Ghost Roles in Organizations

In business, communities, organizations, Realtionship on October 6, 2009 at 12:18 am

We’ve talked about Outer and Inner Roles and a bit about the energy and skill with which roles can be occupied. In Relationship Systems work, we also talk about Ghost Roles, by which we mean people who are no longer physically present or events, which nonetheless have an impact on what’s going on in the system at present.

Not long ago I worked with an organization that hired me, to help them clarify the roles of its Executive Director and board members. In the two days that we worked together, names of people no longer on the board kept coming up. Each time that happened, I would suggest we add it to the Parking Lot, or the list of things we felt were important but were beyond the scope of our stated agenda.

In a follow-up session, we decided to get to the items on the Parking Lot. Those names of people no longer associated with the organization, for instance.

More often than not, these are people: a beloved former CEO or some trouble-maker whom nobody misses at all. Sometimes the ghost is an event. An illness, for example. Or downsizing that involved a massive lay-off. Anything outside the current team or system that continues to have an impact.

So there we were in a room full of ghosts. At first we called them by the names they share with the people associated with them. Once again: roles are not people. We were looking for the qualities of those roles that were “haunting” the system. Wicked Witch was one. She kept coming up again and again. We listed her qualities, and I asked if everyone was ready to put her out of the room—so we could decide on how they wanted to work with the ghost.

“Yes!” everyone shouted.

And not a minute later, she was in the room again.

So I said, “Look. This high-back chair is the Wicked Witch. She’s in the middle of the room. What do you notice?”

“I can’t see the people on the other side of the room,” said one.

“She’s in the way,” said another. “We can’t move forward!”

“OK then. Are you ready to have her in the other room?” I asked.

“Yes! Yes!” said everyone. And I carried the chair out of the room.

And 3 minutes later, there she was again, so I carried the chair back into the middle of the room.

“No. No. No.” said everyone.

“Well what’s it going to be?”

“We can’t seem to get rid of her ….”

“It’s ‘witchy-ness’ you can’t get rid of. That’ll always come back. It happens; it’s normal. How do you want to be when that happens?”

And so we designed an alliance around that.

There were other ghosts in their system. The ghost of an aggressive young know-it-all, the ghost of a greedy landlord. And since ghosts are not people, we set about describing the qualities of each figure as we removed the ghost from the room. Then the group could better see how they wanted to behave with each other when those qualities re-emerged. Because they will come back. Not the people. The qualities: witchy-ness, or know-it-all, or greed, or disrespect.

Those are the qualities you want to become conscious of and be prepared to deal with in the future.

And it could be as simple as saying: “There she is again—the Wicked Witch. Remember what we agreed to do when ‘witchy-ness’ shows up.”

  1. Great post. Haven’t dealt with this phenomenon personally, but good to be on the look out for it now.

  2. I found your post entertaining yet valuable. Lesson learned, we need to live in the present and move forward.

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