Throughout my 18-year corporate career, I had the pleasure of working in a number of very positive, healthy and thriving cultures. However, I can say the opposite was equally true – there were many cultures I interacted with and worked within that were “diseased,” troubled and failing.
Now, in my executive and career coaching work, I see that the executive, entrepreneur or manager who comes to me for help is most often not the problem at all: It’s the troubled or even dysfunctional culture he or she is expected to thrive in that’s at the root of the challenge. In my training as a marriage and family therapist, I’ve been lead to see how our work and family cultures are actually “systems” that operate in the same ways every other system in nature does. When you view your environment and culture as an energy system, entirely new solutions to critical problems emerge.
To learn more about how to view our organizations as energetic ecosystems, and heal them, I was thrilled to catch up with Ora Grodsky, cofounder of Just Works Consulting. Ora’s work helps leaders, managers, and organizations working for social justice to thrive. Her specialization is helping organizations succeed by facilitating new change initiatives, strategic planning, leadership development, and meaningful conversations, and she’s worked with such impactful clients as Oxfam America, The City of Cambridge, Red Tomato, Bikes Not Bombs, and Third Sector New England. With two decades of expertise in organizational development, her company builds tailored solutions that tap into the most creative and effective practices from the nonprofit, cooperative and ethical business sectors.
Here’s what Ora shares about healing our work cultures by understanding them as energetic ecosystems:
Kathy Caprino: You have been an organizational development consultant for many years, although in your first career you were an acupuncturist. What sparked your interest in organizational development?
Ora Grodsky: When I was an acupuncturist I had the honor of serving for several years as the academic dean of an acupuncture school. I also co-founded a public health clinic serving people with AIDS and HIV infection during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Through both of those experiences I saw how healthy organizations can get important work done and also support growth and creativity. I also saw how organizations can become unhealthy and dysfunctional. Increasingly, I became curious about creating effective and thriving organizations. Over 20 years ago, my curiosity led me back to graduate school and to a career in organizational development consulting.
Caprino: How do you see organizational development connected to acupuncture?
Grodsky: I sometimes describe myself as an organizational acupuncturist. While I no longer use needles to help my clients heal, acupuncture philosophy continues to guide my work. Acupuncturists see health as balance in the flow of energy, known as “Qi,” within the body. Disease is the result of a disruption in the natural flow of Qi within the integrated system of the body. Disharmony in the flow of Qi—too much or too little Qi, or a distortion in the quality of Qi—creates disease.
Like the human body, organizations are living, energetic entities. When their Qi is balanced and flowing in harmony, they function in healthy ways. When energy is deficient or ineffectively applied, there is organizational disharmony.
Caprino: Can you explain the framework you have developed for understanding the energetic flow in organizations?
Grodsky: One way to understand energetic flow in organizations is to view them as living ecosystems comprised of four concentric layers: Individual, Team, Organizational and Societal.
The Individual Layer is at the center of the ecosystem. This layer is made up of us, the people whose energy and effort is the lifeblood of an organization. Organizations are, ultimately, collections of infinitely complex individuals, with all the gifts and baggage we bring. The second layer out is the Team Layer. This is where individuals meet. It contains interpersonal relationships, group dynamics and work processes. If the Individual Layer is where we are in our relationship to ourselves, the Team Layer is made up of the ways we are in relationship with each other, both interpersonally and in our work processes.
Even in organizations that consist of only one team, the Team Layer is distinct from the third layer, the Organizational Layer. The Organizational Layer contains the organization’s “Guiding Ideas” (mission, purpose, and values), strategy, structures, resource, infrastructure and policies. The Organizational Layer, along with the most exterior layer, the Societal Layer, provides the context for teams, individuals and their work. The Societal Layer contains the factors that are outside of the actual organizational entity, but still influence and inform the work of the organization as well as each of the individuals within the organization. These factors include laws, mores, culture, and history.
Energy flows dynamically among these layers, whose effectiveness depends on both the flow and quality of that energy. What happens in one layer impacts the other layers.
Caprino: What are three common organizational challenges you see, and how does this framework help address those challenges?
Grodsky: When there is a problem, it’s often hard for organizations to know what to do. Before acupuncturists choose points for treatment, they must first understand where disharmony in the flow of energy is occurring. Similarly, when we design organizational interventions to catalyze growth or improvement, or to address problems, it is important to be as clear as possible about the quality and flow of organizational energy. Interventions are most likely to succeed when they are designed to touch and heal the roots of opportunity or disharmony at the specific layer(s) where those roots lie.
This framework helps us to identify the roots of an issue so we can develop appropriate interventions. Here are some examples of common challenges and how we can look at them through this framework:
We usually see this problem as a result of personal difficulty. But there can be more to the story. We can use the framework of organization ecosystems to understand potential problems in the different layers. Is it because the person doesn’t have the right skills or temperament in the individual layer? Is it because team communication or work processes are not providing the information and support they need? Might it be because their workload or expectations are actually undoable? Is it because they don’t have clarity of direction or the resources they need from the organizational layer? Or might the societal layer be impacting their experience in the workplace, for example subtle racial or gender-based bias causing a fearful or intimidating environment.
Tension or dysfunction in teams.
We can look at the individual layer and see if the behavior or lack of skill of individuals—particularly the team leader—is contributing to the situation. We can look at the team layer and see if decision-making and roles are clear. Very often they aren’t and this is a significant cause of team disharmony. We can look at the organizational layer and see if the team has clear purpose and direction and that it has the resources it needs. The lack of these elements often causes interpersonal tensions. And we can look at the societal layer and see if the team itself is recreating some of the dynamics from the outer layer such as disrespect based on gender, race, or other identities.
Difficulty achieving goals.
This problem most often occurs because the goals themselves are not clear or do not align with the purpose or resources of the organization, or what is actually needed in the world. Sometimes the organization has not articulated its values and assumptions; this can lead to activities that work at cross purposes and impede goals. These are problems at the organizational layer. But we also need to look at the team layer—are the culture or the work processes of the team impeding their ability to achieve their goals? Or are there challenges at the individual layer impeding people from providing the leadership required for implementation?
Caprino: You work a lot with non-profits. Is this framework also applicable in other sectors?
Grodsky: Most definitely, yes! At the end of the day, we are all human. As Barry Oshry teaches in his great book “Seeing Systems”, there are fairly universal ways that we tend to fall into patterns in organizations. Attending to all of the layers is important for health in any organization.
Caprino: Ora, you put a lot of emphasis on how organizations are affected by social factors and the influence they can have on organizations and individuals. How do you see it benefiting organizations to pay attention to these issues?
Grodsky: The Societal Layer is vast and multi-faceted. It is all of our collective beliefs and stories; our laws, our values, and our history, our social norms, and the ways in which we allocate resources that create disparity. The issues our organizations exist to address are rooted in the Societal Layer, as are the contexts within which our organizations operate.
Organizations that are explicitly working to impact societal factors need to be especially mindful of how those factors live in their own culture and practices. It is easy to inadvertently recreate what we are trying to cure; sometimes our behavior can be completely contrary to our goals.
Recognizing and challenging societal influences on our ways of working creates environments that both support individuals to do their best work, and organizations that are more effective at bringing about change. I believe, as Gandhi said, “we must be the change we wish to see in the world.”
Read the original article on Forbes.