Meaning Guide

How do you talk about what you’re not talking about?

Lessons in organisational dynamics from uncle Bruno

To my shame, the first time we watched Encanto as a family movie I fell asleep. My children did not. They were utterly engrossed. It was only when they insisted on playing the soundtrack over and over in the car that I started listening to the lyrics of the songs and began to wonder if the film was as clever as the words suggested. So I watched it again and it turns out, it totally is.

On the surface, Encanto is a straightforward Disney film about a magical house, with a magical candle that gives the family magical powers.

Under the surface, it’s like watching a family therapy case study in allegorical form. From the moment the film was released, family therapists were talking about how amazing it was to see a mainstream children’s movie contain so many subtle but accurate depictions of difficult subjects like inter-generational trauma, taboo, neuro-diversity, ostracism and so on.

This is great, but I think there’s a deeper level, which is what the film says about social systems in general – not just families but all organisational groups. It beautifully illustrates, among other things, the way people acting with the best of intentions as individuals can have their lives destroyed by patterns at the system level that are simply invisible to them. Worse, it’s often the fact that they’re doing the right thing as individuals that causes the system to collapse.

There’s so much richness to explore here, so I’ve divided this article into two parts. The first part below will discuss what some of these systems patterns are, and how the film brings them to life. The second part, which I’ll publish next week, will show how the story illustrates not just the systemic nature of the problems, but the key to finding systemic solutions.

There’s a final point, which I’ll also get to in the follow-up article, but which I personally find the most interesting, which is what we can learn from the film itself about ways of representing systemic concepts that people can understand and talk about more easily, and what this might mean for organisational and educational practice.

If you haven’t seen the film and would like to, be aware that what follows contains many spoilers.

Imagining emergence

The first thing to realise is that the magical house (if you haven’t seen the film, the building is alive and effectively acts as a character in its own right) acts as a tangible representation of the emergent properties of the family as a system. “What is an emergent property?” I hear you ask. Well, emergence is just a fancy name for when something as a whole has properties that aren’t present in any of its parts: for example, I have the property of being able to see, but that property isn’t present in my eyes, my optic nerve, my visual cortex or any other part of my body. It’s only when all the parts are interacting together that the capacity emerges.

How do you describe the emergent properties of a system? 

Groups of people have emergent properties too: we often talk about how you “get a sense” when you encounter a group for the first time, and we tend to use metaphors to describe it – warmth, coldness, dynamism, inertia, cohesion, fragmentation: In Encanto, these metaphors come to life in the fabric of the house. When things are going well for the family, the building is bright and dynamic and makes happy sounds. When things are going badly the lights flicker, cracks appear in the walls, and the house makes ominous groaning noises.

Seeing double

The second systemic idea is the “double bind”. A “bind” is just another word for a problem that’s hard to get out of; a double bind is when there’s a solution, but the solution actually reinforces the logic of the original problem. The classic example is telling someone to “be spontaneous” – to be spontaneous is to not follow instructions, so to follow this instruction means not to follow it.

In Encanto, the binds of each of the main characters are pretty obvious: Isabella has a boyfriend she doesn’t love, Luisa is crumbling under the pressure of doing all the work, Pepa can’t control her mood swings and so on. These aren’t complex problems, and they all seem very solvable – Isabella could just date someone she actually likes, Luisa could go for a spa break, Pepa could find a therapist and do some CBT.

Unfortunately it isn’t that simple, because one of the emergent properties of the family as a system is that every child has to have a magical power. This sounds silly, but if you take the metaphors seriously it’s really not. The reason each character is stuck in a double bind is that their “powers” are tied up in a higher level mythology, bequeathed as they are by a candle representing the memory of granddad Pedro, who suffered a violent death decades before to protect the family. The candle sits at the top of the house, out of reach of everyone, and if you remember that the house personifies the emergent properties of the family, then it represents the supreme good that binds the whole system together. It must therefore be protected at all costs – as part of the ritual in which the gifts are identified, each child is presented with the candle and solemnly instructed to follow grandfather’s example by using their new powers selflessly, for the benefit of the community.

What this means in practice is that each character’s foibles have to be re-interpreted as something positive, so as not to contradict the logic of the system: Pepa’s mood swings are reinterpreted as the gift of controlling the weather, Luisa’s servility becomes the gift of superhuman strength and Isabella’s narcissism is the gift of beauty. If you’re honest, every group you’ve ever been part of, not just your family, has probably acted like this to some degree. Here’s the pattern:

(1) The system I am part of (my family, my workplace, my house-share, my church, my political party, etc. etc.) requires me to perform a role, in order to maintain its own, higher level logic.

(2) I experience a dissonance between this role that other people expect me to play and how the world is showing up for me

(3) This puts me into a paradox: to continue playing my role in the system requires me to remove the unhappy feelings arising from the dissonance, but to do so would undermine the logic of the system that gave me this role in the first place

Take Luisa for example: Her role is to be “the strong one”. Everyone knows a Luisa. It’s great having a Luisa on your team – no one else has to do any work, because she will always take care of it, and because resilience is her unique gift, no one even needs to worry if she’s ok or not. Unsurprisingly, she feels a dissonance, because even a person with a supernatural gift of strength is still only one person. She can’t keep doing more and more things for more and more people forever. But that then creates a paradox: If she was truly strong, then she shouldn’t be feeling this pressure, she should be able to deal with it herself. And she has to deal with it, because to even doubt that her strength is a supernatural gift would be to deny the power of grandfather’s sacrifice, undermining everything the family stands for. It’s a tragic necessity that the one thing she needs to do – to ask for help – is the one thing she can’t do.

