This is the eighth post in a series on the 12 Transition Points.

When I work with an organization, I talk to everyone. I consider myself the “intimate outsider” who is there to learn in order to address the challenges and transition points that they face. I always hear about how the social structure of the organization is functioning. When it is unhealthy, I immediately see that this is a group in transition. When our relationships are unhealthy, we face a transition point that we must address.

Seeing Social Structure

Most of us are aware of the organizational structure of our businesses. What we are less clear about is the social structure which ultimately defines the culture of the business.

A social structure is where the interaction between people takes place.  It is part physical, as in conversation around “the water cooler” or through social media.  It is also part cultural, as identified by the values that define how people relate to one another. The structure could be very cooperative or highly competitive. It is because people within this structure live out their values in their interactions with people.

In an unhealthy organization, there is a lack of alignment between our values, the structure of the organization and our relationships. This reality applies regardless of the type or size of social setting. Unhealthy relationships can be found in families, in schools, businesses, governments, and communities.

The Three Aspects of a Healthy Social Structure

There are three aspects of a social structure that need to be aligned for it to be healthy.

We need:

  • A set of unifying core values
  • A culture where those values can to be practiced in our attitudes and behaviors
  • Relationships of respect, trust, cooperation, and mutual support

If one or more of these social aspects is missing, then the opportunity for conflict will rise. This is just one aspect of the whole of an organization. Add into the mix, change that is disruptive or a culture of fear and concern about the future, and stress grows between people and their coworkers. Healthy relationships, therefore, are a foundation for a company to be able to manage a time of transition.

The Source of Unhealthy Relationships

Even in the healthiest of organizations, unhealthy relationships can happen. Fractured relationships occur for a wide variety of reasons. It isn’t just what is happening within the company that can create unhealthy relationships, but what individuals bring with them.

People often bring problems from home to the office. An unhealthy relationship with a spouse or a child who has significant developmental or medical needs or the family’s financial needs can contribute to workers not being at their best. People who face these types of situations do not leave them at the door of the office. They are a living reality that impacts the other parts of their life. For some people work is a break from the pressures of home. For others, work is additional stress that must be faced each day. Add in personality differences between individuals or departments and an unhealthy social climate can quickly grow.

A Social Structure is a Relationship Structure

The social structure of an organization is the glue that holds the parts of the company together. It functions well when the three aspects of a social structure are aligned. However, the three are not equal in importance.

Unifying core values have little value alone. They matter only in how they are experienced through relationships. Values provide direction for the kind of attitudes and behaviors that are desirable for the company. Values that simply exist as marketing boilerplate create confusion. When integrity between belief and practice is lost, there is an opportunity for unhealthy relationships to grow.

A healthy social culture is the product of those unifying core values making a difference within our relationships. We can create relationships of respect, trust, cooperation, and mutual support. Openness and understanding grow. A culture of persistence and resilience in the face of challenging times becomes the character of the business.

The Transition Point to Healthy Relationships

When we experience unhealthy relationships, we are faced with a transition point that we should not ignore. Just like the health of our bodies needs care, so too does the health of our organizations and communities. When our bodies become unhealthy, we take steps to restore our health. It may require simply relieving stress, and providing better nourishment and rest. Or, our body to be healthy may require surgery to remove, repair or replace a joint or organ that is essential to our health.

If we think of the social culture of an organization as its immune system, then the quality of our relationships is a fundamental strength the company needs to fight off threats to the system. If we find our relationships with people are not healthy, then we should recognize immediately that the health of the company has already been compromised.

The step to take is to bring alignment back to the three aspects of the social structure of the company.

  • Create a conversation to establish the unifying core values that will become the non-negotiable foundation of belief in the company.
  • Establish a shared commitment to practice the attitudes and behaviors that reflect the company’s values.
  • Commit to making respect, trust, cooperation and mutual support the expectations that inform how relationships are conducted within the company.

The transition point from being unhealthy to healthy brings new vitality that can carry the company through other transitions points.

Dr. Ed Brenegar is a Leader for Leaders working with individuals, their teams, organizations and communities who find themselves at a point of transition. Ed has developed an innovative leadership model called, Circle of Impact, that clarifies what the impact of their life or the work of their organization can be. From this perspective, impact is the change that makes a difference that matters. Ed. for over 30 years, has inspired and equiped people and organizations to practice this fresh understanding of leadership. All leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. Everyone within an organization or a community can, therefore, practice leadership initiative. In so doing, they turn what were once leadership-starved organizations into leader-rich cultures that make a difference that matters.

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