Promoting Organizational Healing

Ever heard the phrase, "Work smarter, not harder?" Ever wonder, as I have, exactly what that phrase means? T've thought about it for a while and have some thoughts I'd like to explore in this article.

The root ofthe verb to heal comes from our ancestors' English word hal, meaning whole. So, to heal means to make whole. Wholeness is the result of what happens when we heal. We usually think ofthis phrase as applying to ourselves as individuals. How does healing apply to organizations?

Just as we as individuals sometimes become sick or tired, organizations too can become frayed, not entirely smooth functioning. This organizational dis-ease may happen for a variety of reasons: change in personnel, an upset between two strong personalities, a general manager and a board of directors who don't work well together, conflicting interests, personal agendas.... In general, the organization takes a step down in its ability to function well during and also following a stressful event or set of circumstances.

If this stressor event is not addressed by the people involved, a lasting impact is felt within the organization, although people close to the situation often don't even realize what has happened or that anything at all has happened. It is important to acknowledge these stressor events so they can be put to rest.

An important example of this principle is occurring in South Africa in the operation of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Commission was estabished by the Nelson Mandala-led government to bring some healing out of the atrocities which had been committed during the years of apartheid, a legal system of perpetuating racial segregation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in a recent interview (Bill Moyers, "Facing the Truth," March 1999, PBS), "The past has a way ofhaunting you. It doesn't just go away and lie down quietly." Perpetrators of apartheid can apply for amnesty to the Truth Commission, and amnesty is granted if all parties feel the truth has been told. Again, Archbishop Tutu, "We're not seeking to belittle or even prosecute the perpetrators, we're saying that lies and torture and murder matter; human beings are moral people who need to confront these acts of violence." As a South African news reporter also interviewed by Moyers stated, "The Truth Commission is about people of this country making peace with their past."

Communication, acknowledgment

The process of acknowledging a painful situation involves honest communication among all parties involved. Soul searching becomes part of this process as all parties reflect on their part of the drama. All parties must be able to listen respectfully to others who share their perceptions of what occurred and how it impacted them and the cooperative.

As a group, the people involved need a realistic sense of what happened, and individual pain needs to be acknowledged by the group. Some sort of celebration or way to honor the honesty which was shared may be a part of the healing process. In short, it is not possible to put a traumatic event behind us without first acknowledging it and learning from it. And the learning occurs on an individual as well as an organizational level.

One organization I was consulting with realized that it needed to lay off about one-third of its workforce. In the past, when personnel shifts had occurred, management had kept things quiet until a big announcement was made, which had made everyone feel betrayed. The impact of this kind of decision making had not been a positive one - I had observed low morale among staff and much creative energy lost to private discussions of the decisions by management. In the current layoff situation, I encouraged management to allow plenty of time for the announcement ahead of the actual decision and to listen to workers concerns during the process. In the end, we held a ceremony to honor the workers who were leaving, in which all participated by sharing their good wishes for each other. It was a moving event for all involved and resulted in lasting healing for the organization.

Organizational wholeness

What does the organization which has experienced this healing look like or feel like'? What is this sense of wholeness we seek at the organizational level? An organization which has truly acknowledged its growing pains has broad, clear communication channels which are open among all participants. People know who has whatever information they seek, and information which is needed to perform a job well and effectively is forthcoming. People are happy fulfilling their respective roles.

One aspect of this wheel of organizatienal wholeness is that interactions which occur between two people occur without the organization's hierarchy getting in the way. Each person participates in the day-to-clay flow in an equal, balanced way; rank is not interjected unnecessarily. All are listened to, respected and involved, as appropriate to the decision at hand. (Certainly managenient may have more involvement at times and may make certain decisions but in day-to-day seeking and receiving information, rank is not important.

Another aspect of organizational wholeness is flexibility: a willingness to bend and stretch together as a group for the good of the whole. This type of flexibility ultimately leads to a blossoming of creative energies where individuals may feel comfortable sharing their ideas with one another. Mutual trust is built around moving toward a common, shared vision. There also exists respect for each individual and the unique talents each brings to the organization.

The work that occurs in a whole organization happens with a sense of spirit -- a conscious connection to that life-force which enlivens us all. The organization itself begins to take on a sense of liveliness which attracts new energy to the business. This spirit may arise out of a set of shared values, a common purpose or something even larger, as in a shared sense of community and vitality stemming from how we treat each other.

In a healthy organization, there is respect for the process of going away from and returning to the organization with new information. On one level this process of going out and coming back occurs daily as workers weave their work time into complex lives. On another level it occurs when staff participate in intraco-op activities, attend a forum or a conference, or when a board member attends a seminar on the board's role in guiding the cooperative. The healed organization is able to take advantage of efforts to acquire new information from the world in order to create a tapestry of ideas and information from which the organization may draw.

There is an attitude of gratitude for the challenges and lessons which arise on a daily basis, allowing evervone a chance to learn and grow. There is an ability to hold a sense of perspective about what happens, remembering our humanness and reflecting that back to each other in honest and respectful ways. There are group celebrations honoring individual and organizational achievements.

When a cooperative business is enlivened by this spirit and is moving with the flow, members are attracted to the business. Thus, the membership director, for example, doesn't have to work so hard to find members or seek new and better rewards for joining. Members join because they want to be part of an organization which is embued with this creative spark and which exhibits a strong sense of vitality and an ability to provide services that matter.

Relationships between people in different levels of the cooperitive happen easilv and with a sense of fun. Planning becomes a natural outgrowth of the success of the business rather than a prolonged process to be endured. Teamwork among staff members is spontaneous, and inter-departmental communications become a natural part of the day.

It's true that orginizational healing of the kind I have described is only one part of working smarter not harder. I do know that it is not possible to experience the joys of smirt work when the organization is plagued by pain and feelings left over frum past traumatic events. If we can join hands as a community and face our past together, realizing we all have things to learn from each other, healing can take place. we can put our past behind us and embrace the future afresh.

See other articles from this issue: #083 July - August - 1999