About 6 months ago, I had an old filling give way and it broke my tooth. I went to a dentist to have the filling replaced. Simple. The problem is, the tooth didn’t heal properly. Over the entire summer I suffered with blinding headaches. I thought it was stress and worked to reduce that, but the headaches persisted. The tooth kept giving me problems and I ended up being able to chew on just one side. It had become painfully – metaphorically and literally – evident that I would need a root canal.

dentistThe pain affected every part of my life. I was much more easily irritated. I found myself more frustrated with my wife over little things. My focus waned and I felt I wasn’t giving all to my work. It was difficult to concentrate and live up to my full potential. In essence, the pain from this bad tooth was a distraction that brought down my productivity in everything I did. I realized that, when it comes to health issues, I had developed a “lets wait and see how it works out” personal culture. It was a mistake.

Now that my head is clear and the tooth is on the mend, I realized how often something like this happens in organizations. Something happens unexpectedly and the response, which is influenced by organizational culture, creates cascading problems. The difficult bit is it happens so gradually it is chalked up to “going through a rough patch” or some other dismissive act of complacency as a means to describe away the problem.

Just like one single tooth began to impact my relationships, my ability to perform and be productive and access my creativity for solutions, a single problem can diminish the quality of relationships, performance and innovation within an organization. I knew that my tooth pain was affecting me, but there was just enough stubbornness and – although I hate to admit it – arrogance that I developed my own message of “I can beat this. I am stronger than it is.

Business isn’t an action movie where your organization is the hero who defies the odds and delivers a stellar performance while having been shot.

So. Does your organization need a root canal? Here are some symptoms that may indicate you need to address these pain issues.

  • Shift in cultural norms – Over a reasonable period of time, you notice a new behavioral norm that slipped through the cracks and has changed what is perceived as normal within your company culture. It could be a response from a traumatic event or perhaps a bad choice for a leadership position. Whatever the reason, it is not what will move your organization forward and must be addressed.
  • Lessened quality of relationships – Is there a decreased sense of comraderie? Has arguments and conflicts begun to increase? This can be a symptom that there is pain somewhere in your organization. Asking the right questions will help you discover its source.
  • Significant drop in productivity – This can come from a number of issues, but a “bad tooth” can easily be the culprit. Ask questions. Listen – truly listen. People’s frustrations are looking for an outlet and sympathetic ear, so the best way to find out what is going on is to provide that for them. Seek to understand and resolve, not find and punish. Just like it wasn’t my fault the filling didn’t heal properly, it may not be their fault things are a bit awry. Be a solution, not a punisher.
  • Lack of innovation and focus – When there is a problem creating pain in your organization, it pulls a lot of the creative energy from your organization. That energy is misspent on alleviating pain and catering to that problem rather than developing innovative and creative solutions to make your organization more successful.

The big lesson in all this is to seek to understand why, instead of arbitrarily reacting to what. You may have a tooth that needs mending in your organization. Just like I had a weakness in my personal culture, you may have a weakness in your organizational culture that lets unhealthy issues to persist and take control of a number of different areas. Stubborn arrogance is a poor strategy that only delays the inevitable.

What else would you add to this list?