When Systems Need to Heal: Guidelines for Organizational Mending

Organizational change is an “in” concept, yet often change is a euphemism for mending or repair. In human systems, when these sort of processes need to occur, we call it healing, but in organizational systems, there is a lack of language for repair. Most often, the language you hear is organizational change or transformation, which can make this work sound simple or transactional.

We know change sparks emotions, yet the language can downplay the emotional work required, especially when part of the change process requires people have the opportunity to heal from whatever has taken place historically in the organization. If we replace “organization change” with the term “organizational mending,” we give ourselves and the system permission to address both the transactional and the emotional work needed to deal with the past and move forward toward a more hopeful future.

At Teleos, we have worked with organizations that needed to confront and work through some very difficult conversations: around safety, ethics, and diversity. We have worked at the community and country level as leaders began reconnecting in a post-war or post-apartheid setting to confront difficult issues in their community such as high rates of HIV/AIDS.

Recently, I was part of a multi-disciplinary group who supported a conversation in a Native Alaskan community confronting the issue of members of its community being sexually abused by priests. What causes a community to tear apart, or the challenge that confronts them, can be completely different—but there is an amazing similarity in what a leader or facilitator needs to do to shepherd the process of the conversation so that the group can digest and integrate what was lost, broken or hurt and move toward new possibilities.

Mending is more about setting the conditions for healing, than the action of mending. Just as a doctor doesn’t heal the bone directly when they put a cast on your broken leg, they set the conditions for a natural system of healing to occur. Bone knits back together when properly held and set.

From our work in many contexts, I can recommend 6 important guidelines for mending or repair conversations:

1. Create a reverent space.
Set a reverent context for the conversation: appeal to the noble purpose of the individuals, the group and/or the organization. Talk about why this conversation is important to you as a leader. Call on the values, the hopes, the aspirations of yourself and the group to whom you are speaking. In some cultures, this reverent space has been designated by the spiritual leaders of the community (Buddhist monks, Native American Elders), by community leaders (village chiefs, elected officials) or organizational leaders. The personal call for honor and reverence by a leader has both a calming and inspirational effect on the process—and creates the safe emotional container for the work.

2. Set a structure for the conversation.
Some of this structure will guide conversation. Help the group to understand the structure of the conversation. How will we talk? Who will talk and for how long? What are the rules of conversation? And some of this structure will hold conversation. The most successful difficult conversations are led by teams, not individuals—I tend to use at least the same ratio for leaders to group members that I was taught as a swimming lifeguard: 1 lifeguard for 20-25 people. All the “lifeguards” may not speak to the large group, but having them there lets the large group know that they will be heard and attended to, especially if something goes awry.

3. Let it happen.
Allow the conversation time to emerge within that structure.  Conversations about difficult conversations emerge slowly or intermittently. Think about the best context: in some cultures (in countries or businesses) speaking up in front of a large group is taboo—allowing people to talk in small groups and bring their ideas to the group as a group can work better. Let the conversation build and let people struggle with finding the words. Acknowledge the effort and courage of the speaker—the words will speak for themselves.

4. Watch the fencelines and scan the deep water.
Watch the fencelines. As people are speaking listen with an ear from your perspective and, to the best of your ability, the perspectives of the people in the group. What is the ‘emotional temperature’ of the group? What needs to happen or be acknowledged for the temperature to remain in the safe zone? Have people been listening too long? Do they need a chance to turn and talk to someone? Scan the deep water. Deep water is silent. What is not being said? What sub-groups are remaining silent? Can you encourage the silent ones to share their thoughts? The whole group will benefit.

5. Honor the work that was done.
At the close of the session, bring the stance of reverence back to the work that was done that day. Acknowledge the effort, courage and time that has been taken. Acknowledge that even though there was hard work, some things were not covered and some expectations were likely not met. Summarize what your gains were for the day, and the gains for the process. Extend gratitude to as many as possible: your team, the group, and anyone else who made the process possible (administrative staff, hotel staff etc). If the group is small enough, allow the group to verbally acknowledge their own work, and if the group is large, find a way to get some feedback about their experience.

6. Create a vision for possibilities.
Close with a vision of where the conversation will lead you and your group. The conversation might be enough to close the issue, or it may inform the next action, the next meeting, the next conversation.

Use the passion and energy the participants brought to the work to inform your own hope for the mending process. Use your gratitude to inspire the group to engage in the actions ahead.

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2 Responses to When Systems Need to Heal: Guidelines for Organizational Mending

  1. Kristin says:

    Wonderful blog Gretchen, thanks for the guidelines, I can envision using them in all kinds of systems, including my family as we address my father’s deteriorating health.

  2. AMO says:

    I like the framework you outlined here and I can see how it can be used in an organization, in a family group, in a couple’s discussion, among friends – I would imagine it could be applicable to any type of encounter or situation. Very useful! Thank you for publishing these guidelines!

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