Increasing health in organizations

It occurs to me that because organizations are made up of people, the first question when something is wrong starts with "Who?" "Who did that?" "Who isn't participating?" "Who is the problem?" But I'm curious if "who" isn't the wrong way to start the question entirely.

Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan in their book, The Three Laws of Performance, say: The First Law of Performance states that how people perform correlates to how situations occur to them.

Once while working for Caldwell Scott, five-year-old Bianca came up to me perplexed that the Coke machine wouldn't work. When I went to help her, it didn't take long to see why not. Bianca had torn her dollar in half and the machine wouldn't accept it. When I asked her why she tore the dollar, she said, "So I could have a Coke and Katherine could have a Coke."

What would be irrational behavior to you and I (tearing a dollar in half) made perfect sense to five-year-old, Bianca.

The thing is, with children, we tend to ask about behavior we don't understand. But with adults, we assume they are seeing the world the same way we are and that their reactions are irrational. Moreover, we've been trained to think in terms of there being a "bad guy." But unless you happen to have a genuine saboteur, chances are there is no "bad guy." Just a group of people who aren't experiencing the world the same way and therefore aren't working together in harmony.

Which brings us to Zaffron and Logan's Second Rule of Performance: How a situation occurs arises in language. "No matter how smart or insightful people are, we are all prone to being hijacked by what is unsaid – especially the unsaid about which people are unaware."

Kevin Graham Ford, in his book, The Thing in the Bushes asserts that most of the time, organizations do know what is unsaid. They simply won't--or feel they can't--talk about it.

The ability to engage the unsaid is one of the most powerful skills a leader can develop. Because until the "unsaid" is dealt with, it will continue to haunt an organization. In churches--which are by nature non-confrontational--this is particularly challenging. Years and years of the unsaid can build up with people being edited out along the timeline without solving the problem.

Zaffron and Logan point out that once the unsaid is unloaded, there is space to begin to use language to transform the future. And believe it or not, language really does have the power to transform the way you see a situation.

Recently, I had a disconcerting interaction with a group. Their language revealed they thought I wasn't doing some things they felt I should be doing--and given that I only knew them in context of someone else in my life--I realized I hadn't been spoken of well. That she had complained about me to them.

And this bothered me. REALLY bothered me. First that someone close to me would air complaints without sharing them with me. (I didn't know there was a problem.) And secondly, because I actually liked these people.

The heaviness in my soul was erased completely by two simple statements uttered by Elsa-the-Poet when I told her the story. "They don't know the Cathy that you really are." and "If she needs for them to think better of her by making you look bad, why should that bother you? You can do that for her."

And suddenly, it didn't matter any more. It really didn't. It shifted my focus in knowing that their opinion didn't change my identity, and reminded me that my friend has a deep insecurity problem that she often manages with scenarios like the one above. Language changed my perception of the situation.

The language we use...perhaps better put...the stories we tell...can shape our future. But if we tell positive stories without engaging the unsaid, then it feels like whitewash. As if it isn't really true.

What if the questions we need to ask ourselves when we see an organizational "engine light" isn't a who, but a how? "How are the members we view as behaving 'irrationally' experiencing the world?" "How do we engage the unsaid?" "How do we use language to shape a better future?"

Those are powerful questions...and likely far more effective.
© Random Cathy
Maira Gall