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Organizational Culture: A Key Leadership Focus to Not Only Survive but Thrive

November 07, 2019

It is often said that the test of leadership is how an organization faces a crisis. But the real test happens long before an emergency occurs when the leadership creates a culture of cooperation and mutual respect and fosters resilience and innovation among the team. These attributes must be cultivated in times when the organization is stable so they can be seamlessly put into action when any number of critical incidents occur.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of wildfires that impacted thousands of lives in Southern California, I have found myself reflecting on this transformative moment, and what prepared our team to execute a seamless evacuation of our patients and transition into managing their needs as we mobilized alternative support services. The team’s ability to work collaboratively and have trust in one another supported the best possible outcome.

It is the health of an organizational culture that is a fundamental stabilizing force at critical junctures and transitions. The entirety of the team needs a general expression of trust and safety that is exemplified not only by the leaders but also one another. When team members have confidence that their contribution matters, loyalty and commitment become well-earned byproducts of their experience. A healthy organization has members who hold themselves and others accountable for outcome excellence. It is no longer the common belief to tough it out with an organization that is not true to its values and mission. As individuals, we want to end our workday feeling fulfilled and having contributed to something of value. Organizations with a healthy culture are more effective when implementing initiatives that will drive the success of the business. These qualities will become more critical in the evolving healthcare industry and will become the critical differentiator between organizations that thrive versus those that do not survive.

Organizational culture

An adaptive and future-focused organization must be an open system that evolves, adapts and thrives. I have witnessed a number of siloed (closed) organizations that lost employees who experienced feeling stagnation from the rigid boundaries that were restrictive and not receptive to feedback and engagement from other organizations. Systems theory suggests that entropy is the eventual result of systems that are not transformative, which happens when organizations are not recalibrating to adjust to the micro and macrocosm change. In our team’s history, we were acquired three times, during which we successfully retained many key team members throughout that decade of change. While there were some transitions that met professional development goals, the group as a whole maintained its cohesion and leaned in toward one another. It was our common values and purpose that unified and guided our path forward. Within the behavioral health industry, we are seeing care models that have not revolutionized in these changing times. The lack of innovation has created a crisis for both the public and private sector organizations. The reality of the current market is that many organizations will not survive unless they transform from independent, siloed organizations into consolidated, or interdependent, integrated service systems. This shift can mean acquisition, joint ventures, and broader partnership affiliations which, without careful attention, could result in the loss of varied cultural styles and unique agency identity. Integration plans will need to pay attention to alignment, buy-in and commitment, fear of change, and a low trust environment (Protiviti, 2016). Teams may experience a disruption in their sense of personal identity, safety and morale, which will impact quality and performance.

It will be important to consider the impact on team members who are not acclimated and integrated into the larger system, and how that will create an environment that makes it more challenging to keep them retained (Parikh & Hippert, 2019). Teams will benefit from frequent and open communication at every level and form of engagement, as well as providing as much context as is appropriate. Also, essential in transitions is an ongoing assessment and evaluation of each team member’s openness to change and providing feedback.

Evolving healthcare industry

Organizations with a sense of cause and purpose will maintain the trust and loyalty of their teams; however, they will also need a paradigm shift of their view on other organizations that offer similar services. In these changing times, an organization viewed as a competitor could become an organization needed to integrate or acquire to offer more comprehensive services. Organizations can view a similar type business not as a “competitor” to be “taken down” but as a “rival” that has qualities to review as areas of growth, and if developed, could optimize their performance (Sinek, 2019). It is these organizational cultures that will have the capacity to pivot and be more able to innovate and adapt.

In the current disruptive climate of the behavioral health industry, the commitment to organizational culture is necessary to thrive in the face of a short-term profit motive which often evaluates staff as a line-item cost that needs to be contained. This conventional business wisdom will fuel the exit of your best talent as they search for a “lifeboat” team that leads with purpose and nurtures the growth of members along with organizational goals. A culture that develops trust, adaptability and innovation creates an environment of consistently high performance even in the presence of unpredictable challenges (McChrystal, 2015). Your team is your most valuable asset. When given respect, flexibility and a degree of autonomy, they can bring your organization to heights beyond the scope of what exists today.

The best strategy to “not only survive but thrive” is to cultivate a collaborative culture. A leadership style that empowers the team improves the performance of an organization on every key performance index. So, the compelling question becomes: What benefit do organizations derive from continuing to utilize outdated models that do not enhance employee engagement, retention, satisfaction, or productivity, and ultimately reduce service output, patient care, cost efficiencies and revenue?

Kathleen Bigsby, PhD, LCSW is an Executive Consultant who has specialized in building mission-focused behavioral healthcare organizations and advancing operational and service excellence since 1990.

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McChrystal, S. (2015). Team of teams. NY: Portfolio / Penguin.

Parikh, S. and Hippert, J. (2019). Survival of the fittest: Payers reimagined. Retrieved from

Protiviti (2016). Guide to mergers and acquisitions. Retrieved from

Sinek, S. (2019). The infinite game. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group.

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