Organizational Health, Part 2: Time To Get Personal

[Below is the second installment in a blog series focusing on organizational health. To read the first part, click here.]

David Miller, CIO, Optimum Healthcare IT (former CIO, UAMS)

David Miller, CIO, Optimum Healthcare IT (former CIO, UAMS)

In this blog, I’d like to begin to look at some of the components or characteristics that comprise a healthy organization. As you might expect, it starts at the top. You must have a senior management team that works well together. If members of the leadership team are not working in a unified manner, there will be no possibility of realizing organizational health.

I think it’s important to define what a team should look like. Team can mean different things to different people. Like most males, I’m going to have to use sports analogies to make my point here. On a golf team, or even many professional basketball teams, it is much more about individual effort that it is about truly working as a team.

The 2013-2014 San Antonio Spurs are one of the great championship teams in NBA history, with their recent title further solidifying their spot as perhaps the best franchise in professional sports. That team also personified the sacrifice of individual acclaim for a greater goal, a characteristic increasingly rare in athletics, who, even on the collegiate level, focus on profit today.

The Spurs stressed teamwork over individual performances. They finished the regular season with the league’s best record, and Gregg Popovich won NBA Coach of the Year. Throughout the season and playoffs, the team employed a playing system based on crisp passing, excellent three-point shooting and brilliantly executed fundamental basketball skills. In the NBA Finals, the Spurs beat their nemesis, the Miami Heat, with each victory coming by at least 15 points. My point here is that the players on the Spurs relied heavily upon one another and used this as a competitive advantage.

The other sports analogy would be baseball, where all the players play together simultaneously in an interactive, mutually dependent, and often interchangeable way. Just because a group of people is affiliated together in the workplace, it doesn’t make them a team. A team is a group of people who have accepted collective responsibility for the achievement of the organization’s goals. This means that among other things, there must be a willingness to be unselfish and to share the sacrifices necessary to be successful.

These sacrifices are not just things like headcount or budget, though they may be included in the sacrifice. There are important intangibles that must be offered, often daily. The biggest of these intangibles are time and emotion. There are a lot of issues that leadership teams must deal with, and most of them don’t fall squarely within a particular realm of responsibility, like information technology. Working through these types of issues takes a good bit of time and honest effort and energy.

In order to be able to work through the difficult and complicated issues we face in healthcare today, the cohesive leadership team we’ve been talking about must truly demonstrate trust among its members. Now, when I talk about trust, I’m not referring to expected behaviors that are based on familiarity with how your team members work. You may know enough about your colleagues to believe that their work ethic means that when they say they will do something they do it, but that behavioral kind of trust is not what I’m talking about.

I’m referring to a true vulnerability with the other members of your leadership team. This is a very, very difficult thing to achieve. With this kind of vulnerability, you have to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, the mistakes that you make, and the reasons why you think the way you do. I have seen this used in some companies through behavioral profiling tools like Myers-Briggs or other mechanisms demonstrating to some extent one’s personality, one’s communication preferences, etc. I worked for a company several years ago that required us to keep our Myers-Briggs profile on our desks, so that people could see your profile and then better understand how to best work within your behavioral framework.

I want to be clear at this point that I am not talking about holding hands around the campfire and singing Kum-Ba-Yah. Nor am I talking about creating a situation where a team member uses group meetings as his or her private therapy session. I am talking about a deeper level of interaction, beyond just the Myers-Briggs approach. For example, I find it helpful in understanding another individual if I have some idea of their background and upbringing. Knowing that Jim grew up poor or that Sue’s father was an alcoholic or that Kerry was adopted often gives me some insight and compassion for others that would not exist if I did not know that about them.

The goal here is to get everyone on the team to identify and reveal their positive and negative tendencies to one another, both for the purpose of understanding their areas of strength as well as their shortcomings and limitations. Every person has natural tendencies that are useful and helpful to a team — and some that are not.

This process will be difficult at first, but as the team gets more and more comfortable with being transparent with one another, the results can be transformational. Many breakthroughs to new ideas and new ways of thinking can become possible when a leadership has this kind of trust among its members.

This kind of trust can also help solve a huge issue many of us suffer from. Often, when we see negative or frustrating behaviors in people, we assume it is due to their intentions or personalities. However, when we ourselves exhibit similar behaviors, we justify it based on having a bad day or on the behaviors of others. Once you build trust, you gain insight, empathy and greater understanding. It is the concept iterated by both St. Francis of Assisi and Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

In my next blog, we are going to discuss conflict management as the next key to organizational health.

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