today? According to Dennis Okholm, an Anglican priest and professor of theology, a great deal indeed.  In his new book Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks, Olkholm builds a compelling case that much of the wisdom of Christian monastic discipline is quite compatible with contemporary psychological perspectives.

Olkholm proceeds by way of an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins (originally eight “bad thoughts” in the Eastern tradition).  In most chapters, his approach is a combination of examining classic Christian teachings on a given topic (lust, greed, vainglory, gluttony, etc.), putting that into conversation with contemporary psychology, and then exploring through both lenses how to cure the soul from the particular passion in question.  This passage from the chapter on anger is representative of Olkholm’s fascinating approach throughout:

“Nonetheless, we have seen that in the case of anger management modern secular psychology has not progressed beyond the insights of these ancient Christian psychologists and that the moderns have in a few cases reversed their theories only to ‘arrive’ at the conclusions reached by ascetic theologians 1,500 years ago.” (115)

While his insights, culled from both ancient and modern sources, are quite interesting, there are a few critical points worth noting.  Olkholm uses many of the same Fathers repeatedly; in some places, it almost feels as if one is reading a treatise on Evagrius and Cassian on the Seven Deadly Sins (other common interlocutors include Benedict and Aquinas).  Thus, it would have been nice to see a bit more variety from early Christian teaching.  Additionally, there is probably a bit more contemporary psychology in Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins than one would expect from reading the front and back covers.  Moreover, other than a couple of blurbs on the back from folks with psychological credentials, it is hard to see where Olkholm’s expertise in mental illness and psychological disorders originates.  A forward from someone with such credentials would have provided a bit more confidence in the author’s psychological conclusions. (As an aside, I cannot wait to share this book with friends who have more psychotherapy training than I – which is to see any at all.)

On the whole, however, Dennis Olkholm has contributed a great deal in this new volume to our understanding of ancient Christian wisdom and how it might inform and even bolster contemporary psychological findings.  Students of spirituality, ancient Christianity, and counseling will all benefit from this work.  For preachers, I would also recommend this as a resource for a study or sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins (it would pair quite nicely with, for instance, Will Willimon’s book Sinning Like a Christian).  The question at the top of this review, which the author asks in the introduction (p. 7), is a significant one.  I, for one, hope that others develop the important connections that Dennis Olkholm has made even further, for the benefit not just of the therapist’s couch but for the church as a whole.

You are Not an Independent Thinker

BubbleBoy
Living in a bubble is safe, but it can also make us hostile to what is outside. Courtesy WikiSein, the Seinfeld Encyclopedia.

What if we aren’t the independent thinkers that we fancy ourselves to be?

One of the most troubling aspects of debate in today’s church and society is the regionalism that seems so triumphant.  Why is it that certain regions should be associated with, say, gun rights on the one hand, or other areas known for environmental concerns?  Why are churches in some parts of the world very LGBT-friendly and others more traditionalist?  Why is it that I can guess where most of my colleagues stand on things based on what seminary or university they attended?

Let me tell you a story about a series of experiments.  Some were done in the 1950’s and others were repeated more recently.  The basic purpose: to determine how much basic decision-making is influenced by being a part of a group in which one or more parties loudly advocates for the wrong answer.  Susan Cain describes these experiments in her marvelous book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  The earlier experiments come from a Dr. Asch:

Asch gathered student volunteers into groups and had them take a vision test. He showed them a picture of three lines of varying lengths and asked questions about how the lines compared with one another: which was longer, which one matched the length of a fourth line, and so on. His questions were so simple that 95 percent of students answered every question correctly.

But when Asch planted actors in the groups, and the actors confidently volunteered the same incorrect answer, the number of students who gave all correct answers plunged to 25 percent. That is, a staggering 75 percent of the participants went along with the group’s wrong answer to at least question. (Susan Cain,  Quiet [New York: Crown 2012], 90, emphasis added.)

Notice: a few loud voices drastically altered the ability of people to solve basic, simple problems.  When these experiments were repeated under slightly different conditions more recently, Asch’s conclusions were vindicated by a researcher named Bern and his team:

The results were both disturbing and illuminating. First, they corroborated Asch’s findings. When the volunteers played the game on their own, they gave the wrong answer only 13.8 percent of the time. But when they played with a group whose members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41 percent of the time. (91, emphasis added.)

Once again, the ability to give correct answers to basic questions is dramatically altered by the presence of a voice or voices giving incorrect answers.  Cain goes on to note that detailed exploration in the latter study revealed that the brain itself was affected by the presence of the group.  She concludes,

Peer pressure, in other words, is not only unpleasant, but can actually change your view of a problem.  these early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected – and dangerous. Most of Berns’s volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.” (92, emphasis added.)

We are blind to the effects of peer influence.  In other words, we are not the isolated “thinking things” (as James K.A. Smith would say) that modernity would claim.  All of us are influenced by our communities, friends and social environs, to the point that our brains are actually altered when we are surrounded by others advocating for a particular answer.

If this is true for the basic, simple problems used in the experiments above, how much more could it be true for complex questions like health care, abortion, and churches blessing gay and lesbian marriages?

Right or wrong – quite literally – we are influenced by the people with whom we surround ourselves.  This is why dialogue is vital, because retreating into the echo-chambers of our idealogical allies may make us less capable of coming to different conclusions, even though the people around us could be wrong.  It’s easier, of course, to only engage with people who agree with us.  Life inside the bubble can be quite comfortable.  The womb is a cozy place, but we cannot become adults there.  And besides, there are higher goals to pursue than comfort.

What do these findings mean for how we should seek answers to the tough questions we face? How can we be sure our convictions are not just groupthink?

At the very least, this tells me that a hermeneutic of charity is always needed.  Because it is actually very difficult to determine where my convictions and the convictions of my social location differ, we should be haunted and humbled by this: I may be wrong, even in those those things that I feel most strongly about, and especially if I am surrounded by others with whom I agree. This does not mean we won’t, or shouldn’t, have convictions. But it should impact the way in which we hold those convictions.

What do you think?