Last week we talked about how important it is for individuals to grieve and heal their losses in order to move forward. Just as with individuals, organizations, as a whole, get “attached” to a truth and when that truth fails to materialize or is no longer true, they, too, need to grieve the lost future in order to integrate the new one.
When we say “organizations,” we are describing the people who make up the organization and who by working together within a particular culture come to believe a shared truth. Think about places you have worked and the various “truths” you have heard . . . “we are the best place in the region to work,” “we never lay anyone off – we are a family,” “our CEO always makes the right decisions,” “this company is the life blood of our town, it will never die,” or “we will do whatever it takes to keep our customers, we can afford it.”
As we said last week, grieving is the process that allows humans to integrate new truths into our lives; we suggested that one way to visualize this is to imagine your life as a tapestry of multicolored threads representing your life experiences and woven together as a whole. The same is true of an organization, where there is a tapestry of shared experiences that get woven together. When something significant happens in the life of the organization, the members of the organization need to thoughtfully and carefully pull out those threads that are no longer true and weave in the threads that represent the new truth. Grieving is an important process in organizational life because it is the process that helps members let go of the “old truth” threads, in order to create a new shared experience of the organization.
For example, we were asked to work with an organization that had struggled since the hiring of their new General Manager. She had been interviewed by all of the leaders and many of the staff and given a resounding “thumbs-up.”
When she joined the organization, she quickly assessed areas that needed to change and embarked on making those changes. What she didn’t realize was that the things she assessed as needing to change were things that the members of the organization had come to believe were truths: “the individuals in the organization have autonomy over their schedule and the bulk of their workload,” “we are a family and never fire anyone, no matter what they do,” and “every member of the organization has influence over every single decision made.”
When the leaders and staff created the list of things they needed from a new GM, they had identified that they needed someone comfortable “herding cats,” who would set expectations and hold people accountable, and who would set up structures and systems to increase the efficiency of the organization. They hired the candidate who was committed to doing just that.
Apparently, no one considered that while these changes were needed, enacting the changes would create a dramatic shift in culture that would need to be grieved before the members of the organization could move forward with creating a new culture. With our help, they shifted from anger toward the new GM to an understanding of the loss, the need to grieve that loss, and finally to heal. This process allowed the GM, her leaders, and the staff to move forward and create the organization they had envisioned.
Whatever your role in your organization, you can help your leaders, your colleagues and your subordinates understand and honor the process of integrating new truths. In doing so, you will help the organization move forward more successfully and you can assure others of the normalcy of this process, even when it feels hard and sad.