Organisational Sickness

I’ve found that organisations get sick, just like people. Sometimes the sickness is acute – it appears suddenly, without apparent warning – and sometimes it’s chronic – with longlasting conditions and ways of being, without betterment. Ensuring organisational health is an important management function and it cannot be left to chance or until sickness develops. What could you watch for and how could you do a checkup? The following checklist offers some indicators, but the list isn’t exhaustive. What could you add, from your own experience?

Inappropriate infrastructure

Management and other roles can be ill-defined, free-flow affairs developed by chance or by the individual’s concerned. The potential exists here for duplication or triplication of effort. Major chasms can develop with key functions partially done by any number of different people or conversely, not being done at all. If roles are defined and developed to meet individuals’ needs and not organisational needs, organisational mayhem will inevitably ensue. If obvious leadership is missing, or it exists and the role modelling is conflicting – say one thing, do another – that too, will create problems. If the organisational structure, policies and practices cannot adequately support the organisation’s activities, then the organisation is in poor shape.

Constant, major change

There’s no doubt that constant change is the organisational norm today. Yes, yes, we’re all required to embrace change, to welcome it into our lives. However, it can get a bit wearying, all that embracing, adapting and coping, especially if there is little or no time for consolidation or acknowledgement in-between upheavals. Wearying also, if there’s lots of people movement, sudden loss of expertise and newbees in key roles. It is stressful if the required change is major; if there’s change for change sake and there’s no obvious difference or benefits to be seen; or if the ‘mistakes’ made in the last three change processes, keep being repeated. Perspectives – of the path already trodden and the one ahead – can easily be lost. Staff, and therefore the collective organisation, can develop chronic (change) fatigue – and lose valuable enthusiasm, focus and energy.

Clashing Values

Organisational and personal stress can be created when individuals’ values are different to, and at odds with, the organisation’s values. After a time, discomfort and disagreement with the organisation – its direction, current activities or ways of doing things, may be more than some staff can tolerate. Similarly, management could find themselves wondering why some staff won’t do what has been asked of them, or why work is being done in a less than effective or enthusiastic way. If only the symptoms of mismatched values are treated, and not the core problem, personal and organisational energy will continue to drain away.

Organisational Culture

The values, behaviour patterns, traditions and rituals embedded into an organisation develop the organisational culture. If any of these become negative, and remain that way, unchecked, they will affect the culture and create mayhem. Poor leadership and management practices, sideways communications, rumour-mongering, poor and inconsistent management of staff, to name but a few things, all impact on organisational health. People do stay in positions because they love the industry but dislike or barely tolerate the organisational culture they’re working in. Tolerating an organisational culture that doesn’t ‘fit’ individuals, can impact on their mental, physical health and inevitably their work. Organisationally too, developing and sustaining a negative culture is costly. Clients notice, staff leave, or stay, unhappily, and business-enhancing opportunities may be missed because of the negative norms and practices.

So what can you do?

One way to test organisational health is to conduct a snapshot audit of the organisational culture. A snapshot is literally a view taken at one moment in time and can be done through a confidential questionnaire, with the findings collated and analysed. The questions can be developed around the issues causing concern. For example, you could ask: what are the organisation’s values? What traditions and rituals occur in the department? What is your experience of the organisational culture? If you were the managing director, what three things would you do to improve the organisation?

Another way is to conduct exit interviews with staff leaving the organisation – mind you, its good personnel practice to do this anyway. You can ask staff not only their reasons for leaving, but also what their experience of the organisation has been, their views as to its organisational health and what key issues would they attend to, if they were the CEO. Conducting regular surveys with clients and suppliers, to ask their experiences of the organisation, will also give valuable information.

Organisational sickness can be avoided. Attention to structure and ensuring the infrastructure will support the organisation’s activities, will avoid major problems. Good leadership and management; an appropriate alignment of organisational values with personal values; well thought out and orchestrated change management and effective communications, will also help. Attending to issues when they first appear will eliminate potential hotspots. And if you do conduct customer surveys and snapshot audits, do something about the information you get. Your business success depends upon it.

First published in NZBusiness July 2001

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