How to be a healthy leader and foster a healthy organisational culture

Healthy organisations are successful and need healthy leaders. But what exactly do we mean by this and why does it matter? Anna Eliatamby finds out

What is healthiness?

‘Healthiness’ refers to many factors that influence leaders and organisations. These include:

  • synergy between purpose, values, and how we live life, and conduct work,
  • impact of material resources and the environment,
  • open and listening to the incoming future,
  • effect of individual and collective history,
  • well-being, mental health and physical health, and
  • how we live and cope with the shadow side.

While we often include most of these factors, we rarely consider the shadow side when we think of leadership or organisational culture. Yet it is the shadow side that often impedes growth and progress. Which is why it is time to name and explore it so that we find a better balance between the positive and golden and the shadow side. (We based our ideas, described below, on the work of Carl Jung, Robert Johnson, and others.)

Healthy leaders and healthy organisations acknowledge and deal with shadow elements.

Being a healthy leader means that you have a good sense of Self which guides you, are someone with integrity, compassion, truly inclusive, and respectful. Healthy leadership happens when the individual or the group do their utmost to serve others ethically and respectfully, while acknowledging that there can be negativity and be willing to address it and heal. They remain flexible and open to sensing the incoming future. The converse occurs when leadership uses shadow behaviours such as intimidation, hypocrisy, shaming and is prone to misuse assigned power for personal gain.

A healthy organisation remains true to its purpose, including do no harm to humans or the planet. The organisation provides a nourishing culture and structure within which people can grow and flourish in their work to achieve the purpose. A healthy organisation works to recognise and address unhealthy elements, is amenable to change, and will consider possible futures. The Organisational Self is cohesive, supportive and reflected in the behaviours and culture. Equally, an unhealthy organisation will not care about doing no harm, be unconcerned about providing a healthy culture, and could simply focus on getting the job done at any cost. It may permit negative behaviours such as bullying with little redress.

Becoming a healthy leader

First, have an open and in-depth look at yourself, both positive and negative. This journey requires courage and readiness.

Even if our skills and talents are positive, we can be reluctant to be assessed either by ourselves or another. And if someone has been using mainly shadow behaviours, they may not be aware of the need to review, as it is likely that they have not received sufficient feedback on their behaviours and may feel they don’t need to change. They may, therefore, be reluctant to explore and consider changing. In which case, it is best for them to wait and focus on becoming ready to explore.

Reviewing yourself can help you really understand what is golden and what is shadow about you as a leader. There are a wide range of approaches available for the review. It is then important to stay with what you have found, reflect, and use it as a steppingstone to the next version of your Self. Having learned about yourself, consider how you change.

It is vital to understand your change path, think about the future Self you want, and the next steps. Change is usually best if it is slow, with clearly defined behaviours and opportunities to rehearse and practice to embed the new repertoire. Below are some suggestions to consider for your plan to grow.

Fostering a healthy organisational culture

It is easy to provide an answer about what is necessary: for instance, openness, integrity, trust, and respect with compassion and kindness. These need to be accompanied by related behaviours. When you visit an organisation with a healthy culture, you will feel welcome, see people liking, respecting and caring for each other and amazing work being done.

However, even the healthiest can have shadow aspects, and these can lead to the destruction of the positive. Hence, it is important to look, collectively, at the shadow aspects such as a lack of respect for a few, untoward gossip, that some leaders intimidate, probably because of insecurity. A wide variety of formal and informal approaches is available to find out about the positives and negatives.

Reviews can be difficult, especially if there are those who would not want one. It is best to prepare both leaders and other employees ahead of time and discuss the need to look at both the positive and the negative. Some may feel insecure, threatened as they feel they don’t have an alternative way of behaving, some may be concerned about being open.

Leadership can provide reassurance and show, by example, how to be more open and willing to look at both the positive and the shadow sides (including how the organisation changes). Then people usually relax and become receptive.

Having found out, it is worth sharing the findings with all concerned so that they can work with leadership to analyse and build the future Organisational Self. People will be more likely to adjust if they are included.

The key elements for healthy leadership and healthy organisations

These factors comprise the elements of healthy leadership and fostering a healthy culture. It is important to choose those that are vital, will challenge and lead to healthy change.

  • Build Self with compassion and respect

For example, actively praise for demonstrating compassion, respect, and kindness. This can become contagious, especially if it applies to all. Respect the role of history, celebrate it.

  • Promote wellbeing, mental health and physical health

Look after your own Self. Ensure a holistic approach to these factors in the workplace and associated practices, more than gym membership and annual health checks. Include those who return to work after mental health problems.

  • Support emotions, cognitions, physical (body), and relationships

By example, encourage people to be open (as they want) and care for each other, help people develop healthy work practices.

  • Aim for synergy with purpose and values

Work towards synergy but discuss compromise openly if needed.

  • Material resources and the environment

Provide the resources needed for work and individual diverse needs. Address sustainability.

  • Diversity

Let people be different. Encourage true inclusion, beyond mere presence.

  • Live with the shadow side

Help people grow and address the shadow, e.g. regular explorations on building a better balance between golden and shadow.

  • Administrative issues

Make sure that the structures, policies and procedures promote the golden while tackling the shadow. Encourage collective accountability to address shadow behaviours. Have a trusted and confidential internal justice system.

  • Leadership and organisational interventions

Use interventions that teach concepts, how to apply them and look at both the golden and shadow.

The journey for healthier leaders and organisations is not easy, but so necessary for us all. It will help us grow as we celebrate the golden, live more healthily with the shadow side and leave a decent legacy.

Anna Eliatamby is a clinical psychologist, workplace well-being expert and author of Healthy Leadership and Organisations: Beyond The Shadow Side.

Anna Eliatamby is a clinical psychologist, workplace well-being expert and author of Healthy Leadership and Organisations: Beyond The Shadow Side.

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