How Healthy is Your Work-Place?

OK, so this is an article about the food served in the chancery cafeteria, right? Want more tofu, do we?

Not really, although I read the other day that blueberries are the healthiest.

Then I suppose you want to sell us some fancy aerobics equipment?

No, I suspect your employees take care of their exercise needs at home.

A new ergonomics inventory?

No, not that either.

It is true that having healthy food in the cafeteria is important. Advising employees to consider good exercise never hurts. And of course good chairs and lighting and computer tables are an important consideration for the physical health of your work-force. All of these measures might be listed under requisites for a 'healthy work-place'. All are concerned with the well-being of your staff.

In this brief article I will assume that, as a good NACPA member, you are up to speed on things like healthy diet, exercise, and ergonomics, and have taken steps to pay attention to them in your work-place.

Deeper Sources of Health

But all of these measures are concerned only with a physically healthy working environment. They are also about insuring that the work can get done in a way that is not doing harm to your staff. And that is no small thing, for people are our most precious resource.

Upon deeper reflection, however, it turns out that having a "healthy work-place" touches on more fundamental human needs than a salubrious operation. In our 33 years of service to all sorts of organizations we at MDI have learned that the state of health of the human system as such will have a profound impact on the actual day-to-day labor. So we need to look elsewhere if we are to grasp what makes for organizational health.

What are some of the factors that affect "systemic health" -- for good or ill? I will reflect on two that lie "beneath" the operating level. They are the identity of the collective body and the cohesiveness of the group's sense of mission. Put simply: they are celebration of who you are and clear commitment to what you are trying to achieve.

Identity -- Or Identification(s)

The foundational power of any collective enterprise is rooted in its shared sense of identity. That's a statement which is easily made. So easy that it has become almost a pious mantra, reduced to banality by sheer repetition. To retrieve its original power we need to reflect on several points.

The first is that, as in the case of any individual, 'identity' is not a static given. It is not a thing, a possession, in spite of our need to use noun-language to get at it. What really happens in the order of life outside the mind is that people, you and I, identify ourselves: with a friend, a life-partner, a movement, an organization. Identity lives and grows to the extent that we are actively engaged in the identifying process. We sense something in the other's way, or our organization's way, of being that resonates with our sense of ourselves and what is important, what gives meaning to our life right now. Together with that person or group of persons I co-create and maintain a way of being that can only be described by the active word "we".

One implication of that reality is that it is expressed in things like belonging and ownership. I belong to this entity. It is my diocese or team or department as much as it is ours. To the extent that I am spending a significant portion of my life working in an environment that doesn't value its workers and give them such a sense of identification, the organization is not healthy. Outside 'memberships' can easily become much more attractive, with the result that staff members gradually find their way out of the common effort and into other places more satisfying and responsive to the commitment of their human energies. They leave, whether 'only' psychologically or by actually seeking employment elsewhere.

Another implication of the dynamic character of the identification process is that identity formation is always in process. Identification can be enhanced -- or it can be allowed to dissipate through lack of attention. Marriage partners have to "re-up" every day. And the leaders of an organization have to attend to their workers' sense of belonging and ownership, or their human commitment will shrivel up and die through loss of meaning.

So we have a first barometer of the health of your organization: How many on your staff or board or committee or task force feel they belong, that this is their project, that they are 'on the inside', empowered to shape the group's life and directions, and not just spectators observing the in-crowd? To the extent that they are still outsiders though employed like everyone else, the organization is sickly. Human energies will be less and less available for the common effort.

How is identity 'captured'?

Identification, since it is a human process and we are body-persons, is ultimately not fully captured in statements about identity. It manifests itself in things like the way the group images itself. Do we see ourselves as "the charge of the light brigade" or a "Toonerville trolley"? Or to use Oscar Romero's phrase, do we think we are Messiahs or seed-sowers? It shows up in the rituals that make up the group's regular life: do we celebrate a person's birthday because it happens to be the next one on the calendar -- or do we spontaneously affirm a person's unique gift and contribution to the life of the group? Strength of identification may show up in things like play and humor, the ability to laugh at the inevitable incongruities of a collection of human beings actually trying to do something together. It can be seen more in the body language and gestures of the collective body than in their pronouncements. People who are genuinely committed to one another are relaxed about it; they experience conflict but they can negotiate differences with relative ease.

