Corporate Health

Corporate Health

Shrink Rap

by Dr. Susannah Smith

Often, as a systems consultant or coach, I get asked to help resolve a conflict within an organization.  In systems theory, there is no such thing as “interpersonal conflict.”  Instead, any conflict is viewed as a falling out of role, with role specifically defined as “the attitude with which one takes up authority in relation to a task.”  Conflict, then, is viewed as a place to begin understanding the culture of an organization.  If one approaches a conflict as interpersonal (they don’t get along; they have a personality clash), then one misses the opportunity for a systems solution.  Moreover, if conflict is dealt with on a personal level, the organization will simply produce the same type of conflict somewhere else, among or between new participants, until the systems issues are identified and resolved.  Each conflict or difficulty within an organization is also “mirrored” throughout the organization.  If you are having trouble getting responses for timely procurement, then you can predict that every level of the organization is having some similar type of difficulty.

Every organization has a corporate culture.  In other words, organizations have their own personalities and value systems, and are different from one another, even if they ostensibly provide the same services.  For example, one could look at five Presbyterian churches, in five different areas of the country, and have five very different cultures.  Understanding the culture in which you work is linked to your ability to do your job effectively.  Every individual within an organization is a part of the culture, and got there for a reason.  Events that we see as arbitrary or random are actually part of the cultural creation.  We talk about “unconscious corporate culture,” meaning it is we who are unconscious of the culture!

Here is an example that blew all of us participants away: I attended a workshop with the Grubb Institute in London as part of my training.  The workshop was a study on group dynamics, with the focus on small group, large group, and inter-group dynamics.  The style was “Tavistockian”: an approach to learning that uses the process itself for learning.  No instructions are given.  We arrived with the chairs arranged in a spiral configuration for 24 participants and 4 facilitators.  In this configuration, most people are sitting beside one another, as well as in front of and behind someone.  In a nutshell, we struggled with trying to figure out what we were supposed to be doing, learning how difficult consensus and communication can be in large groups.  We then broke into small groups on about the 5th day of our 10 day workshop.  What a relief!  We were cruising!  Then the time came on the schedule for “inter-group dynamics.”  We arrived to the same spiral arrangement of chairs.  We were given 4 group locations, and no other direction.  We floundered around for, say, 15 minutes, trying to arrive at some procedure for deciding how to divide into 4 groups, when, suddenly, about 6 people spontaneously got up and walked out.  A few minutes later, another 5 or 6 people did the same.  I was in the third group that gave up any type of order and just got up and went to one of the 2 rooms left, thus leaving the fourth and last group.

The most amazing thing about this is that the first group were all corporate directors and CEO’s; the second group were all middle managers; the third group were all consultants, like myself; and the fourth group were the “odd ones”: one was from Paris and had a language barrier; one was very unhappy about being there….   There is more to this story, but the culture created the groups.  No one knew what the others’ occupations were until after the workshop, when we were trying to piece things together.  Pretty amazing.

When we begin to understand the culture in which we find ourselves, we can enhance and augment (if the culture is healthy), or we can decide to change a dysfunctional system into one that fits our values and philosophy.  Changing culture takes quite a bit of time, but it can be done.  I usually recommend starting with some form of a Needs Assessment, or Internal Diagnostic, to shed light on the current state of the organization.  From there, the group owns its strengths and weakness, and we eventually arrive at a Mission Statement, Goals, Strategies for achieving those Goals, and specific Action Plans for each Strategy.  Although this work is somewhat tedious and quite labor intensive the first time it is done, the following annual updates are fairly effortless.  With these tools, along with other basic tools, organizations keep up with change and stay ahead of the game.  Without them, most organizations fall into some form of disarray.  I think of it as putting in an adequate foundation along with proper planning prior to building a house.  Many organizational strengths lie underneath the surface in providing a strong, healthy company.













Susannah Smith, Ph.D.

Sustainable Energy Development LLC

P.O. Box 3258

Telluride, CO 81435

970-728-5234; 970-797-1112 fax; 970-708-0740 cell

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