Human and high performing organisations

One of my colleagues has posed us the question 'What can and can't we do in the service of creating a more human and high performing organisation?' I started by wondering what she meant by 'creating', 'more human' and 'high performing'. That got me nowhere but led me to a different question: can organisations be human without being high performing or high performing without being human? I think so. (And I don't mean 'being human' as in the TV series). The issue lies in being both human and high performing.

My book on organisational health covers a lot of ground on this and so do several of my blogs. Looking back through them one I wrote in 2011 is still relevant. It is about creating and using positive energies and emotions. Positivity leads to individual and organization health and high performance.

5 years ago in that blog, I referenced Margaret Wheatley's interview in strategy+business. This reinforced my view that creating positivity requires leadership activity. She made the point that 'In a time like this of economic and emotional distress, every organization needs leaders who can help people regain their capacity, energy and desire to contribute'.

2016 and we are again/still in a time of distress. Sadly, in 2011, Wheatley also said that people are reporting that 'mean-spiritedness is on the rise in their companies. And there seems to be a growing climate of disrespect for individual experience and competence.' My observation is that this trend has accelerated since she wrote 5 years ago.

At that point she thought that mean-spiritedness was due to the uncharted territory that we (individuals and organizations) are in. It leads us to 'running scared'.

Today there are lots of things which are making us 'run scared'. Take your pick by looking at newspaper headlines and social media. But Wheatley has some antidotes to this response including taking time to reflect, making informed – rather than pure emotional – choices, and learning how to find the place beyond hope and fear.

In another article (2009) of hers she quotes Rudolf Bahro, a prominent German activist and iconoclast: 'When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.' Bahro offers insecurity as a positive trait, 'especially necessary in times of disintegration.'

Howard Zinn, a historian, in The Optimism of Uncertainty mines a similar vein. He says 'In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy?' He answers this saying: 'I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world. … The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory.'

I'm with Wheatley, Bahro and Zinn. At all times, and even more so in times of uncertainty and insecurity I think all of us working in organisation design and development must defy mean-spiritedness and power playing. Instead we must act for trust, respect, shared decent values, and positive and energizing relationships. Only by doing this is there the hope – but not the guarantee – of developing human and high-performing organisations.

What's your view? Let me know.

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