Troubling vs. Nurturing Organizations

Just a few days ago I got an inspiration driving my intellectual curiosity to the point that I finally decided to write a blog entry about it. It’s been a long time since I wrote regularly here, so bare with me.

The source of the inspiration stems from Virginia Satir’s The New Peoplemaking book and my observations over the years that workplaces sometimes are put into family metaphors. That triggered a thought while reading from Satir about troubling vs. nurturing families to adopt her words to organizations. I will probably invite you to join in my thought experiment while I keep learning from Satir’s almost 50 years old work in the following blog entries – I hope.

In general, I assume I am not the first to take this analogy and adapt it to Satir’s work. Mostly I want to get my re-wording down to see what thoughts it will trigger for me personally. While digesting all of it, I don’t intend to add too much of my perspectives here, since I think Satir might have much more to add in upcoming chapters for me while I read along, and I don’t want to spoil me here.

As a side note, I am fully aware of the limitations of metaphors. That said, families and organizations in essence serve different purposes. While organizations in essence serve the purpose to earn money and build products or offer services, families make people and shape our current and future society. I fully recognize Satir’s higher potential her original words were meant to address.

Disclaimer end, let’s get into my adaption of Virginia Satir’s words.

Does it feel good to you to work in your organization right now?

Do you feel you are working with friends, people you like and trust, and who like and trust you?

Is it fun and exciting to be an employee in your organization?

If you can answer “yes” to these three questions, I am certain you are working in what I paraphrase a nurturing organization. If you answer “no” or “not often”, you probably work in an organization that is more or less troubled. This does not mean that you work for a bad company. It only means that people aren’t very happy and have not learned ways to love and value one another’s work openly.

I find that each organization can be placed somewhere along a scale from very nurturing to very troubled. I see many similarities in the way nurturing organizations operate. Troubled organizations, too, no matter what their problems, seem to have much in common. I would like to for you a word picture of these two types of organizations. Of course, neither picture will fit any specific organization exactly, but in one or the other you may recognize some part of your own organization in action.

Troubled organizations

The atmosphere in a troubled organization is easy to feel. Whenever I am with such an organization, I quickly sense discomfort. Sometimes it feels cold, as if everyone were frozen; the atmosphere is extremely polite, and everyone is obviously bored or busy. Sometimes it feels as if everything were constantly spinning, like a top; I get dizzy and can’t find my balance. Or it may be an atmosphere of foreboding, like the lull before a storm, when thunder may crash and lightning strike at any moment. Sometimes the air is full of secrecy. Sometimes I feel very sad and cannot find an obvious reason. I realizes that’s because the sources are covered up.

In troubled organizations, people’s bodies and faces tell of their plight. Bodies are either stiff and tight, or slouchy. Faces look sullen, or sad, or blank like masks. Eyes look down and past people. Ears obviously don’t hear. Voices are either harsh and strident, or barely audible.

There is little evidence of friendship among individual employees, little joy in one another. The organization seems to stay together through duty, with people just trying to tolerate one another. now and then I see someone in a troubled organization make an effort at lightness, but the words fall with a thud. More often humor is caustic, sarcastic, even cruel. The seniors are so busy telling the juniors and each other what to do and what not to do that they never get to enjoy their work as contributing employees. It often comes as a great surprise to employees or troubled organizations that they actually can enjoy their work.

No one would intentionally pick this troubled way of working. Organizations accept it only because they know of no other way.

Nurturing organizations

How different it is to work in a nurturing organization! Immediately, I can sense the aliveness, the genuineness, honesty, and pride of work. I feel the heart and soul present as well as the head. People demonstrate their love for work, their intellect, and their respect for life.

I feel that if I worked in such an organization, I would be listened to and would be interested in listening to others; I would be considered and would wish to consider others. I could openly show my affection as well as my pain and disapproval. I wouldn’t be afraid to take risks because everyone in my organization would realize that some mistakes are bound to come with my risk-taking – that my mistakes are a sign that I am growing. I would feel like a person in my own right – noticed, valued, loved, and clearly asked to notice, value, and love others. I would feel free to respond with humor and laughter when it fits.

One can actually see and hear the vitality in such an organization. The bodies are graceful, the facial expressions relaxed. People look at one another, not through one another or at the floor; and they speak in rich, clear voices. A flow and harmony permeate their relations with one another. The juniors, even as new hires, seem open and friendly, and the rest of the organizations treats them very much as persons.

The buildings in which these people work tend to have a lot of light and color. Clearly a place where people work, these buildings are planned for their comfort and enjoyment, not as showplaces for their competitors.

When there is quiet, it is a peaceful quiet, not the stillness of fear and caution. When there is noise, it is the sound of meaningful activity, not the thunder of trying to drown out everyone else. Each person seems to know that he or she will have the chance to be heard. If one’s turn doesn’t come now, it is only because there isn’t time – not because on isn’t valued for their work.

Employees of a nurturing organization feel free to tell each other how they feel. Anything can be talked about – the disappointments, fears, hurts, angers, criticisms, as well as the joys and achievements. If the CEO happens to be in a bad mood for some reason, her employees can say frankly, “Gee, Boss, you’re grouchy today.” The employee isn’t afraid that the CEO will bark back, “How dare you talk to your Boss that way!” Instead, the CEO can be frank, too: “I sure am grouchy. I had a terrible day today!”

Managers in nurturing organizations know that their employees are not intentionally bad. If someone behaves destructively, managers realize some misunderstanding has arise or someone’s self-esteem is dangerously low. They know people learn only when valuing themselves and feeling valued, so they don’t respond to behavior in a way that will make people feel devalued. Even when it is possible to change behavior by shaming or punishing, the resulting scar is not easily or quickly healed.

Eyeing solutions

For the wrap-up, I will leave the direct rephrasing of Satir’s original words from here. In the chapter, I mostly quoted from verbatim (chapter 2, What’s your family like) she offers, in the end, the insight that she thinks that all families can become a nurturing one. Like her, I believe all organizations can become nurturing one. Every aspect of an organization that made it troubling has been learned and thus can be unlearned. That might take time and effort. Yet the question remains how?

To adopt Satir’s thoughts here:

First, you need to recognize that your organization sometimes is a troubled organization.

Second, you need to forgive yourself for past mistakes and give yourself permission to change, knowing that things can be different.

Third, make a decision to change things.

Fourth, take some action to start the process of change.

I look forward to learn more about families and maybe organizations in the chapters yet to come.

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