Are you a vitamin or a virus?

Make sure your organization stays healthy

Organizational health has been a topic of close study for decades. An online search of the term yields more than 3 million results, ranging from information about why it is the ultimate competitive advantage, to methods of measurement, tips for improving organizational health, and of course, a slew of experts on the topic.

With so much research and so many words written about organizational health, why are so many workplaces unhealthy? Part of the reason may be that when experts study large systems, theories emerge having to do with big picture variables like industry dynamics, changing demographics, emerging technologies and burgeoning regulation. All of these things impact organizational health, of course, but when the picture is so large, few feel responsible—or empowered—to do anything about it.

Vitamin-or-virus-MarshallJust as no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible, it is easy for individuals to shrug off personal responsibility for the way their actions contribute to the working environment. What about you? When it comes to the health of your organization, are you a vitamin or a virus?

Vitamins add nutrients to a system. In organizations, such vitamins might include clear thinking; straightforward communication; strategic vision; willingness and ability to give and receive feedback; a respect for differences; and having the ability to pick up the work pace when times demand it or slow down to allow others to absorb new information.

Viruses make systems sick. They can be devilishly difficult to detect—remember the Stuxnet computer virus—while doing incredible damage. Organizational viruses come in many forms, from poor leadership to toxic team members to misaligned objectives to careless communication practices, including rudeness and grandstanding. Small irritants can be easy to ignore until suddenly, they create a crisis.

There is a quick and simple way to begin to understand the vitamins and viruses at work inside your organization. Listen to the conversation that surrounds you. What are the subjects being discussed? What tones of voice can you detect? Are people cutting each other off? Is there a lot of “Yes, but” rebuttal to ideas or points of view? Does gossip flow freely?

When people talk about who did what to whom, who messed up, who is being favored or protected; when they complain about lousy equipment, lazy co-workers, nasty customers or uncooperative suppliers, viruses are at work.

It is true that people do obnoxious things, make mistakes, and seek favor and protection. It is annoying when equipment malfunctions, co-workers miss deadlines, customers get testy and suppliers have priorities that sometimes differ from yours. That’s real life. But when conversations simply catalog these grievances without a corresponding discussion about how to alleviate them, viruses multiply. The organization becomes toxic. If you’re looking at a bigger picture, you can miss these sure signs of trouble.

Conversely, when you hear people talking about customer interests, exploring new product or system ideas, investigating better ways to operate, encouraging risk-taking and offering constructive feedback, you know vitamins are in play. And these exchanges are not always gentle or patient in nature—some can be quite animated and even contentious.

But listen closely. The focus is on improvement rather than blame. Individuals share what they know and accept that others have alternative viewpoints honed through different experience. They stay with discussions long enough to think and learn together. They admit to changing their minds when they receive new information. They push and shove one another intellectually to get to a better outcome.

Listen to your organization over the next week. Notice the subjects discussed and the way people speak. Do you hear words that are clipped, signaling impatience or frustration? They may be spreading a virus of fear. Take note of the way your colleagues express their point of view. Where it creates tension, let them know. Where it serves to correct and encourage others in a positive way, thank them for doing so.

As the world grows darker with the viruses of cynicism, violence and fear, our organizations need an infusion of nutrients. The way you show up and engage your co-workers has a lot to do with the health of your organization. Resolve to be a strong, powerful vitamin.

-Susan A. Marshall is an author, speaker and the founder of Backbone Institute ( She can be reached at (262) 567-5983 or

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Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.

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