Five Steps to Healing Organizational Culture

Leadership is challenging. At points in my leadership history, I've felt as if Galadriel's quote from Lord of the Rings applies: "Your quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true."

Okay, so it's a little geeky and melodramatic in this context, but the sentiment represents the stress leaders can feel as we try to navigate pressures from the board, donors, people we serve, and our own team. When we feel particularly stressed, frustration, contempt, jealousy, anger, and a wide range of negative emotions begin to trickle into a nonprofit culture and impact productivity. When this occurs, when productivity slows down, a leader may be tempted to think the following about members on the team (let's be real; I wrote this list from personal and painful experience):

They should want the reach of the organization to grow as badly as I do.

Why aren't they paying attention?

"Stop whining and get back to work. There's too much to do to stand around murmuring in the hallways."

Why are they fighting me on this? Don't they know how badly we need to raise this money/ reach this goal/ hit a grand slam with this event?.

Sometimes we leaders speak these messages but more often than not they are below the surface. 

Here is your leadership gut check: Get out a pen and paper. Write down pressures you feel but don’t think the people you lead feel as well.  

If your list is long, then you’ve discovered a dent in your leadership and an even bigger gap in your nonprofit culture. You’ve diagnosed a secret killer in your culture; you don’t think anyone else cares as much as you do. The people you lead know you feel this way. Don’t panic or give up. There is a way to recover a culture that can thrive again. I'm no expert, but I've compiled 5 steps that others have created and I've found really helpful. Here they are (and they're meant to be practiced in this order): 

  1. REST - A few months ago I wrote about the strength found in yielding to the Great Invitation from Matthew 11: 28. Life as a follower of Christ - whether we’re leading a ministry, working in a giant corporation, part of a local church, or stewarding a family – is meant to follow a certain pattern of relationships, starting with our individual life in the Spirit. Unhealthy culture is a symptom of getting these priorities wrong. We MUST stop to rest and reorient our priorities before trying to alter the trajectory of our organization's culture. My striving can cease when I trust the outcomes and impact to the only One who can actually bring it about. When I go to work with Him instead of on my own, I find freedom and the fruit that I was unable to produce on my own. 

  2. Earn the Right - Servant leadership is the most powerful form of leadership. As Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”  Authority will lead us to believe we are to be served when, in reality, it’s this mentality that disables our leadership the most. Here’s a leadership challenge; go to a direct report and let them know they have the right to be honest. Ask, “What am I not doing that would serve you and help you at your job?” When we as leaders care about the wellbeing of those we lead, there is a greater chance they will want to follow our lead.

  3. Think New Again - Jim Collins’ book "How the Mighty Fall" is an in depth study on the companies initially featured in his book Good to Great. These companies were once hugely successful and have since shut their doors.  One pattern in each company’s descent to the grave was the undisciplined pursuit of more. A reality most nonprofit leaders feel is the fear of losing donors to some other organization that’s newer or more impactful. To grow big we often have to behave small. In other words, stop asking everyone to focus on everything. Ask questions like, “What would we do if we were starting over? What would we do if we’ve never done this before?” When you, as their leader, are blinded by the pursuit of growth, questions like these empower people you lead to solve plaguing problems. 

  4. Make someone else the hero - When was the last time you made sure your team knew there was a hero among them? Maybe it's not for lack of trying, but does your team know how much you really value them? Reignite your team's passion for the mission by celebrating their success. Each person on your team may have a different filter for "hearing" appreciation - for one it may be praise in front of others while for another that same public display would make them want to hide under the desk. Check out the resources from Appreciation at Work to learn how to get better at showing appreciation in meaningful ways. 

  5. Write it down - There is an incredible power in setting aside space and time to journal.  Great leaders reflect. Each day, write about what's working and what's not working. Whether you're doing this as the spiritual discipline of Examen (which InterVarsity can teach you about) or something more mundane, it will be easy to spot patterns of improvement or places that need more work. 

For a nonprofit to flourish, it’s culture is critical and cultures take time and constant work. The leader sets the pace for the core values of the mission so it’s important to ask yourself, “What am I demonstrating to my team?” If you don’t like what you see, then it’s time to start making changes in yourself. When a leader decides to get better, everyone gets better.