Provident Organizations

What’s going on when we read a best-seller about some innovative and industry-leading company, and then ten months later get the news that it’s falling apart and on the verge of bankruptcy? Obviously there’s some lag time between the research and when the finished book hit the shelves, but did the wheels come off that quickly? Really?

More likely, a toxic process was already metastasizing inside the corporate culture, carefully hidden from public view but felt by insiders long before.

You may be familiar with how it feels.

An organization is a social organism, a living thing in its own way. Which means that, like all living things, it has a lifespan and evolves through cycles of growth, stability, decline and death – or rebirth, if its members and leaders are paying attention and visionary enough to see new life on the other side.

One of the telltale signs of a culture becoming toxic, in fact, is an onset of dysfunctional leadership, where leaders lose the vision and start doing things that cause or contribute to organizational pathology. What kinds of things?

  • Requiring their approval on everything
  • Micromanaging their direct reports
  • Calling out and punishing creative risk-taking
  • Closing off feedback channels
  • Clutching credit and recognition for themselves

Instinctively, perhaps, a leader inside a toxic culture grows increasingly fixated on his or her own status, power, and job security, and less concerned about the organization they were hired to lead and serve.

Self-protection takes over, and self-transcendence – getting over themselves, thinking about the social organism and acting in the interest of its greater wellbeing – is no longer a priority.

A healthy organizational culture, on the other hand, is “tonic,” referring to a tonal strength that develops with stretching. Tonic cultures are flexible, adaptive, resilient and, as any stretching routine has the aim of increasing range of motion and establishing (or recovering) a new center of balance and control, more capable of responding creatively to the unexpected.

As regards leadership, tonic leaders are those who work consistently to keep the organization strong, centered, and sound (another derivation of the tone in tonic).

So, do pathological organizations produce dysfunctional leaders, or is it the other way around? Our modernity-conditioned preference for mechanistic models of unilinear causality tempts us to think it must be one or the other. But we have to remember that we are dealing with social organisms here, living systems and not machines.

The correct answer to our question is that pathological organizations and dysfunctional leaders are “comorbid” in toxic cultures, just as a dysfunctional heart (leader) is both cause and symptom of cardiovascular disease (in the organization).

In tonic cultures, leaders fiercely protect a safe and supportive environment where members can feel grounded, centered, connected and included in a “higher wholeness” that is purposeful, relevant, and worthwhile.

They are encouraged to take creative risks without fear of being punished if they fail. Whereas the switches, circuits, and gears in machines require regular maintenance and service, the spirit or lifeforce of an organization needs to be properly nourished, regularly exercised, and sufficiently rested to be healthy and strong.

The opposite of a pathological organization, then, is a “provident organization.” There should be a formal process for creating provident organizations, along with a badge that designates its collaborative accomplishment by leaders and members. In the future, companies, agencies, and teams will proudly wear their badge because it means they are being intentional in the work of building sustainable corporate and social cultures where everyone feels safe, supported, valued, and appreciated for their contribution to the whole.

When Gallup surveyed thousands of employees worldwide, a shocking 79 percent (in 2021; 87% in 2012) reported feeling “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” in their workplace.

The world of business reeled from the news.

Just imagine how employee disengagement translates into a damaged morale, plunging profitability, and market disadvantages. No wonder we are struggling! many leaders griped. These employees of ours are unmotivated and don’t care. They’re probably just sitting at their desks, surfing social media or taking naps. 

What did many of these leaders do? They implemented positive motivational incentives like recognition awards, and negative incentives like more frequent performance reviews, mandatory re-training, probations and threats of termination.

And what did that do? It confirmed but also amplified the experience employees were already having, of working in environments where it’s not safe to take risks, where open and inclusive community is not allowed, and where micromanagement suffocates the creative freedom and higher purpose in their work.

Many of these disengaged employees were not being lazy, but self-protective.

For many, disengagement is a coping strategy for moderating anxiety and preventing burnout. The effect of dysfunctional leadership and its various mechanisms for applying pressure to perform only makes the problem worse.

As a consequence, organizations become increasingly pathological, leaders grow more dysfunctional, and the whole thing rapidly collapses. Terminations, layoffs, downsizings and reorganizations are conducted in a panicked attempt to forestall bankruptcy and avoid terminal extinction.

It is precisely when members are starting to disengage that leaders need to resist their own self-protective impulses and “get over themselves.” Self-transcendence in leadership is enabled by a leader’s faith in his or her team and a corresponding vision of how they can, all together, meet the challenges and find opportunities in what’s before them.

In other words, the path to rebirth and new life for the organization does not involve bracing against reality and pressing down on employee performance, but stretching and re-centering the organization in a grounded sense of community and shared purpose.

As a social organism, an organization might have its anatomy represented in an “org chart,” but its life and wellbeing are a function of the flow of spirit or lifeforce through, across, and among those who fill that chart and personify it with living human beings.

We are coming to better understand the degree in which competitive success in the market is sustainably supported by a communal and cooperative spirit inside the provident organization. Only tonic cultures can flourish, adapt, and transform over time, by the inspiration and guidance of leaders who believe in their members and value human fulfillment over the bottom line.

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

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