Calming an Inflamed Organization

It's shortsighted leadership to attempt to permanently squeeze extra time from workers so they can't catch their breath and recharge.

Are there people in your company who are working inflamed? Angry, hot around the collar, on guard, suspicious, untrusting, disbelieving, on edge, ready to react? All are potentially dangerous to their company's smooth functioning — and to their personal safety.

Cutting-edge medical research is replete with references to inflammation. Brent Bauer, M.D., wrote in the Mayo Clinic Health Letter, "It seems as though everyone is talking about inflammation, especially the fact that it appears to play a role in many chronic diseases." These illnesses run the gamut, from heart/ cardiovascular problems to Alzheimer's, acne, arthritis, psoriasis, cancer, asthma, lupus, and many more.

Acute (short-term) inflammation isn't necessarily bad. In a healthy person, it arises from the immune system's mobilizing in response to illness or injury, doing its job and then standing down. But many people are chronically inflamed. Their innate defense system rampages out of control, fighting on against an enemy that's not there (or never was), sometimes attacking the very body it's supposed to protect. This can lead to autoimmune disease, disintegration, and loss of all kinds of function.

I've seen similar processes occurring within organizations. People working at a feverish pace leading to burnout. Trust in leaders crumbling. Anger leading first to disaffection, then to barely being present, and ultimately even not showing up at all. And accidents or illness stemming from misdirected attention, where workers were "seeing red" rather than noting changing hazards and calmly making needed head-it-off-at-the-pass adaptations.

The good news is that leaders can harness energy toward productivity and safety; the bad part is ineff ective leaders can push people over the edge. Some leaders overly rely on charging up workers, lighting a fire underneath them, pushing them to perform, squeezing as much out of them as possible (while sometimes taking back pay or benefits). It is important to keep an organization moving, creative, warm — but in a controlled manner. There's a marked distinction between flames in a fireplace that heat a home vs. a raging fire that consumes it.

Think of leadership as setting up a thermostatic climate where work flows at the optimal temperature. We've seen heating and cooling systems actually working against each other. Experience shows leaders in highest-performing companies create and monitor strong balance, make sure situations don't stay too hot, promote healing aft er angry negotiations or disaff ected takeaways, and help people align toward safely accomplishing critical tasks. Here are some methods leaders can use to heal inflammation before it results in chronic dysfunction or spiraling breakdown:

Boost healthy intake. The wrong foods (fats, sugar, gluten for some, etc.) can elevate whole-body inflammation. Similarly, kneejerk communications may raise a company's temperature during times of tension. Always assume that whatever you write or say, even if "in private," may be overheard or read by someone, fueling a destructive rumor-mill cycle. Temper communications others will ingest.

Exercise. Cardiovascular conditioning helps reduce inflammation; similarly, encouraging people, committees, and groups to move forward can head off a destructive frustration-anger-inflammation cycle. So make sure Safety committees have real training, tangible objectives, as well as adequate budget and power to make concrete and visible improvements.

Build in recovery time. Align your expectations (and staffing) to encourage all workers to actually take replenishing breaks, lunch periods, and vacations. It's shortsighted leadership to attempt to permanently squeeze extra time from workers so they can't catch their breath and recharge.

Reduce overreaction. Everyone watches how leaders respond to unforeseen circumstances. The most potent executives control themselves first. They don't run amok or frantic; rather, they first take time to gather their thoughts, make peace with their emotions, and then communicate cogently and reassuringly. Similarly, don't allow yourself to speak harshly or "shoot the messenger."

Minimize over-stress. Stress, like inflammation, is mostly a problem when it doesn't abate. Th ree of the most potent organizational stress reducers are: 1. allowing people to take as much control of their own work as possible (within guidelines), 2. employing appropriate humor (that doesn't make anyone the butt of a joke), and 3. encouraging social support (i.e., opportunities for people to get together, make contact, safely vent, and feel part of a team).

Best leaders watch and then regulate inflammation before it gets to a fevered pitch, heightening their workers' and company's health, productivity, and safety.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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