Walking in downtown Chicago brings you face-to-face with the reality of homelessness. It's impossible to stroll the Miracle Mile without encountering homeless individuals asking for money and help. Seeing people with tattered clothes falling off of their dirt-filled bodies elicits strong reactions from shopping-crazed bystanders and tourists alike.

What most people don't realize is that how they think about homeless individuals is directly related to the type of leadership style they employ, and that changing the way they make sense of their reactions to homeless people can improve their leadership skills.

As a psychologist in training, I'm exposed to a wide range of theories that provide tools for viewing individuals, cultures, and the world. One branch of theories that are important and often under-utilized are called system's theories.

System's theories in psychology study human behavior in the context of complex systems, or networks made up of many factors that work together, rather than merely studying the individual. They look at the the ways in which individuals are embedded within various social and cultural mechanisms that influence and shape human behavior by providing or restricting access to resources. These systems include families, communities, states and national governing systems, and unique historical contexts.

How is any of this useful or relevant to leaders and the workplace? Let me illustrate with the example of homeless individuals.

Everyone who walks past an individual suffering from homelessness has certain immediate reactions. Some people see homeless people and think that they're failures--people looking for handouts because they lack the morality and willpower to work consistent jobs.

Others perceive them as addicts who only want money so that they can drink alcohol and/or use drugs. Certain people feel a sense of disgust when they look at someone's inability to take care of their physical wellbeing, and other rare individuals have a sense of sadness for the person's difficult circumstances.

All of these responses have one thing in common--they are all focused exclusively on the individual. None take into account the systemic factors that impact homelessness. And that shift in mindset--from an individual to a systemic focus--is what can provide leaders with the ability to positively transform the work environment.

Systemic factors that lead to an increased risk of homelessness include things like poverty, discrimination, and a lack of education. Substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence also play crucial roles in limiting access to community resources that may help prevent individuals from becoming homeless.

Many individuals who struggle with the above issues are at a systemic disadvantage because multiple parts of society make their ability to access resources more difficult. They are more vulnerable to quick-cash scams and have limited access to stable jobs that pay a decent wage, and due to these financial and psychological challenges, many of these individuals have problems accessing safe and affordable housing.

Looking at these systemic factors helps leaders develop policies that can help prevent homelessness by addressing the root-causes rather than merely focusing on the individuals themselves. Similarly, viewing individual difficulties at work using systems thinking, when used correctly, can aid leader's ability to create policies to increase retention and employee performance.

Leaders need to investigate unsatisfactory employee performance using systems thinking. They need to take into account the systemic factors that are impacting that employee both outside and outside of the workplace. Doing so will enable leaders to develop programs aimed to be preventative--attacking the problem at the systemic root--rather than wasting resources trying to put out fires that have already been lit.

The best leaders are the ones attuned to the experience of each employee and aware of the complex systemic factors that contribute to challenges in the workplace. By focusing on making resources more accessible to all in the workplace, the leaders of tomorrow will run more psychologically-informed businesses, leading to higher employee performance and retention.

So next time you're walking the streets of your city or riding public transportation, take a moment to change the way you're thinking about the people you see struggling for housing.

Challenge yourself to think about larger social structures that limit access to valuable resources, and then contemplate how to fix the systemic issues that perpetuate homelessness. Doing so will make you a better leader, a better professional, and a better person.

Published on: Mar 14, 2017