7 Steps to a Healthier Organization

Steve Geske authored this piece in 2010 which offers pathways to non-anxious, self-defined leadership.

“I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” Groucho Marx

How do you know if your organization is dysfunctional? You could hire an expensive consultant to answer that question. Or, you can take a quick test that I guarantee is 100% accurate. It has only one question. “Does your organization list you as one of the members?” If your answer is “yes” then your organization is indeed dysfunctional. (Just think about all the money you just saved by not having to hire that consultant!)

The term “dysfunctional organization” is redundant. The truth is, all organizations are dysfunctional to some degree. All organizations tend to perpetuate the dysfunctions of the leader/s who founded them. Volumes have been written about the variety of dysfunctions possible in organizations. Studies of this nature are largely uncreative and a waste of our time. The real question in any organization is not whether or not it is dysfunctional. The real question is whether or not the leadership is focused on building maturity and health. Dysfunctions need not be barriers where maturity can prevail.

Below is a list of things you can do as a leader to help encourage a healthier, more productive workplace.

1. Communicate directly, openly and fairly.

Leaders often find themselves in the middle of discussions about “so-and-so” and the work they are not doing. Tattling and sabotaging are normal reactions to stress by workers. Making alliances with “favored” employees, keeping secrets and talking about someone in their absence tends to increase anxiety and encourage conflict.

Direct communication is healthier and lowers anxiety more effectively. Being open and honest about your own position in a given situation gives good information to others that helps them make good decisions for themselves. Assuring open communication and equity with others and helping them to focus on themselves (the only one they can control) can go a long way toward encouraging healthy interactions in any organization.

2. Stay positive and emphasize strengths.

It is easy to point out what is not working. These situations by their very nature are almost always obvious. The truth is, no matter how crazy things get in an organization, a lot of things are being successfully accomplished. Pointing out what is working and helping others build on these strengths is more productive than taking potshots at the easy targets created by weaknesses in teams and individuals. Acknowledge weaknesses but emphasize strengths.

3. Pay attention to process.

Questions of content focus on who, what, when and where. Questions of process focus on how and why. For example, an employee storms into your office and slams a report down on your desk saying, “Here’s the report you requested!” The content of this interaction (what was said) is very different from the way the employee delivered it (the way it was said). Going beyond the mere content of actions and interactions and paying attention to the process can help you address problems quicker, keeping you from getting bogged down in the details.

4. Maintain a perspective of challenge.

The workplace is not a womb. While it need not be toxic, it can be a place where people are challenged. The most comfortable solution is often a poor choice for any leader. Like a good coach, you can frame those looming tasks as challenges and encourage your team to meet those challenges head on. Providing the resources and support that your team needs to do its job can help them to meet those challenges.

5. Encourage diverse perspectives.

Stress makes you stupid. So does anger and fear. Anxious groups like to “glob” together. Under stress, there is greater pressure to conform and go into groupthink. Appreciating diverse perspectives and opinions and valuing the role of the nonconformist in your team can produce an environment where opinions are invited and problems are more easily solved. One sign of a narrowed perspective is finding yourself choosing between one of two options. There are many solutions to most problems. If you can only see two of them, you aren’t looking hard enough.

6. Look for the problem behind the symptom.

Almost all problems are symptoms of something systemic. For example, when an employee has a high rate of absenteeism, this is often a symptom of a larger problem in the home or the workplace. It is necessary to address this by looking beyond the obvious or specific problem to the larger systemic problem. This can give you greater leverage as a leader to arrive at real solutions rather than providing mere “band-aids.”

7. Focus on direction rather than present conditions.

Progress on a project or task is by definition incremental. Good leaders will look beyond the ground beneath everyone’s feet to the road that lies ahead. Looking at the present status of a problem can be overwhelming. Encouraging others by reminding them of their progress and refocusing them on the road ahead can reduce panic and keep everyone on track.

With resources at an all time low and the stakes higher than ever, leaders can easily become reactive in today’s organization. Often, leaders get caught in the role of firefighter in an attempt to address the growing problems of the tangle of tasks and temperaments. In reality these are often symptoms of a general decline in the health of an organization. Chasing symptoms leads to a frustrating cycle of reactivity that often fails to achieve real solutions to the ever-growing, complex problems of today.

This frustrating and unproductive cycle can be broken by taking a proactive approach to fostering healthy interactions and perspectives that will prevent problems downstream. (Hint: You will know you are going the right direction when you notice people starting to sabotage you. But THAT is for another newsletter.)

Peace and Courage,

Steve Geske

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