March 9, 2009 by  Ashley Guberman

Whether we do it consciously or not, all of us pay attention to the health of our environments, especially the organizations where we work. Depending on one’s role within an organization, our assessment may range from a casual gut-check of what it feels like to work there to a detailed set of Key Performance Indicators that are actively being managed. In the case of a publicly traded company the metrics and reporting take on an added level of importance, perhaps accentuating some measures (cash flow, ROI, etc.) at the expense of others (morale, turnover, commitment).

Part of the challenge with “organizational health” is that, unlike financial terms, it is not defined in a consistent manner between organizations. Even within a single office or department, there can be differing notions of what health really means depending on what is important to whom. Yet while conversations about how to do things better, faster, or cheaper are common in most companies, as are discussions about headcounts, seldom is there much open dialog about what “health” actually means. Instead, the topic of health comes up most often when it is perceived to be missing – when people perceive something to be unhealthy.

As part of my theory of practice, “health” within an organization is comprised of many things, some of which include:

  • Effective communication between various levels of the organization.
  • An ability to engage in productive conflict to arive at better decisions and generate appropriate buy-in.
  • High levels of trust and mutual accountability.
  • Flexible rather than rigid decision making styles, allowing adaptation to the demands of the situation.
  • A deliberate focus on teaching and learning at all levels for the purpose of continual improvement (Kaizen)
  • A clear definition of what is valued within the organization and celebration of successes.
  • An ability to manage ever increasing change at multiple levels.
  • A clearly articulated vision for the future with efforts directed towards achieving that vision aligned between departments.

More important to organizational health than any single item that I might list is that the conversation about health actually take place within your organization. Sometimes, people assume that having an off-site with senior management to create a new mission statement, or to define the vision for the next three years serves the same purpose as a discussion on health. While it may be the case in rare instances, the important part about “health” discussions is that health has a significantly larger focus on how people within the organization are going to achieve the mission and strive to make the vision real down at the level of interpersonal interactions. Health has a greater focus on how people relate to each other, and often has a considerable overlap with what is commonly called “culture.”

So let’s assume that you want to engage all or parts of your organization in a dialog about health. We can even assume that your organization has been around for a while and that it has a well established culture. Some aspects of that culture may be beneficial, while others exert a tax on productivity and effectiveness. Some common questions about how to discuss health might include:

  • Where would we start?
  • What would that conversation look like?
  • Who should be involved in these conversations?
  • How do we generate the level of trust required to even engage this topic in a meaningful way?
  • How will we manage the diversity of ideas that are likely to surface, especially in cases where some views of health are diametrically opposed to others?
  • How will we decide what constitutes health in the face of these differences?
  • Once we get greater clarity on what health means for us, how do we go about addressing entrenched ways of being that differ from our stated ideals?
  • How do we tie any notion of “health” back to more concrete metrics like ROI with greater external visibility?

These are not trivial matters, yet uncertainty about the answers need not be a barrier to taking the first steps towards defining health within your organization. An Organizational Development consultant can be of great value here by working with senior management to define an initial framework for how issues of health can best be addressed within your organization. Together, we can then plan how to most effectively involve the broadest set of people possible. The numbers really depend on whether you are trying to address health on a departmental level, within senior management, or corporate wide.

Strategies will differ, of course, but the most important factor in addressing organizational health is that somebody with appropriate authority to bring about change take the lead in starting the dialog about why health is important, and how this “soft” or intangible aspect of organizational life significantly impacts the bottom line.

In cases when you personally see the costs of poor organizational health, but lack the sponsorship to lead the dialog yourself, making the connection between health and your company’s bottom-line goals becomes all the more important as you advocate your goals and seek appropriate sponsorship for these discussions higher up. Here too, an OD coach can help you strategize the best ways to tie issues of organizational health back to the primary goals that your supervisors are trying to accomplish.

If you are ready to begin the dialog about what health really means in your organization, or if you are looking for guidance or coaching in how to make a business case for why organizational health matters, then contct Primary Goals. Together, we can make a difference.

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Primary Goals sits at the intersection of three core ideas about communication:
  • Leaders create vision by communicating a compelling future to their teams.
  • Teams create success based on how effectively the communicate and coordinate with each other.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures are successful only when they communicate value to people with a concern that the business can take care of
In all cases, it’s about Conversations for Committed Results.  That’s our Primary Goal.  



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