Has your organisation lost its heart?

In formal management text books its difficult to find anything about an organisation's heart and soul. It's hardly surprising really, given management texts delve into black and white concepts and core management functions and leadership texts explore qualities and traits and styles.

Yet an organisation does have a heart, a spirit – the essential, most important part of a place that's experienced by all employees, as to how a place feels like and is like to be in; how people work together and communicate; what everyone considers important; how people treat one another; the organisational values and how they're manifest in the workplace; how management drive the place and acknowledge staff, their efforts and ideas; the organisation's rituals and customs; and its reputation, known by those inside and outside the organisation.

Organisations have reputations and some are widely known as either being great places to work with caring and supportive management and colleagues, innovative and creative, encouraging and go-getting or the complete opposite. And of course, there are organisations who fit somewhere along the continuum of Good to Great to Less Than. The concerning thing is that many organisations lose their good heart over time and management may not realize it has happened – their focus may be on other important things, like financial survival or the competitive marketplace.

Some indicators that would let staff know they are in a place that has lost its heart include:

  • staff within the organisation speak about the misuse of power from people in positions of formal power – lots of stories based on experience of harassment, overt and covert bullying, micro-managing to the nth degree, lying, misinformation tactics and staff being played off against one another
  • numbers of known ‘good' staff (skilled, ethical, professional) eventually leave because they find some senior managements' practices are untrustworthy or inconsistent; inter-personal relationships within the staff, teams or sections are frayed; great work, endless effort, new or alternative ideas are dismissed or ignored; staff are largely ignored only until someone does something that's perceived to be wrong
  • staff leave the organisation without any formal acknowledgement of the work they have done, their years of service, the contribution they have made over that time
  • staff who raise legitimate concerns get frozen out, picked on or subjected to a smear campaign; organisational issues are inappropriately personalized and the messenger gets shot
  • human resource practitioners' roles get reduced to risk management and legislative compliance and there is little focus on staffs' well being, their personal growth and development and their contribution to the success of the organisation; HR staff may find themselves powerless to deal with some issues as their views/recommendations are overruled by senior management
  • staff lose their trust in some HR practitioners because they're experienced as the puppet of the management, not a source of support and guidance for the staff
  • staff have no opportunity to provide feedback on their managers' performance yet the staff themselves are subjected to intense, constant scrutiny

How would management know the organisation is heartless or has symptoms of advanced heart disease?

  • increased numbers of complaints from staff raising legitimate concerns about how some things are being handled or managed in the organisation or managers hear staff are unwilling to speak out about inappropriate practices for fear of retaliation
  • an internal cultural audit reveals a workplace filled with anxiety, fear of speaking out; or management or staff practices that don't reflect best practice or basic professional behaviour
  • increased numbers of ‘off' staff – staff who may not like their job, their colleagues, organisational change or the direction the organisation; staff who are exhausted or seriously burnt out and lacking personal energy

How do the rest of us find out about organisations that have lost their heart?

  • friends, colleagues or complete strangers tell us about people they know who have been driven out of a particular organisation because they questioned the status quo, were concerned at the common practices within it, or they couldn't remain in the environment any longer
  • skilled, able people avoid working in a particular organisation because the organisation's negative reputation or the reputation of some personnel, is widely known

What can be done, to repair the damaged heart?

  • conduct a cultural audit every twelve months to take the pulse of the organisation – use an external resource to ensure an impartial view and recommendations for any potential changes
  • determine organisational values that are meaningful and use them as the yardstick to guide all decision makers (ideally, respect, fairness, integrity, professional practices and ethical behaviour should be in there somewhere)
  • ensure all staffs' personal values match the organisation's values
  • ensure managers, team leaders and supervisors have not only technical skills for their roles but also emotional intelligence (self awareness, awareness of others, humanity, compassion etc), interpersonal and communication skills, interest in their staff and concern for their wellbeing and passion – for the organisation, for the role, for the work, for the staff
  • require all staff, regardless of their role, to consistently model and reflect the organisation's core values
  • view staff as treasures and treat them with respect
  • develop systems and processes to identify staff in positions of authority who misuse their formal power and deal to those behaviours; develop safety mechanisms to protect staff from inappropriate management
  • manage staff who have lost their interest in their jobs, their organisation or their way in general; support them to get their interest back or find alternative, more satisfying employment options

The loss of organisational heart is a preventable condition. It can be reversed with a desire to be a healthy organisation; a willingness to instigate an appropriate regime of specific interventions over a period of time and a commitment to constant monitoring and adjustment.

It is time to give healthy, positive organisations the equivalent of the Heart Foundation's tick. For the organisations that have heart disease, a health warning could be issued to people who may wish to join it: exposure to this environment may be toxic and damaging to your health – extreme caution is advised.

Sue Dwan, Dwan & Associates Ltd © www.dwanandassociates.com

June 2010