And here’s the critical point: she can’t do it not because she’s incapable or wouldn’t know how, but because it goes against the logic at a higher level of the system, and that level of the system is inaccessible to her: it’s an emergent property of the whole. Trying to solve the problem only reinforces the problem.

Playing a part

This is only one double bind, but you can follow the same pattern through all the other central characters – Isabella has to marry the perfect male in the village because she is required by the family to play the role of the perfect female. Her cousin Dolores loses out as a result, but is running her own pattern whereby her insatiable noseyness is re-interpreted by the family as a supernatural “gift of hearing”. Delores’ annoying little brother is constantly impersonating people in sometimes really quite nasty ways, but that’s ok because the family has decreed that he has the “gift of shapeshifting”. And so on. Everyone must have individual gifts, because these are what gives the family its unique identity, sustained by the memory of granddad Pedro’s courage and selflessness. It’s like a self-perpetuating machine for generating unhappiness and stress.

Forget the mythology and the animation and the Disneyness: this is the stuff of real life; these are the kinds of parts that we are all being constantly asked to play, not just in our families, but our workplaces, our schools, our clubs, our friendship groups. We all experience problems that could easily be solved at an individual level, were they not being held in place by the dynamics of the system as a whole. Unless we find ways to talk about and resolve the patterns at the higher level, our collective fates are sealed. But as a society, we just don’t have a good way of doing this. As in the film, one small mis-step and the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

Seeing through it

Gregory Bateson proposed back in the seventies that double binds like these might be a cause of schizophrenia, because the only way to resolve them was to try to be two people at once, one to live in the real world and one to live in the imaginary world required by the system. Even more interestingly, he proposed that people in institutions might have a better grasp on reality than those considered sane on the outside, because at least trying to be two people at once is taking the logic of the situation seriously.

This idea gets played out beautifully in the film through the character of Uncle Bruno. Even if you haven’t watched the movie, you’ve probably heard the hit song, “We don’t talk about Bruno”. The corresponding movie sequence is one of the cleverest things I’ve seen in a long time. Bruno is the uncle with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, who unfortunately can’t restrain himself from periodically just telling it like it is. It’s not malicious, but there’s no place for it in a system whose logic requires these truths to be unspoken. His “illness” has been re-interpreted as the gift of seeing the future, and the song goes through a list of his prophecies, as experienced by their recipients. As outsiders, given what we know about these people, we can see that there’s nothing terribly prophetic in what he says: Pepa is furious with him for spoiling her wedding, but then if you’re as neurotic as Pepa, and the logic of the family dictates that your mood swings are really the power of “changing the weather”, it doesn’t take a soothsayer to predict that it will probably “rain on your wedding day”. The problem isn’t knowing this though, the problem is saying it.

You will probably have worked with people like Bruno. Maybe you are one – the kind of person who can’t help stating the obvious truths that the rest of the group is trying to avoid. Maybe you have an uncle or an aunt who the whole family dreads sitting next to at weddings and funerals, because of what they might say in front of everyone.

And then something extraordinary happens: Bruno disappears. Except he doesn’t. He’s there living in the house with everyone else, he’s just been relegated to invisibility. He sneaks around (run the film slowly and you’ll notice him popping up in the background right from the start), living inside the walls and under the floorboards. Recall that the house is a reification of the emergent properties of the family as a system, and then notice that Bruno is actually spending his time trying to patch up the cracks in the walls – the cracks in the system that everyone on the outside is busily pretending aren’t there.

This is the position that many “systems” people find themselves in. I don’t know what the statistical correlation is between “systems thinkers” and diagnoses of autism or Asperger’s, but it’s not negligible. The point though isn’t really about what causes people like Bruno to see reality and want to talk about it, but the fact that theirs is not a viable role in the system, and this is the paradox that systems practitioners continually find themselves in: working with organisations that are running a very clear and destructive pattern, but where part of that pattern is to politely dispose of people who attempt to articulate what the pattern is. One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is where Bruno is sat at the end of the dinner table, but on the other side of the wall separating him from the rest of the family. People whose job involves identifying any kind of emergent organisational pattern (OD people, data people, coaches, architects, systems engineers etc.) will identify with this – sitting at the same table as their peers, feeling part of the team but not part of the team, knowing that if they speak too much reality they will likely be met with a wall of incomprehension, and that if they persist they’ll probably be asked to leave (“not a team player” … “too negative” … “keeps looking at the present rather than the future” …) And if and when that happens, it serves as a warning to everyone else to stick with the status quo.

This might all seem a bit depressing – if the act of unpicking something actually tightens the knot, what are you supposed to do? I think the film outlines the solution as well as the problem, but I’ll get to this in the follow-up next week. It may not be what you expect …

1 comment

  • Brilliant Steve! There is so much in here (and I have not seen the movie yet!). The idea of the use of language and the way we strive to communicate our systems concepts reminds me of Russell Ackoff discussing why few organisations adopt systems thinking – one of the reasons was he felt the language we use was for our ‘internal’ dialogue with other systems thinkers and nor for our desired audiences. He used his humour, anecdotes and everyday industry examples and experiences as a way to communicate systems concepts succinctly. I wonder what he would have though of Encanto…?

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