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What Kind of Organizational Culture Do You Have? Would you call it Healthy?

The-Buzz-(final)Everyone plays a role in defining an organization’s culture.  Culture is a compilation of values, principles, beliefs, and actions that ultimately define how an organization works.  Many organizations today use words like efficiency, excellence, customer-oriented and lean to describe their cultures.  Here’s an important question:  would we add the word healthy to that mix?  As authors of the recent book, Survival of the Hive:  Seven Leadership Lessons from a Beehive, Matt and I are critically aware of the elements needed in a beehive for it to be healthy.  Let’s relate those to an organization and see if there is a link.

We might ask healthy for whom? A healthy beehive is based on both the individual health of every bee as well as the overall health of the entire hive.  The same is true in organizations:  the accumulation of individual health creates the overall health.  So, what are some things that make for a healthy organization?

1. Monitoring the workload.  Today’s workforce often describe themselves as having a crushing workload where there is little chance to breathe between tasks, participate in any type of training or outside activities and no opportunity for personal development.  The demand of endless emails, multiple projects and insufficient support result in extended work hours and feeling like one never quite completes anything.  A beehive culture expands the resources to meet the supply available and the honey demand.  The queen is constantly assessing the resource requirement and adjusting as needed.  An organizational healthy culture should likewise solicit feedback on workload demand and makes appropriate adjustments when needed.  That doesn’t always mean hiring on additional people; sometimes figuring out how to work smarter than harder is the answer.

2. Reducing internal politics.  Organizations are tightly-wound power cultures that can literally suck the life out of people, as power players emerge at various levels.   The amount of jockeying for position, building fiefdoms and isolating the communication flow is astounding.  Who’s in favor?  Who’s out of favor?  Internal politics creates a huge drain on the health of any organizational culture.  In the beehive culture, the roles are simple and clear (house bee, scout, forager, queen) and more importantly, there is a constancy of purpose and mission that keeps every bee focused on a single goal:  survival of the hive.  On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the level of internal politics in your organization?  If the score is over 3, start doing something to break down the cliques and power struggles.

3. Recovering broken trust.  Trust is fundamentally a balance between the “give” and the “get.”  Employees today often feel their “give” is vastly greater than their “get” as pay raises, promotions, benefit packages and every other form of perk have been frozen for a long time.  Some have been told, “Be happy that you have a job.”  While that may be true at one level, there is, at times, a distinct feeling of being taken advantage of in the current workplace.  Trust is typically broken because of character failure and it’s restored through demonstrations of competency.  Think Bill Clinton:  broken by weakness of character with Monica Lewinsky, restored through the demonstration of competency related to the work of his foundation.  It’s not that healthy organizations never break trust with their employees; it’s more that they know when they have and know how to recover.  It’s that ability to say, “We made a mistake and we’re sorry” that seems so hard for some.”  A healthy organization is able to have the real and transparent conversations that validate that what you’re feeling is okay. Zync, our queen-in-waiting in Survival of Hive, discovers this about trust: “survival of the hive is a shared responsibility, a culture built on accountability for the sake of the whole, and a code of dependability among every bee, including the queen.  It is a bond of trust between a queen and her bees.”

What would it take for you to list HEALTHY as a core element in your culture?   What work/life balance issues would need to be addressed?  What displays of power and egotism would need to be checked?  What old feelings about violations of trust within the organization – or even your department – would need to be expressed?  As Seth Godin says in Poke the Box, don’t invest based on how the organization was last quarter, invest based on what it’s going to do tomorrow. Read a free chapter of Survival of the Hive: 7 Leadership Lessons from a Beehive on us!  If you enjoy it, make sure to pick up a copy


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4 Responses to “What Kind of Organizational Culture Do You Have? Would you call it Healthy?” Leave a reply ›

  • Queen bees do get crushed once in a while, worker bees are much more productive when there is a cohesive environment. Workplace would be more positive if management valued, respected and encouraged trust and teamwork.

  • Enjoyed the post, but I have a question…

    I have worked for 5 multinationals. Every last one of them suffered from internal politics and power plays.

    I can’t help but think it is part of the human condition.

    What practical steps can you take to reduce it?


  • I always find the better and quicker I communicate with staff about issues – good or bad, the better the staff works. They are then included in the process even if not in the decisions and they feel as though they are part of the team. When they feel vested in the business they are willing to work harder and more productive. When that happens, we are able to reward and offer benefits more often.

    Internal politics and power plays are never going to go away. You need to make sure everyone feels important and listened too. You don’t have to always do what they want, but you do need to listen to them.

  • Profile

    Thanks for some great comments so far!

    Kim – thanks for your comment. As we point out in the book (or rather as Strategy starts Chapter 3): “Of course, Zync, the hive wouldn’t succeed if not for all the other bees that play different and vital roles in the development of the hive. I’m sure you’ve realized that as queen bee you do not make pollen into honey. Nor do you fan the hive or nurse the brood. You don’t go out and scout or forage, nor do you bring water to cool the hive during the hot summer months. The other bees are the number one resource in your hive.”

    The book was written because many employees are disengaged at work usually attributed to an ineffective boss, manager or leader. We also know management and leadership are at a point of fatigue from years of a recession, cuts, limited resources and being asked to do more with less. We hope the book provides a way to have a conversation about leadership renewal.

    James – great insight! Yes, we are human and we do have a complex internal engine that seems to drive us to division and politics at times. We also know, through personality assessments and working with leaders for many years, there are preferences and then there are skills developed to counter preferences (if need be). We may have a tendency to veer of course, dabbling in internal politics, “stamp collection” or grudges, and “triangling” or talking behind each other’s backs. We hope this book provides some new choices for leaders to consider as a new workplace is emerging that requires the abolishment of those internal politics (with cross-cultural, multi-generational, 24/7 expectations).

    Lisa – right on! When we actually look at a honeycomb structure, every wall of a cell creates part of another cell wall (think about it – pretty neat symbolism). We can’t do this unless we make communication (or BUZZ) a primary tool in every leaders tool belt.

    Too often, as leaders we tend to limit our communication to an “as needed” basis, or in response to crises emerging, only to find out that our communication system is not the well-oiled machine we need it to be. The beehive teaches us that instead, we should focus on creating a sociality—or intercommunity BUZZ of an ongoing, organic communication where discussion, thought, and feedback are all second nature within our groups, teams, and organizations.

    Thanks for sharing – we look forward to more comments and insights! Great buzz going!!

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