Case #2274.0

Holding Environments and Public Problem-Solving

Publication Date: December 12, 2023
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Problem-solving spaces are everywhere. Whether in a hospital operating room, on a construction site, or in an academic department meeting, groups and teams convene to ensure problems are managed and reliable services are delivered. The problems might be complex, but the professionals managing them often have the tools and skills required to find a solution. Certain challenges, though, put more stress on these groups than others, and their usual tools and skills are insufficient. Engaging with such challenges activates threats of loss (material losses, like time and resources, and immaterial losses, like power, reputation, control, autonomy, or competence), which people tend to resist or avoid entirely. Successfully facing such challenges requires leaders to develop and maintain a holding environment: a productive, problem-solving space where the “glue” between people is strong enough to keep them engaged in conversations they would rather avoid.

This issue brief explains the importance of building a holding environment for these kinds of challenges and is designed to help leaders integrate this concept into their own leadership practice. The first part of this brief examines the evolution and use of the concept. The latter part suggests steps for applying those ideas. Well-used holding environments can help larger social groups generate brave, creative, and adaptive solutions to overwhelming and complex challenges.

Learning Objectives:
This issue brief provides an overview of the holding environment concept. It orients readers to the evolution of the term and provides guidance for how one might build a holding environment. This issue brief can be paired with the HKS teaching case 2273.0, "Leading Pension Reform in Rhode Island: Building Holding Environments to Achieve Change," or on its own as a text in leadership courses.



Other Details

Case Authors:
Timothy O'Brien and Candice Crawford-Zakian
Faculty Lead:
Timothy O'Brien
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States