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  • Writer's pictureSteve Hearsum

Organisational health: it’s not a thing

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

One of the problems with the discourse around leadership and organisations is how things get, well, thingy-fied. The most obvious example of this is change.

I (still) regularly hear people say they need to ‘drive change’; a big programme for a client a few years ago was labelled as ‘Landing the Change’; change is something to be ‘lead’, a bit like a horse to water but with PowerPoints not sugar cubes; change is ‘managed’, in a project plan… Whilst there may be grains of truth in some of these, for me change is actually something we need to facilitate and wrestle with more than anything else.

The thingy-fication of complex challenges is one way in which we manage anxiety: if it is a thing, I can drive it, land it, manage it etc. The reality, that change in human systems is more about facilitating conversations, wrestling with culture, working with anxiety (in self and others), all of that we sanitise by turning what we struggle with into an object. Need another example? Brexit, clearly not as “oven ready” as Boris Johnson promised.

Time for the ‘Organisational Health Thing’

Organisational health is also thingy-fied. For example, it shows up in how mental health and resilience policies and programmes manifest in organisations. I heard a client recently explain how they were being told not to work long hours whilst simultaneously being instructed to deliver lots more work. I hear this in the NHS, where there is much talk of burn out; staff are exhausted after years of COVID and the rhetoric of leadership promising more support meeting the reality of patient numbers. How do you square organisational health in that context?

Building a healthy organisation, in the sense of one where the people who live, work and play within it can do so without damaging themselves or others over a long period of time in a sustainable way, requires an acceptance that it is messy work. As Richard Hale commented in an exchange with me:

“Deconstructing real world problems to puzzles that can supposedly be solved with the ‘secret’ generalisable formulae is illusory and delusive.”

The problem of how to create a ‘healthy organisation’ fits into that category.

So, what to do?

I am not suggesting that organisational health is not important or cannot be addressed, rather that we need to see it for the complex puzzle it really is. ‘Health’ means being free of illness and injury, typically. It also can refer to both mental and physical condition. If we are going to get into that territory, that means being willing to wrestle with how things really are, and that it is easier – and less anxiety inducing – to pretend that we can skip over that to get to a better place. Like the corpulent middle-aged man who thinks that the antidote to bloating out over Christmas is a trip to the gym without attending to the reason why the membership has not been used for a year, getting to grips with organisational health requires a more holistic approach and an understanding of what the actual problem is.

One way might be to treat organisational health as a function of three things:

1. People – it starts there, with the behaviour and conversations people do and don’t have, and with the choices about who is included in the decisions about what happens next;

2. Systems – the ways in which we organize;

3. Change – without that, all you get is better sameness.

In addition to these, it is crucial to develop self-awareness of socio-technical defences, those anxiety driven behaviours that lead us to move away from working with and in the discomfort to find solutions that, whilst they appear reasonable and logical, may at best be useless and at worst result in power being exerted in unhealthy ways, to no real ultimate benefit.

All of the above does not offer a guaranteed solution, and by attending to these, it may support a change in the patterns that are either sickening or improving an organisation.

Failing that, reach for a donut, kick back and make some sweeping pronouncements about a few e-learning modules everyone should do, because that always works, right?...

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