Organizational wellness & dysfunction – watching for the signs

Too often, organizational leaders equate “wellness” with physical health-oriented programs, such as giving staff subsidized memberships to the local gym, or adding health support programs to the benefits plan.

But true organizational wellness is much broader in scope, and the best organizational leaders seek to identify and address root causes rather than symptoms. If stress-related absences are on the increase, internal conflicts between people and teams is mounting, and there is declining productivity and morale, this can be a strong sign that there are deeper issues of dysfunction inside the organization. These issues directly impact the organization’s relative wellness and its capacity for peak performance, both of which warrant the attention of senior leadership and the board.

The International Institute of Management (IIM) has published an online white paper titled Organizational Politics: Symptoms of Dysfunctional Organizations by Med Yones that outlines a range of warning signs to be looking for if you are an organizational leader or board member. These include:

  • Management that stifles discussion and disagreement
  • Inefficient allocations of resources and unequal workloads internally
  • Poor linkages between strategic plans and actual performance
  • Constant crisis mode
  • Excessive fragmentation, turf wars, and empire building, with poor internal collaboration
  • Low overall productivity, high stress levels, and backstabbing

Since senior management is often an integral part of the problem – either as a direct contributor, or in terms of not being seen by front-line staff to be taking interest in or acting to correct the problems – it is more difficult to return to a positive state if things get too far. Accordingly, a better solution is to continually monitor the organization for signs of its relative wellness and act promptly when negative symptoms appear.

Potential actions for senior leadership and board members include:

  • Recognizing that organizational wellness is a priority and that it directly impacts long-term performance
  • Using scorecards and/or objective external assessment to get a good picture of current organizational wellness, and making ongoing use of scorecards and direct feedback a priority
  • Emphasizing collaboration as an organization-wide initiative, with senior leadership and board members clearly “walking the talk” (this includes the board providing adequate support to senior leadership for necessary changes)
  • Providing necessary training and coaching across the organization on collaboration approaches, and backing this up with incentives for positive behaviour
  • Not tolerating unacceptable behaviour (i.e., continual non-collaboration), including replacing uncooperative staff if mediation over valid differences of view doesn’t solve the issue

Similarly, the Booz | Allen | Hamilton consulting group has developed an online self-assessment tool called the Org DNA Profiler® that helps you to understand your organization’s cultural style compared to one of several “DNA types” that their consultants have developed. Is it Passive-Aggressive, Fits-and-Starts, Outgrown, Overmanaged, Just-in-Time, Military Precision, or Resilient? And what does it mean to fall into any of these categories?

Although not a detailed assessment of your organization’s relative cultural wellness, the value of the tool lies in its ability to start a conversation on how people see the organization. From there, it is possible to start addressing the root causes that are leading to the different interpretations of how the organization operates, and how to take steps to improve its relative wellness. **Note that the assessment tool has modified versions for for-profit and government or non-profit organizations.

The assessment tool builds on a series of articles about the concept of organizational DNA, including “The 7 Types of Organizational DNA” by Gary Neilson, Bruce A. Pasternack, and Decio Mendes in the Summer 2004 issue of Strategy+Business magazine (free registration required to view articles).

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