Sick Organisation Syndrome…..or SOS

I have wittered on about integrity, honesty, openness and trust recently, and with good reason. Organisations operate in very specific ways: as businesses, as workplaces, and ideas-incubators and as generators, and unless they incorporate – and I use the word deliberately – all of those qualities and attributes they will inevitably develop Sick Organisation Syndrome. The signs are easy to spot: a haemorrhage of good people, lack of respect for those left behind, fear in the workplace, and lack of trust from other organisations which can lead to a reduction in the pool of potential partners as well as isolation in the sector. These signs and symptoms drip directly from the top – if the top is infected the organisation will also be infected – and other organisations fear the contagion. It is a potentially fatal disease.

The first step towards well-being and cure is for the organisation to recognise the symptoms and seek medical help! People in the workplace who are often the first to spot the signs and suffer with them will already be flagging this with their teams and their bosses. They will have seen the haemorrhaging, have heard the fall-away of other organisations (it sounds like a CLANG and there may be some swearing involved!) and will be feeling the fear. More often than not at this stage the bosses will have their fingers in their ears and be singing La La La La La to avoid facing the inevitable – and that is because at this stage some drastic medicine is probably needed. There is a risk of amputation in some areas, and certainly for some the medicine will taste very very bad. Bosses may even try to simply apply sticking plasters to the affected areas and offer placeboes in  order to put off the inevitable need to think clearly and take direct action. It is very likely that those in powerful positions will be contributing to the spread of disease and resisting the cure as they are comfortable with their own sickness and besides, they have health insurance……..

At the point at which the bottom line begins to drop noticeably and the clanging becomes too noisy to ignore the bosses will smell the infection, they will be scenting each other and identifying the source. This is not easy! The source is often a carrier without the fear of infection and hiding in plain sight, with a healthy visage and no visible signs of disease. And the carrier has often, like many bacteria, bonded invisibly to the other bosses, binding them tight with the implied promise of a better smell, a healthier outlook to match their own and a better bottom line. Difficult to resist, especially in the face of all that infection and sickness and despite the fact that the one offering the cure is in fact the source of the disease, hidden in plain sight! There is also the possibility that the carrier knows where another carrier is hiding, out of plain sight, and the risk to that alternative carrier is too high for them to chance breaking cover by exposing the source. Business can be a mucky affair.

There are now a limited group of medications available if this sickness is to be cured properly, lastingly, and with a full recovery. And it will take a person with cojones  – or nothing to lose –  to administer it. This person needs the experience to detect the disease and its source, the knowledge to understand what it needed, and the skill to administer the cure quickly. Too late and the outcome is the inevitable, but possibly prolonged and agonising, death of the organisation. Too timid and the one administering the medicine risks contagion and the same fate. Administering the cure is sometimes best done by a confident and reliable group, who can share the risks and share the fallout, diluting the risk of contagion and offering a wall of strength if the source resists. If you like, one to hold the legs, one to pin the arms down, one to cover the face to reduce the risk of droplet infection and another to jab the cure in. The source will not survive…….

If this happens and is successful, there will need to be a period of rehabilitation and recuperation, some R&R, some integrating of the organisation that remains. The gaps left by the amputated source(s) will necessitate a morphing, will change the shape of the organisation – there will be different strengths, different objectives, better appreciation of what works and what doesn’t, and a newly charged energy and direction with a leadership that is genuinely healthy and has clear vision. Those who remain standing will have a keener appreciation of what they see and will be better able to support the newly minted objectives, to support the healthy and exciting leadership on offer, and to contribute to the recovery.

Do you have a healthy and fit organisation with clear, safe, leadership, shiny objectives and a motivated and fearless workforce? If you have, cherish it and nurture it, reach out to colleagues to keep them well, keep those clearly signposted pathways of communication clear of debris and germs and safe to tread, keep the conversations going so that potential ill health is easier to identify and easier to flag.  Make sure, however well the organisation is now, that you are prepared for sickness, have a medicine cabinet stocked with remedies and a skilled medic on hand just in case.

If you suffer with SOS you have two choices: bail or find a cure. Make sure, though, that you can tell if the situation is curable before you choose an option. Are the doctors listening? Is the source too embedded to be shifted? Is the cure too late? Or is there time to get the emergency services in on time and with the right meds? If you care about the organisation, if it worth saving, get the life support machine cranked up and plugged in and try everything you can to revive it – but be prepared to switch the plug off if needed. Sometimes that is the kindest act of all.

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