The lack of such a sense of belonging shows up in things like perfunctory rituals. In glum faces and apathetic responses to calls for performance. To lofty pronouncements about the greatness of the organization, belied by contrasting behavior on the part of leaders and members. In a climate characterized more by fear of reprimand than excitement at creative options for achievement of the group's purposes.

Another feature of identity formation: since identification is about living human bodies, each time a new person comes on board the identity of the entire group changes. The person brings his or her expectations -- generated by other identifications, such as family, neighborhood, school community, ethnic or racial identification, or sheer age, etc. Those realities are either welcomed and celebrated, which makes the cohesion and health of the body all the stronger, or they are treated as a foreign object which doesn't 'belong' and diminishes the identity of the existing body. Organizations which grow too comfortable with the compromises they have worked out over the years may look healthy but actually be stunted through lack of the challenge of different perspectives. Group-think is not health.

How does your organization deal with changing membership? With a surrounding context which is challenging the organization's prevailing assumptions? Does it have the basic health needed if it is to grow by allowing them to be challenged?

And then there is the sense of mission

The other component which lies deeper than the day-to-day operating life of the group, affecting that life and becoming manifest in it, is the group's sense of mission.

I say "sense of" mission because I fear that, like the word 'identity', the word 'mission' has become like a hollow slogan. We might be wise to put it out to pasture for a while and begin to speak instead of a sense of purpose. That's really what we mean by being on a mission. The paradox of contemporary life is that it's possible to have a mission statement without having a mission.

Mission is about wanting to achieve something, wanting to create something that doesn't exist yet, whether that something is a lemonade stand that will attract passersby or stopping a mad rush to war. It's about passion. The mission either exists in people's gut or it is a set of empty words.

But if having a sense of mission involves passion, it also involves focus. Sheer energy, mere good will, doesn't get the job done; in fact it will insure that the job doesn't get done.

Energy will become diffuse and dissipate into ineffective activity --- just busy-ness --- unless it is harnessed and brought to bear on clearly identified targets. That means that a healthy organization will be able to say clearly what it is trying to achieve, and what it is not. And the latter part of that dictum can be harder to enunciate than the former.

Religious organizations in particular face a very difficult challenge in the task of defining (which is a process of limiting) what it is they are trying to accomplish and what is not on their plate. We religious folk have that Kingdom thing staring us in the face, after all, and unless we are careful it can lead to a utopian effort to achieve the infinite instead of the realistic acceptance of the incarnational limits of what we are capable of achieving here and now. It has been often noted that politics is the art of the possible. If that be right, effective followers of the flesh-and-blood Jesus should be the world's best politicians. The effort to be all things to all people is inherently doomed to failure, we're not that kind of beings.

All of which leads to some other pointed questions you might choose to ask in order to determine the health of your work-place. Do people in your group have a passion for their work? Is it generating meaning in their lives? Are you as a leader at some level in your organization ready to hear and observe the signs that people might become more committed if the present focus of energies were shifted, new targets selected, new methods of collaboration explored? Are we as a body devoting our valuable human energies to the best purposes? Are we clear about the practices from our past which are no longer helpful? Can we name what we are going to stop doing, even though at one time they were our top priorities?

I realize that I haven't given you much help with the tools for naming your group's identity or enhancing your members' sense of passion for its purposes. I hope that by naming the issues I have steered you to what you need to be attending to. The one thing I can say about methods for response is that cheerleading won't cut it.

George B. Wilson, S.J., does church organizational consulting with Management Design Institute out of Cincinnati, Ohio.