THE AUSTRALIAN Labor party’s shakeup is a prime example of a system needing attention – in English terms, its due for an MOT. The latest leadership ousting of Julia Gillard by off-again, on-again Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has left Australians wondering what the objectives of our politicians are and how this internal wrangling benefits the country. Like the unfolding of a reality TV show, Australia’s political system, where leaders are judged on personality, race, religion or gender rather than policies, is producing apathy and at worst, a destructive precedent about how democracy operates. Is the current shenanigans in the Australian parliament an unhealthy system gone out of hand?
Over the last three articles in Professional Life, I have been exploring systems, our contribution to them and the importance of understanding the systems we work and live in. Despite the events in Canberra, seeming far away and inconsequential, their effects are not. Where once we talked of six degrees of separation, today this has halved to three degrees. If nothing else, these recent events raise questions about what leadership means, how our future leaders will choose to act and where Australian society is heading. For example, will that teenager who aspired to be a female prime minster be dissuaded from entering into Australian politics? How will political instability and public apathy affect the way in which Australia’s political system functions? How are Australians being viewed by the rest of the world and how will people react to us?
Healthy systems evolve to cope with changing environments for the benefit of everyone, taking advantage of opportunities for mutual benefit. Unhealthy systems benefit no-one in the long run. Without understanding these systems, we react in limited ways and produce suboptimal consequences and cause unnecessary stress and pain. Not being aware of living within a system or that it is taking a turn for the worst, can affect our perceptions of our world and the choices we think we have. Develop your awareness by asking yourself three vital questions:
How does the system operate?
Understanding how the system functions requires brutal honesty. Take a step back. Objectively assess the system — this means no judgement or blame about any failure. Consider what you might notice if you were looking at someone else’s or another system. An objective assessment can also help you identify unintended behavioural implications and unconscious biases. For example, providing extra scrutiny on someone because of their gender, race or religion may discourage others from undertaking particular roles — no matter how important their contribution could be.
With understanding comes the ability to rectify what is not working and strengthen what is.
What does a healthy system look like?
In a perfect world, how would the system function? By identifying a “best case scenario” that provides mutual benefit, we have something to aspire to. Without a benchmark, we are walking in a wilderness and positive change will be difficult to achieve.
What needs to change?
It is rare that a system needs to be completely reinvented. In most cases, small adjustments can produce exponentially positive impacts. It is important to be specific. One way to identify changes is to ask: “What would happen if the system continues as is? Then what will happen?” Drilling down helps identify where the focus needs to be, to restore the system back to health.
We cannot change what we are not aware of. Developing awareness of the systems we are operating in can help us make positive change. Maybe recent events in Australian politics are a result of people being unaware of systems theory. To develop healthy systems, the first step is admitting there is a problem or that something is not working — sometimes the hardest part of all. Then, identify a best case scenario and go for it. Healthy systems mean healthy organisations and societies – not a bad idea.