Positive organizing in tough times

September 12, 2017

By: Chris White

Having a positive organizational culture is most important when things are not going according to plan. This is somewhat paradoxical. Many people expect that those workplaces with strong, positive cultures somehow have things go perfectly well all the time. Or if things do go wrong, that the situations get glossed over or diminished in importance. Yet things go wrong in positive organizations, too. The difference is in how setbacks are addressed.

Sometimes, adversity lies in the market via competitive threats and budget crunches. However, let me share an example from current personal experience.

By the time this article is published, I hope to be on my first full day back in the office after surgery. For six years, I have been managing chronic sinusitis with the help of a specialist. The disease is not fun. Indeed, chronic sinusitis can feel as symptomatically miserable as congestive heart failure or rheumatoid arthritis. I am sorry to say that I am far from alone with this affliction, and I know that many people deal with conditions much worse than this. Over the last three months, the treatment routine stopped working: symptoms escalated rapidly, and well-intentioned interventions created unintended secondary infections. The last month has been peppered with sick days, canceled meetings, and hospital appointments.

Of course, things do not just stop at work (or at home) when unexpected events strike. At the Center for Positive Organizations, we have an important and worthwhile mission. Our programs still need to run. Students are returning to the Ross School of Business to begin some of the most memorable years of their lives, and we have a role to play in shaping their future. Our organizational partners still need our help. We need to keep advancing the best research in the field. And of course we need to pay the bills, which of course keep coming in on both good and bad days.

Yet rather than feeling stressed, I feel very grateful and lucky. I have such an amazing support system that I take for granted when I don’t need it. Nobody chooses to get sick, but if you are to get sick, you want this kind of support system.

What comprises a positive support system to help you through the tough times? Positive Policies, Leadership Practices, and Community Values.

Positive Policies Provide Economic Security

Knowing that my family will continue to be supported as I get better gives me extraordinary peace of mind. I am grateful to the compassion of Michigan Ross School of Business as an employer, as well as the enlightened politicians who created some measure of support system for people when they get sick.

With political debates ongoing about healthcare, it has been eye-opening to spend a lot of time leaning on our medical professionals recently.  My healthcare premiums are deducted from my paycheck every month, rain or shine, but I never knew if I would need to draw against the policy in any meaningful way. Without health insurance, I would have spent tens of thousands of dollars to manage this condition. Instead, I pay a nominal sum per doctor’s visit. Because of the number of days I have needed to take off work, I am eligible for extended sick time. This protects my salary for enough time to, hopefully, get fully better. I am also eligible for protection under the Family Medical Leave Act, which safeguards my job while I recover.

Positive organizations – and positive societies – create a safety net so that when things go wrong in unexpected and unpredictable ways, we are supported.

Leadership Practices Create Psychological Safety

I trust that I can be vulnerable with those around me. I can acknowledge when I am sick. I can take time off from work if needed, and I do not fear that people will think less of me for it.

Sadly, not everyone can say the same. When we are struggling, we can tend to “put on a brave face” or “power through.”  In too many situations, we mask how we are really feeling due to fear of how we will be judged by others and the consequences we fear we might face.

Positive leaders lead by example. They are authentic, which includes acknowledging when they are struggling. It is a paradox: we can both be strong and show our vulnerability at the same time.  Leaders who integrate these parts of their identity create a reservoir of trust and empathy in those around them. It sets the tone: an environment of psychological safety enables others to reciprocate by sharing their own challenges. I am fortunate to have leaders like this around me, who inspire me to follow their example.

Community Values Encourage Compassion Organizing

When faced with adversity, people have the ability to mobilize with great care and thoughtfulness. Almost imperceptibly and without asking for credit, others stepped in to carry extra workload. Due to health issues, I missed a faculty retreat that I was meant to co-lead. To my surprise, I received a card that had been signed from everyone at the retreat telling me I was missed. Two colleagues took it upon themselves to fill me in, in detail, on what was discussed. This helped me feel valued and relevant, even in absence. Teammates have been continually prioritizing what issues I need to address, and which I do not, in order to help me manage my competing priorities.

Jane Dutton and Monica Worline call this phenomenon Compassion Organizing. They point to the “contextual enabling of attention, emotion, trust, agents improvising structures, and symbolic enrichment” as five mechanisms that help to activate this amazing support system in a work environment. You can read more about compassion at work here.

I am very lucky to have this support system. Until a few weeks ago, I did not really realize and appreciate its existence. Tell me: How does your workplace encourage compassion organizing? How is it discouraged? I’d love to hear your stories!

This post was written for the Huffington Post’s Great Work Cultures initiative.