Healthy organizations are more likely to be successful then organizations that do not consider and prioritize organizational help. That is, a healthy organization is more effective, is better at serving their employees, is better at meeting their financial and the business goals, and is a better steward of shareholders’ money or donors’ money than an organization that does not prioritize health. The traits and practices of a healthy organization are not difficult or revolutionary, though they are unattainable by many leaders and companies, simply because they’re not exciting. The work of building a healthy organization is yeoman’s work; hard, valuable, and not sexy.
Much has been written about organizational health, including Patrick Lencioni’s work on healthy organizations, The Advantage. Lencioni’s work is helpful in identifying the benefits of organizational health and offers insight into why organizations choose to not be healthy.
One of Lencioni’s most astute observations is that efficiencies around intelligence and business operations are fleeting. Any well-run organization has access to the same intelligence and skill related to business operations. Lencioni argues that organizational health becomes more important and allows some businesses to thrive while others wither. In other words it’s not the idea or the team that makes an organization successful, it’s how that team works together. That is what separates success from failure.
As insightful as Lencioni’s model is, it places too much emphasis on the role of leadership in creating healthy organizations. Lencioni is correct that building a leadership team that values organizational health is the most important step, but Lencioni overlooks the importance of how smaller parts of the organization can disrupt or reinforce the message from the organization’s leadership.
While organizational health creates stability and encourages resilience, it is fragile. All of an organization’s work on health can be undermined by a single executive or manager who doesn’t understand the importance of congruence across the business. One team, hastily formed without effective leadership can undo years of healthy behaviors.
Traits and Behaviors of Healthy Organizations
Fundamentally, a healthy organization is responsive to insight and experience. Being responsive requires an organization to have systems and processes that allow it to receive information, process information, and integrate that information into the organization.
Just as importantly, an organization must have a learning stance. The idea of a learning organization isn’t new and flashy, having emerged in the 1990s or before. If an organization does not value learning and have processes to integrate that learning into the DNA or the organization, then all the information and insight is useless. You can learn more about learning organizations here, or pick up Peter M. Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline.
Healthy organizations are committed to continuous improvement. Since a truly healthy organization will always receive information and learn from the incoming information, it must also be able reshape and restructure itself as needed. This is different from the Silicon Valley mantra of “Failing Fast”, which suggests an organization tries new ideas quickly to determine their efficacy. I encourage failing fast, but continuous improvement is a commitment to making incremental, but important, changes as quickly as necessary to benefit the business.
Finally, when operating at the highest levels, a healthy organization will share many traits with a servant-led organization. Servant leadership, a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, is the idea that the highest calling of a leader is to serve those who they lead, instead of the traditional approach that a leader’s highest loyalty is to the company. Greenleaf’s book, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, is the best introduction to the field.
Larry Spears, former CEO of the Greenleaf Center, identifies ten traits of servant leaders. Don’t assume that this list is only for leaders: these traits are just as vital in organizations as they are in individuals. Spears identifies learning, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community as the ten fundamentals for a servant leader or servant lead organization.