Linda Clark-Borre

Helping Ailing Cultures Heal

04/26/2012 14:25

I’ve been studying the effects of dysfunctional leadership upon systems the past few years, asking questions ranging from “What leads people to remain in toxic work environments?” to “How do unhealthy work cultures persist despite leaders’ intentions for positive change?”

Of course I've been part of all kinds of organizations in my life and career. Through long hours spent working through elements of the non-profit world I’m in now and others like it - and including work with legislators, advocacy groups, and other systems with which we interact - I conclude the following, obvious though each point may be:

  1. Any organization is unavoidably the sum total of the individuals that comprise it. Those individuals together cast the mold in which the company eventually shapes itself, and has a profound effect upon its character, reputation, and its future.
  2. If a system is disorganized, its people are too, and inevitably frustrated and angry.
  3.  A leader’s vision is crucial, and so are good basic administrative processes. But companies are made or are hampered by the individuals within it as they go about their daily business. In essence: sometimes leaders offer scarce long-term value. Why should they be supported indefinitely?

This basic stuff is often disregarded as complaints and wheel-spinning live on.  If taken into account and addressed, and I can now speak from experience, communication improves, results are achieved, and people are better able to account for what it is exactly they do in their working lifetimes. Remarkably, new paths emerge to futures barely conceived of in the past. It’s a great way to work, even in a depressing economy where uncomfortable uncertainty persists. There is some measure of security in what we know we have done….can do.

It’s a culture of respect.

So, why does dysfunction persist in organizations when there is so much valuable ground to be gained?  It’s hard to say exactly; but well underway with our own transformative process, alongside my own extended team -I think I understand why these fairly simple and straightforward points aren’t given the attention they deserve.

First, virtual fields of frozen ice need to be broken. Embedded ideas, unexamined perceptions, and unresolved problems of the past have to be mined and dealt with. This requires that time be given to the process, and the workplace made safe enough so that people can get past fears that permeate unhealthy cultures.

I began with the Strengthsfinder approach when I first arrived where I am currently, which attuned us all to our individual and collective strengths.  That knowledge formed the early basis of our communication with one another, and helped us almost immediately build better project teams around pressing issues. Through time, though, something else was required to really push forward into new levels of performance once individual and team strengths were unlocked.

 This is where Person Centered Planning comes in. Also referred to as Person Centered Thinking (PCT) or Person Centered Practices, it was originally conceived as a tool to provide services and support to people with developmental disabilities, putting a person at the center of an inquiry process designed to bring about significant, lasting change. It works through the efforts of a supportive team dedicated to finding ways to discover an often non-verbal person’s needs and desires.  Methods of motivation toward growth and development are revealed through the process. Goals are conceived and definitive steps leading toward progress are identified.

 I have seen this method successfully used in individuals I would have at one time never thought could be supported this way; I’ve seen people unfold to new potential with the right plans and support in place, none of which could have occurred had we not found new ways to carry significant conversations.

It’s a culture-building tool that can transform personal relationships, thereby enabling a community to form in an uncontrived way. Clearly this has relevance to organizations, too, where the idea translates to a focus, first, on each person inside an organization to find the baseline heartbeat of the company itself. Is it strong, weak, irregular, fading fast?

Now, substitute the word “company” for person. Make the company the object of focus the same way a person might be – for what is a company other than a collective body of individuals? What identity does the company claim (mission-wise)? How does the company want to be identified? Where does the company desire to gain influence? How can individuals help make this happen? How do we keep learning about this entity, the company, to nurture positive change and keep the momentum going?

I wanted to share this because it’s exciting and energizing and enriches our workdays. I know full well that occasionally a dysfunctional, even toxic environment may not “want to be changed” because it thinks it profits in other ways through some overt or hidden agenda I won’t judge here.

I still believe that deep inside we desire a positive work life experience. Politics within our organizations can make that difficult.  

But thinking it through –politics by definition is the total complex of relations between people living in society. We can see that as constraining, and yet there also a great deal of opportunity for good things to emerge from that complexity of relations between people united under the same banner, whatever the banner represents. If we get the “united” part right, manifest in a common culture, there’s plenty of room for varied personalities and disagreement, even the occasional conflict that keeps us all growing. (As an aside, within every cynic I think some measure of Socrates may be found).

So if you are building or running an enterprise, or even parenting one or more children, here’s a link to a paper from the UK – Using Person-Centered Practices within Organizations and Teams, which you may find interesting.–-a-new-paper-by-helen-sanderson,-mary-beth-lepkowsky,-michelle-livesley-and-ruth-gorman.aspx

Well outside the social service sector, with a little effort and some adaptation, it’s fairly easy to see how the fundamental principles could be adapted to transform ailing cultures anywhere. Apply some of these tools and see all kinds of group-work become more effective.

I recently reviewed some of my past writings on the topic of creating teams and changing culture. The paragraph below is from a paper published in 2001, when I was writing for leaders, not as one of them.

Renewal happens in tense situations when people feel inspired and enabled to function at the highest levels of competency they can achieve. Peter Koestenbaum reminds us “that you don’t teach (leading edge) ideas: you challenge them into existence, not by technique but by a commitment to greatness, and through the demonstration of courage.” In short, the work of reinvention ultimately is accomplished through constructive dialogue and by the example of committed individuals whose vision is attuned to possibility. They are our leaders, and we need them now more than ever.

A decade later I more deeply understand how much we need to change the way conversations happen between individuals regardless of their assigned roles in work or in life.  “The world is full of people who have stopped listening to one another,” said Joseph Campbell in 1988. He had that right; it's the root of most of our problems. Yes, we need leaders, and just as importantly we all need one another.

Enabled through an enriched level of dialogue, as we model the change we wish to see, we demonstrate leadership even if that’s not our official role. If everyone around us thought similarly we’d be in powerful company, which is what we want our organizations to be – powerful, effective, and unabashedly “good.”

Person centered thinking is one way to get there, and we’ll be doing studies to measure our effectiveness on many levels as we proceed.