Organisational ‘Health & Wellbeing’

Organisational Culture – Part 6

Organisational dis-eases and mood disorders

In recent posts, various metaphors for organisational culture have been noted, with the ‘garden ecosystem’ and ‘human personality’ being relied upon to reflect the nature of the organisation as a complex adaptive system.

The human metaphor for an organisation can be extended to think about the interdependence of organisational systems being similar in some respects to the human body systems and moods, or mental states. Using human psychology as an organisational metaphor may permit organisational dysfunctions to be considered equivalent to mental health conditions, however, if we use a more holistic approach, the entire complex of human organ systems and mental/emotional states could offer metaphors for organisational dis-ease. Just as the human body consists of 11 different systems and a wide range of emotional states, so too can an organisation comprise multiple intersecting systems and sub-systems, and experience various tonal changes in its culture.

Every organisation is ‘wired’ differently, so no attempt has been made in the above chart to represent the interdependencies and intersections between various systems and sub-systems. You will have to make those connections imaginatively.

The range of human emotional states could also offer metaphors for cultural ‘states’. The ‘tone’ of an organisation on any given day, or in a particular phase of its regular operational cycles, may be likened to mood swings. Once again, the connections between cultural states in various times and places within the organisation are not captured in the chart below, so you will need to imagine these as they are experienced in your workplace. You will doubtless find some descriptors resonate, while others do not apply to your organisation’s cultural states.

Classifying Cultural Problems

The header image chart offers one way of categorising types of organisational culture problems, but it does not claim to be complete. Depending on the sector in which your organisation works, its structure, size, age, and other variables, you may well use different terms for similar issues. Alternatively, you may be able to identify additional issues and/or classes of problems.

When undertaking a strategic review, it is customary to perform an environmental scan to identify emerging issues that may need to be taken into account when confirming the priorities for the coming plan period. Traditional STEEPLE analysis, or similar, allows emergent issues in the social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal, and ethical domains to be identified for consideration. Most organisations are comfortable identifying such issues in the external environment, and perhaps with considering resource and capacity issues internally, but in my experience, it is rare for a cultural ‘health check’ to form part of the strategic review process.

Diagnostic bias

Accurately evaluating your culture, and more significantly for your governance role, the alignment of your culture (behaviours) with your mission and values, can prove difficult. There has been a tendency to use relatively simple metrics such as the number and type of complaints or grievances reported to management and/or the board. Where 360-degree assessments have been done, these have often been skewed because the anonymity of participants could not be assured. Blind spots can also exist where the key players simply can’t see the disconnect between the behaviour asked for and that which is rewarded (or overlooked).

Ralph Kilmann of Kilmann Diagnostics (and co-author of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) argues that it is helpful to engage an independent consultant to have confidential one-on-one conversations with staff and directors in order to both encourage openness, but also to get to the heart of any issues regarding misalignment of stated values and lived experience. That’s an expensive option for most non-profit entities, so arranging a facilitated shared reflection process may be your best fallback approach. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument highlights the culture track as the first of its 8 tracks.

Unhealthy cultural norms

Kilmann summarises some of the key cultural norms which lead to an unhealthy culture, and which necessitate curative and preventive measures.

“Being removed from the organization’s problems, seeing small pieces of the problems anyway, not listening to those who do know about the unique features of the problems, avoiding the problems besides, not trusting other people to help you (except your favorites), believing that someone else controls the outcomes, blaming others for having created the problems in the first place, punishing them so they won’t create these problems again, and not explaining why various solutions were chosen in the end—such cultural norms just do not work in today’s world. The result? Inconsistencies and inequities throughout the organization that lower both performance and morale.’


Organisational ‘wellbeing’

We pay attention to the health and wellbeing of employees and volunteers as part of our responsibility to provide a safe and supportive workplace. Health and safety perspectives have broadened over the years so that observance of RU OK days and access to employee assistance programs is quite common. The wellbeing of the organisation, however, is not necessarily recognised beyond its financial performance.

A healthy culture may have recognisable attributes beyond the absence of negative symptoms. Identifying those attributes for your organisation would be a worthwhile governance intervention, which could assist your team to cultivate more desirable norms.

An honest assessment of the extent to which your stated values and your reward systems align is a good place to start. If ‘respect’ is one of your values for instance, how is that expressed in board/management relations, staff relations, stakeholder relations, and in relationships within the wider community?

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