Over a year ago I was walking through Sydney CBD behind three people with Surf Life Saving t-shirts on and I was taken by a slogan on the back of their shirts which said “relax, you have an immune system”. This was so interesting to me, because as we know, not many of us were that relaxed just over a year ago. Whenever there is an alternative viewpoint to the standard speak, it sparks my interest. Where is the blind spot? What are we missing here and is there more to the story? These people looked incredibly healthy and yes, remarkably relaxed. It made me reflect not just on human health and how to maintain it but as a leadership practitioner, on organisational health and how to support that too.
Organisational systems have a remarkable ability to maintain completeness. They persistently remind us when there are vital elements that we are overlooking. What does this mean? Sometimes examples work best….
Perhaps in your organisation a group of people left badly, with their contribution unacknowledged. Since then there has been a reluctance to embrace change and growth. Perhaps a particular role has its own story to tell from previous incumbents and now people who previously succeeded in similar roles in other organisations enter this role only to be ejected too soon, as if it has become a revolving door with its own litany of false starts. Conflict may occur between people in sales and compliance, yet they get on like great friends outside of work. These are all signs that your organisation has an immune system, like we humans do too. It is letting you know that something is sitting there unacknowledged and thereby undigested by your current narrative.
Just like humans with our ability to overcome pathogens and build a stronger, healthier body system, organisations have immune systems too! Respecting that often under-performance or conflict is not necessarily due to faulty personalities but can in fact be a symptom pointing to a deeper source that sits in unacknowledged dynamics is cause for leadership curiosity. Asking, “if I put myself in sales I too might be wary of compliance, why would that be the case?” could lead to an awareness that the give and take between sales and compliance over the last few years has not been seen or even balanced and it all began when one failed to acknowledge the contribution of the other.
The beautiful thing about viewing an organisation as a living system is that we can then begin the work to restore flow. The origin of the word system is “to stand together”. When the parts reconnect the whole is so much more powerful than merely the sum of those parts.
Now you may be asking, can I strengthen the immune system of my organisation?
Yes you can!
It starts with leaders acknowledging any patterns that are persistent across time and resistant to change. Working on patterns has a much higher yield than simply focusing on incidents and individuals. It creates opportunities for transformation and not just change. Resistance to change can be an easily misunderstood expression of loyalty to what has gone before. For instance, in a merger one brand was lost and one brand “won”, since then those working for the previous brand are deflated. How can the retired brand be given an ongoing place in the narrative of the combined organisation so that the previous loyalties can be harnessed for ongoing success?
There are so many ways to strengthen the immune system of your organisation. It begins with recognising that there is one, in the first place!
Get in touch if you would like to know more about how to strengthen your organisation’s immune system.
Vanessa Fudge, Leading Well