Leadership Perspectives – Organizational Health

Originally Published in the ALA Learning Exchange Newsletter – June 2021

Who is responsible for the health of an organization?

Usually people look to the leaders, such as the Director or Chief Executive, to ensure well being. After all they are the ones in the key decision making roles. However, their leadership is not the sole determiner. In actuality, everyone plays a role in ensuring a healthy organization. For those in leadership positions the challenge is to help everyone understand that they are a part of the solution.

So how does one determine organizational health? Many people think it is through the measurable outputs and outcomes laid out in the strategic plan. These can be such factors as visitor counts, circulation numbers, program attendance and more. Other factors such as employee turnover may point to job satisfaction. However, all these pieces are just a part of the equation. After all, you can have an organization that achieves its goals yet is stressed out and hostile. In the end, an organization’s health is determined by the strength of its culture. Strong cultures thrive no matter what the situation, while weak cultures disintegrate at the slightest sign of stress.

What goes into making a strong culture? According to consultant Tim Kight of Focus 3, the culture of an organization boils down to three components. To begin, every culture has a common set of beliefs. These beliefs lead to a set of accepted behaviors. In turn, the behaviors create an experience for those inside the organization and outside of it. The leader’s job is to ensure that these components line up to create a positive cultural flow.

Beliefs are the ideas that people in the organization value and embody. When people share similar beliefs it is often easier for them to work together. These values may be unspoken or written out in a formal document, like a culture playbook. Positive beliefs include such things as honesty, integrity, diversity, and kindness.  Weak cultures might practice selfishness, greed, gossip, and distrust.

Behaviors flow from the dominant beliefs the organization. When there is agreement on beliefs then behaviors become self-evident. For example, if honesty is valued, then lies would not be tolerated. If kindness is valued, people will think twice before insulting others. On the contrary, if greed is valued, then stealing might occur. If gossip is valued, then everyone will talk behind each other’s back. Behaviors can be codified into rules. However, organizations forced to lean on rules for compliance demonstrate weak culture. If the rules are only used to coach the occasional wayward employee, then the culture is probably strong.

Experience is the sum of the behaviors. Internally, positive behaviors create an employee experience where people are valued and excited to work. Negative behaviors lead to toxic environments that people avoid or do uninspired work. The behaviors also shape the experience of those who interact with the organization. Customers are more likely to return and recommend organizations with strong cultures. Weak cultures create poor experiences that drive customers away.

With this in mind, it should be self-evident that examining underlying beliefs is the starting point to strengthen culture. However, discussing values is more challenging than putting up inspirational posters. For an organization that has not discussed the underlying beliefs it may take time to surface them. While it can lead to difficult conversations, the foundation of all cultural change starts with listening. When leaders take the time to hear from their employees and provide opportunities for candid discussions, it can reorient the culture in a positive direction. Leaders that provide multiple paths for communication, such as town halls, one-on-ones, and newsletters are often the most successful in accelerating positive change.

Changing the culture is not an overnight process. In cases where there is distrust it may take many discussions and long periods of time to build new relationships. However, given how much of the day employees spend at work and the impact it has on their lives building a strong culture benefits everyone. Once the leaders show they care, a greater sense of responsibility will flow through all staff. When that happens culture becomes self-reinforcing and embedded in everyone’s daily actions. That makes an organization a great place to work and build a career. Finally, there is no better time than today to start the process. Be brave and don’t stop until you create a powerful culture.