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The same principles that underlie our human health, can also be applied to the organisations in which we work. Healthy organisations attract the best people, deliver superior results and are great places to work. Organisations that actively manage their organisational health – they do not leave it to chance – report superior financial performance.

Organisational health is much more than just culture or employee engagement. It’s the organisation’s ability to align around a common vision, execute against that vision effectively, and renew itself through innovation and creative thinking.

It’s a good idea to measure health frequently throughout the year, since it is a leading indicator of performance, whereas financial results are a lagging one. Employee performance conversations should also include the organisation’s wellness as well as financial targets.

Here are some of the symptoms that may indicate that all is not well with an organisation.

1. The Leader

Every organisation has a leader who sits at the apex of that organisation. Is the leader’s style appropriate for the organisation? An autocratic style might work for a start-up, but a more participative approach will be better suited for an established organisation. The leader has to provide the kind of leadership that the organisation needs, and not the style of leadership with which the leader is most comfortable.

“The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

― General Colin Powell

2. Labour turnover

Labour turnover is a valuable indicator of organisational health. While some degree of labour turnover is essential, anything more than an regular, annualised turnover above 15% should be investigated.

The causes of high labour turnover can be many—a toxic organisational culture, poor leadership, non-competitive compensation, and other factors. If leadership doesn’t care about high turnover, that’s a serious indication of an organisational health issue.

3. Sick leave

Sick leave is a useful indicator of organisational health. When someone who is not genuinely sick takes a day or two‘s sick leave, they are in effect temporarily “resigning” from the organisation. Employees who are genuinely ill should be encouraged to take sick leave.

When a person displays regular patterns of sick leave, it may be the symptom of a larger problem. It may be that the person is trying to get way from an uncomfortable work environment, or has a serious underlying health condition. Either way, action is required.

4. Organisational behaviour

An organisation that allows abusive behaviour is an unhealthy one. Shouting at team members, swearing and reprimanding them in public are red flags. This is a sure-fire way to destroy morale and motivation.

5. Leaders are constantly putting out fires

When leaders are frequently trying to put out fires that should have been anticipated beforehand through sound planning. —it is a sign of bad leadership and a failing organisation.

6. The organisation cares more about putting in the time than they do about output

If your organisation is more concerned about the time when employees arrive and leave instead of how much employees are actually accomplishing, your organisation is toxic. When employees have the freedom to perform, innovate, collaborate, and aren’t bound by so many rigid, antiquated rules, most employees will get the job done effectively, efficiently, and give the organisation more than it expected.

14 Symptoms of an Organisation in Trouble7. Employees are treated like objects and not like people

Personal life issues impact an employee’s ability to focus at work. A culture where the leadership lacks compassion or fails to show compassion or lacks empathy is a toxic culture. Organisations that are people-oriented tend to be stronger, better, more productive, and have happier customers.

8. The organisation doesn’t listen to its employees

Most organisations do some sort of organisational climate survey. If the leadership of the organisation doesn’t listen to what employees say, it sends a very clear message that the organisation doesn’t care about what they have to say, thus resulting in employees becoming disengaged, leaving the organisation, or going into minimum performance mode.  At the very least, your HR department should have confidential conversations with every employee twice a year. A report with trends, concerns and actions should enjoy active management attention.

9. Scapegoats

When something goes wrong in a toxic organisation, the search is usually on for a someone to be made the scapegoat. The scapegoat is humiliated or disciplined and then the organisation continues. There is no concerted effort to found the underlying cause of the problem.

10. Employees avoid risks

Team members are reluctant to innovate, or take their own initiative, because should things go wrong they are blamed for the matter. When employees are blamed for good faith errors the organisation hasn’t adopted the right kind of caring. It can be the result of a scapegoat-seeking culture.

11. Employees are defensive

Whenever employees react defensively to a matter that needs improvement, it could be a symptom of a toxic environment. If honest dialogue is rare, then employees don’t feel supported enough to function effectively.

12. Employees give only positive feedback

This is the bane of all leaders. Team members want to please the leader, and so they filter out negative feedback. This is especially so with an autocratic, dominant leader. People may not complain because negative comments may be unwelcome, and may be punished.

13. Talented people deliver average performance

Competent people want to deliver great results. If employees are coasting by on mediocre performance, they may not be getting what they need from their leaders.

14. Your body is telling you something

This is a very personal indicator of a toxic work environment. If you start to feel anxious on Sunday afternoon about going to work on Monday or you can’t sleep at night because you are dreading going to work, something may be unhealthy about your organisation.

This list of symptoms of toxic organisations is not exhaustive.

The question now arises – what can we do about it?

If you are a mid-level employee and you find yourself in an organisation with an unhealthy culture, you have to weigh up the odds of your changing the culture to a more conducive one. If the organisation is unlikely to change, you should consider moving to a more accepting one.

If you are a leader in an organisation exhibiting many of these symptoms, you have a much bigger challenge on hand. The starting point is to collect the evidence and have honest conversations with key leadership individuals about the nature and the extent of the situations. The road to organisational health is not easy, but it must be undertaken because the world we live in demands that places of work are places of nurturing, growth and achievement.

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