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.
- By Robert Pater
- Apr 01, 2010
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.