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Institutional Betrayal: Healing a Broken Heart

Updated: Apr 29, 2022

Often when in meetings or talking to people, I hear a beautiful description, phrase or thought and jot it down. My notebook is covered in random tidbits of goodness that people share. Some are funny, some are thought provoking, some are just perfect for that moment. As a result, I have several random thoughts throughout my notepads.

The Campfire Chat is almost always a source of these scribblings, and the last one was no exception. Dr. Jennifer Williams and Jodi Ploquin shared their research and programming on Trauma-Informed Leadership. Dr. Jen spoke about how we are so often let down, hurt, or traumatized by workplaces, and yet don’t associate the right language to it. There may be a source of “othering”, false narratives or labelling that impacts how others see and treat another person. Just as we know the impacts of schools remaining silent on bullying behaviours on kids, an equal impact occurs on those in the workplace who are left to fend for themselves in the face of an aggressor. She termed it “institutional betrayal”. Like any betrayal, it hurts – and it "causes a broken heart”.

Self Determination Theory is one of my favourite pieces of work. It so beautifully addresses both the individual psychological “nutrients” we need, while also recognizing the organizational context that impacts our behaviour. It is the perfect descriptor of our complex adaptive organizations. Our need to be self-directed, connected and impactful in what we do are all more than just “nice to haves” – they are what we need to be emotionally, psychologically, and even physically well.

This leads to two questions: How does one heal a broken heart? And with that, how do I create an organization that could heal broken hearts, and even prevent them in the first place?

Why do we tolerate this kind of behaviour in organizations? We see people leave, people are let go, we experience chronic absenteeism, and see, or experience a lack of motivation. The root cause validated by the whispers and pervasive knowledge that something is not right, but nothing changes. It’s like the worst-kept secret.

I take a position that people don’t come to work to hurt others and create this kind of environment but end up there as a result of an environment that produces it. Perhaps they simply behave in ways to fit in, or just accept it as “the way it is”, or don’t believe they can change it or even make a difference.

The broken hearts just continue.

This leads me to my second scribbling from the Campfire Chat from Sheena Howard: “the antidote to a broken heart is love”. Her Love-Led Leadership approach puts the feelings back into the workplace in a way that is truly real and human. It is about listening to others, holding ideas as sources of data and information, and behaving in ways that hold others to be autonomous, connected, and competent. It is the Love-Led Leader’s job to create the conditions for growth and learning.

This brings me to the practicality of it all. A leader in Senior’s Housing who spoke at our ASCHA presentation this week describes “how” to be that leader perfectly. She is a self-described “no person”. When a new request comes in, she found it easier to just say “no”. This was her knee-jerk reaction when housekeeping came to ask if they could listen to music while they clean.

This leader had participated in our Cognitive Resilience, and knew better than to just say no. She got curious. She listened. She asked questions and sought the perspectives of others and ensured that others also heard the perspectives of each other. They all came to a collective decision, and while not everyone was happy with the outcome, they all knew how and why they arrived at that decision. She could have said “no”, and housekeeping would tell themselves that no one cares about their needs, they are not listened, not heard, and not cared for. They could leave, find other jobs or be unhappy around residents and families. She could have just said yes and nursing could have told themselves that that was ridiculous, a safety hazard and they were never consulted because no on cares about the nurses. Both groups would ultimately feel unheard, not valued for their contribution to the organization or the skills that they bring. Instead, everyone learned from each other and made a hard decision together. The result is that people feel connected, valued, autonomous and safe.

Easy to say. Yes. Hard to do? Absolutely – but not impossible. These skills and ways of being are teachable, refinable and doable. Environments and culture can change, and one person has the power to lead it from anywhere. We don’t have to tolerate bad behaviour in the workplace, and we don’t have to see more broken hearts.

Join us in September to learn exactly how – and have the same kind of impact that the leader in Senors’s Housing had.

It is not magic. It’s science, its real and its amazing.

Oh - and you will want to make it to the next Campfire Chat. Dr. Scott McLeod always has wonderful "tidbits" that will make you think!

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