How does culture interact with organizational health?

Nov 11, 2021 | 0 comments

The World Health Organization defines health simply as “wellbeing.”  A person is healthy when they experience wellbeing in their own person, in their work, their families, and their communities. 

The very flexibility of the word “wellbeing” is part of its strength. What is wellbeing for a 25-year-old will be different than wellbeing for a 75-year-old. What is wellbeing in a small village in East Africa will be different than wellbeing in a city in Western Europe. What is wellbeing for someone recovering from a cancer surgery will be different than someone training to run a marathon. 

Clearly with all that flexibility, we cannot just compare lifestyles from nation to nation (or organization to organization) to judge relative wellbeing. What is wellbeing for me in my context may be quite different from wellbeing for you in your context! 

This article is about understanding organizational health with a special focus on organizational health across cultures. We will look at that idea of organizational wellbeing across cultures from three points of view:

            1) The point of view of the organization itself

            2) The point of view of the culture surrounding the organization

            3) The point of view of the Bible 

Several months ago, we introduced the idea of the Culture Tree as a tool for seeing the elements of culture, how those elements interact with one another, and how they merge together to form one integrated culture. The elements that make up the Culture Tree are also useful to help us look at the health of an organization.

1) Organizational Health from the Organization’s Point of View

Roots—The roots of a CultureTree speak of the values and truths that are foundational for that culture. In an organization, this would include formal statements like core values, mission statement, and core beliefs (including doctrinal statement for a religious organization). More informally, but just as important, are the tagline phrases and policy papers within the organization. Those truth statements, values, and beliefs form the foundations for the organization’s culture.

One insight into the health of an organization is how daily life in the organization reflects those “roots.” 

An organization may say, for example, that it puts people over profits. In business meetings and decisions, the important question is which decisions are made, and on what basis. Are people really the focus? Or are costs the main point of discussion?

Another way to look at organizational health comes by comparing the metrics that an organization uses to gauge progress with its root values. Does the organization measure what it says is important? What is measured will almost always be what is truly important to the organization. 

Network—The cells of a tree form a fascinating network that pulls water from the roots up into the highest canopy of the leaves. Water and nutrients make that trip through a living network of cells that all connect, but not necessarily in a single straight line.

Organizations also invariably have a network of people – sometimes formal (we’ll see that in the branches of the tree), but mostly informal. Everyone in the office knows who will have the current updates on other workers. Everyone in the office “just knows” who has local contacts to help with a household repair or who is the best at talking to upset customers or donors. 

How interpersonal networks actually function is a key part to organizational health and wellbeing. Not long ago, I had a conversation with someone who described their daily office conversations as “toxic.” Unofficial communications frequently came to this woman saying that only a man should be in her role, for instance. As you can imagine, that attitude made it painful for this person to go to work in the morning. Even though the problem was at an informal interpersonal network level, it had negative impact throughout the organization.  

Flowers—Organizations reproduce themselves: perhaps into new branch offices, and of course from one generation to another. A tree reproduces with flowers that produce seeds. What about organizations? What is the mechanism for preparing a new generation of workers and managers? What is the mechanism for opening offices in new places or starting new initiatives? Growth and continuation of the organization needs a process to reproduce what is done in existing places to enter new regions.

This, too, is essential for organizational wellbeing. It is easy to imagine how this reproduction can either be done well or poorly. Pulling all the organization’s resources away from existing work and focusing solely on the new regions is usually an unhealthy way to move forward. Equally damaging is trying to expand without first being sure that resources are available. Another common organizational problem is giving too much or too little leadership or resources to a new effort.

Branches—The organization of most trees includes branches which permit growth to be both horizontal and vertical.  Thus, trees fill available space and have good access to sunshine.

Any organization will have areas that are part of the whole but somewhat separate in needs and outcomes – a sort of vertical and horizontal division in the organization. The business office of a mission organization is vitally interested in seeing gospel advance, and yet their daily tasks have to do with donor records and tax receipts. The ministry focus of the whole tree requires both outreach and business. Finding healthy ways for those “branches” to interact as mutually cooperative and enhancing elements of ONE organization is critical for organizational health. Who of us haven’t seen situations where the communications department or the finance office felt isolated, for instance, and under-appreciated by those who “did the real work?”  That kind of interoffice attitude is a toxin when it comes to organizational wellbeing!

2) The point of view of the culture surrounding the organization.

When I go to see the doctor, a question that I expect is, “How are you?” The idea is for me to compare myself with myself!  Do I have any new aches and pains? Are there problems that I am aware of to report? 

Up to now, our quick look at organizational health has compared the organization with itself. Compared to the foundational documents and the relationship between one branch with another, what is the wellbeing that the people and the organization are enjoying?

There is another important point of view: the perspective of the culture surrounding the organization. How does the neighborhood, community or national church movement interact with the organization? This question can be vital for the wellbeing of the organization!

Any organization must fit into its physical environment. A healthy organization will recognize the realities of the place where they live. Are summers especially hot? If so, are workplaces protected from that heat? It can be terribly frustrating (and organizationally unhealthy) to work in a place that is constantly too hot or too cold. 

Even more important is the social interaction of a group with the community around it. Thinking especially of Great Commission agencies, is there a clear communication and high respect for what the local believers and church leadership have to say? It can be easy to measure ourselves by ourselves and never give an opportunity for the local Body to add their insights! Learning to value open communication with the community “outside” is a major factor for organizational health. It might not always be the “felt need” but I have seen over and over what unnecessary friction results when expats work on the basis of their own values, outcomes, and organizational practices but never stop to listen to their local colleagues!

3) The point of view of the Bible

Of the three points of view that we are talking about, the one that carries the most weight is how the Bible measures an organization’s health. Are the values and practices and relationships of the organization aligned with biblical values and direction? 

There are two reasons why this is a vitally important question.

First, it helps us avoid the comparison game between human organizations. While we can certainly learn from other organizations, it is the power of God’s Word that brings true health to people and organizations. Besides that, the very process of comparing one organization with others runs the risk of leaving some feeling proud and others feeling shamed.

Secondly, and much more importantly, the Bible leads us to ask questions that we will miss if we only compare health from one organization to another. Biblical values like faith or love, for example, will rarely be stated in an organization’s foundational documents. Those values, though, will be highly important at discerning the wellbeing of the organization and its members.

Conclusion

There are scores of books on the issue of organizations and their health. In this short post, we simply suggest the CultureTree as a tool for looking at an organization and assessing its level of health. In the best case, an organization promotes the wellbeing of itself as an organization, and of its members as people. In the best case, an organization is true to its own convictions and calling and nurtures a healthy interaction with the culture that surrounds it. In the best case, the organization looks at itself in the light of the Bible. Wisdom, growth and authentic health (shalom) are nurtured as the organization and its people understand and practice the principles of Scripture in the course of everyday life and work. 


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Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Mark Hedinger

Practical Visionary. Director of CultureBound. Husband. Life-long learner.

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