Organisational Health

The unwritten rules

A healthy organisation is one in which everyone knows they have an equally safe and respected place in the system; their skills and contributions are acknowledged and included. It’s one where the contributions of those who have left are remembered in a particular way; a way that allows those who remain and those who leave to flourish. There is a balance of giving and receiving that limits stress and burnout and an appropriate distribution of work and reward. People want to stay and bring their best selves to their role, they feel safe and know they belong. There is flow and people work with clarity and ease when organisational health is present. This level of organisational vitality is achieved by leaders who understand the hidden dynamics of systems.

However, accidental or deliberate violation of the organising forces is a very common cause of inertia, conflict and resistance to change. Unhealthy organisations create unhappy and demotivated staff whose loyalty is hard to access or maintain. These people become entangled in the system and it can become harder and harder to thrive. There are frequent dismissals and high levels of political in-fighting. Staff don’t trust the leaders and the inappropriate use of hierarchy and authority as power becomes the norm.

While it’s easy to blame individuals for these kinds of organisational dynamics it is often something in addition, something in the system. This ‘something’ is a product of the system’s own story and all the events and people who have belonged within it. Where the history meets the organising forces which sustain or limit all systems, there are dynamics – but these dynamics can be useful indicators and so also become the source for positive change.

This short introduction to a substantial topic introduces some of the key principles and practices when we look at organisational life and leadership through a systemic lens.

The fantasy

Although everyone knows that it’s not true many leaders – and their followers – try and act as if the organisational chart is a true reflection of the actual hierarchy and authority in the business. In fact organisational systems are much more complex than that and consist of multiple layers of relationships, sub-systems, hidden hierarchies and loyalties which are never spoken but are embodied.

Organisations are complex networks of relationships, of interdependencies and hidden dynamics, motivations and intentions. Unlike the organisational chart they are non-linear and vary depending on their origins, intention and history. Culture emerges from this mix and so is rarely affected by ‘culture change’ programmes unless the systemic truths and patterns are taken into account and respected.

Our traditional view of leaders – as special people who set the direction, make the key decisions and energise the troops – is deeply rooted in an individualistic and nonsystemic worldview. So long as such myths prevail, they reinforce a focus on short-term events and charismatic heroes rather than on systemic forces.”

Peter Senge
MIT Sloan School of Management & Society for Organisational Learning

Something in the system

Many different leadership styles as well as team and organisational development interventions help build relationships, create peak performance and influence change. However, on some occasions they may miss information, dynamics and resources held within the organisational system, so the benefits are not as effective or do not endure.

In many cases the underlying dynamics remain; in others the problem or inertia moves around the system and re-emerges in a different individual, team or department. As a result individual leaders, teams and whole organisations become caught up and entangled in complex patterns, which slow the business down and cause difficulties in culture, leadership and team performance. There is something in the system and when that’s the case only a systemic perspective and methodology will have any impact.

“All behaviour, no matter how challenging, makes sense when viewed in the context of the system to which it is an act of loyalty”

John Whittington

To understand is to perceive patterns.”

Isaiah Berlin

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