Five roots of healthy organizations

Five roots of healthy organizations

Five roots of healthy organizations 1200 800 Brook Thorndycraft

I recently had a conversation with a friend about our experiences with non-profit and community based organizations.

We both intentionally chose to work in the community sector because we wanted to effect positive change in the world, and cared about the value of community wellbeing. At various times, we both found ourselves depleted, stressed, and burning out because of the consistent demand and heartbreak involved with doing change work. The emotional and interpersonal toll of working for social impact is huge, and for many it can become hard to stay mindfully engaged. 

Over the years, I’ve asked many people what has helped them stay motivated and engaged in social change work when things get hard.

You may be surprised to learn that the majority of the people I have asked are motivated by the quality of the relationships they have with the people they work with, deepened by the extent to which they feel welcome, included, and valued in the group. Belief in the cause is important, but in moments when change feels impossible, it is the team’s relationships and inclusion that sustain them in the work.

Imagine that your organization is a tree. It’s important to grow strong relational roots in good times, so that you can survive through years of drought and difficulty. 

Here are five organizational roots you can nurture when conditions are good, to help you build the capacity to handle difficult times with fluidity and care.

Root One: Build relationships.

When I first started doing organizational development and conflict work, most groups and organizations I worked with did very little to prioritize building relationships, and even saw it as taking time away from “more important” tasks and priorities. 

As time has gone on, people have realized more and more how essential relationships are to the wellbeing, longevity, and productivity of a team, and yet many organizations still struggle to support relationship development.

It may be helpful to remember that when people feel connected, the time it takes to build those relationships is more than made up for by the time that is not needed for resolving conflict, boosting morale, and replacing people who leave.

Relationship-building takes effort, but can happen in a number of small ways that make the day to day work more enjoyable: Make time to check in. Take a few minutes out of the meeting agenda to chat and relax. Plan social time. Create a culture in which people feel comfortable to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with their colleagues and leaders.

Root Two: Create and renew a collective vision.

Make a point of reviewing what you’re all doing together and why. A clear shared purpose and an awareness of what inspires each person to do the work can help build mutual respect and a sense of being “in it together.”

What are the values that drive your work?  Which values are shared?  Which values drive people on an individual level?  Our values can motivate us to resolve issues and move past stuck points. The time spent on strengthening common values will be worth it.

Root Three: Grieve struggles and celebrate successes.

Non-profit and social justice organizations often work in a situation of scarcity. The work is demanding, there is a lack of resources, and levels of burnout are high. Often, when people talk about their work in this field, they talk about how stressful it is, how much money they need to find, and how terrible the conditions are.

It is absolutely important to have space to talk about what is going wrong, how exhausted we are, or how terrible everything feels, but there are ways to acknowledge and grieve the struggles and the disappointments without falling into hopelessness and cynicism.

Support honest conversation and recognition of the hard parts in ways that allow people to process grief and anger, rather than dwelling. Make sure to bring conscious attention to the many small successes and connections that bring us joy in our work. Perhaps a member wrote a thank you note to the team. Maybe a community group you run has found a creative way of addressing an issue with a landlord.

By recognizing these small successes, we reignite the motivation and strength to carry on even when we feel helpless. Find ways to grieve the losses and celebrate the good things as a team, before you go back to everyday tasks.

Root Four: Support people to take care of themselves.

Create a culture in which it is OK for people to take care of themselves. Encourage people to take breaks or sick leave, and avoid judgment when people have to miss meetings or events for personal reasons.

Try not to bite off more than your group can chew, so that if someone needs to step back at the last minute, there are other people available to pick up the slack. Take access needs around chronic health conditions or personal stress seriously, and ask yourself honestly if your organization rewards people for working beyond their capacity.

Support people to take care of themselves before they get to the point of burnout. It’s much easier to be optimistic and willing to work together when people feel that others in the group care about their wellbeing, and are willing to support them when they need it.

Root Five: Nurture different opinions, ideas, and experiences.

We are more creative and engaged when we feel safe to express different opinions and ideas, and are not worried about being punished or excluded for not agreeing with the majority. Cultivate an environment that appreciates disagreement and diversity, and understands the creative potential of differing viewpoints.

When people feel their ideas aren’t respected or taken seriously, or worse, when they fear they will be sanctioned for speaking out or for getting something wrong, this is often the basis of more serious and entrenched conflict that can cause deep damage to the group’s wellbeing. Find ways to actively recognize the contributions and ideas of everyone in the group. This will not only decrease conflict, but it will also lead to creative ideas that people feel excited about.

This does not mean that opinions that cause harm by reinforcing stereotypes or denying systemic inequalities should be validated or allowed. Ask yourself how you might be able to create agreements and boundaries that hold people accountable for harmful ideas, while still maintaining a general sense that disagreement can be generative.

These are just a few examples of the many preventative things you can do to help your group or organisation work better together, and be able to deal with conflicts or rough patches that come up.

The stronger your roots, the less likely you are to be blown over in stormy weather.

Want to learn more about how your organization can build stronger roots? Reach out for a free consult!