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Systems are designed by people to support people

Over the last few years, we have had the opportunity to speak with, listen to, or coach hundreds of leaders and employees throughout multiple industries across Canada. In these conversations, we have observed a recurring theme. Whenever workplace challenges arise (e.g., productivity issues, inefficiencies, cultural friction), individual behaviour is often first to be blamed for the problem.

This translates to the belief that there must be some deficiencies in individual resilience, technical skills, or motivation and willingness to “go above and beyond”. While we encourage organizations to create opportunities for individual growth, and believe that individuals have a responsibility to contribute to a thriving organization, blaming or judging individual deficiencies as the problem seems to overlook a significant issue. Design flaws within the workplace environment.

Time and time again, we find that workplace environments, specifically the systems, structures and culture in place, are not amplifying individuals, but instead creating systemic barriers that hinder the delivery of desired outcomes. When organizations or leaders focus primarily on individual deficiencies as the source of the problem, it can increase defensiveness within cultures, widen the divide between leaders and staff, and prevent organizations from making long-lasting changes.

We believe that organizations have the responsibility to create the work conditions, leaders have the responsibility to facilitate the work conditions and individuals have the responsibility to contribute to the work conditions. When these three elements work in synergy, organizations will thrive.

Creating a thriving workplace environment requires the development and alignment of the organization’s systems, structures, and culture. We define systems as a set of elements or activities that work together to create an interconnecting network or method to achieve a specific business outcome. This can include organizational processes, policies, practices and defined key performance behaviours. We define structures as the elements within the organization that make up the business infrastructure. This can include team or department design, equipment (e.g., IT platforms), function mapping, and business plan. Culture is what brings the systems and structures to life. Culture is established by social norms, values, and interpersonal relationships of the people inside the organization.

While many organizational environments are designed with the intention to best support people's optimal work, the last few years have brought to light some of the underlying and unaddressed issues and challenges within the workplace. Employee turnover, psychological health and safety, employee burnout, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) are increasing at a rapid rate. According to a study done in 2022 by Mental Health Research Canada, 33% of employed Canadians experience burnout. In some professions, however, it is much higher (e.g., 66% of nurses, and 61% of the mental health workforce). We find these challenges have been exacerbated for a few reasons:

  1. There has been, for many years, a reliance on individuals pushing past their personal boundaries (e.g., working on weekends).

  2. There has been a culture of celebrating people who push past these personal boundaries while judging or shaming those that work within the boundaries of their employment contract.

  3. The systems, structure or culture have not been examined or updated in many years.

  4. There is a tendency to hold onto legacy norms (e.g., this worked in the past, it is the way we have always done it).

These challenges often do not exist in isolation but compound on top of one another. We recently faced such challenges within our business. In executing a recent client deliverable, a staff member gave feedback about the project. They informed me that the way we executed the work was less than an ideal experience. In delivering this client project, we had defaulted to the “way things were done before”. We went with this approach for multiple reasons:

  1. It was a major project for our new company and we had to deliver quickly.

  2. We had several other deliverables and internal development work happening simultaneously.

  3. We had team members that had transitioned with me from a previous organization and I assumed they would know what to do.

  4. I was confident about its design as it had worked very well in the past.

Although important context, we did not take the necessary time for a proactive and honest conversation. In choosing the path that we did, we inadvertently overlooked the unique needs of our current organization and team.

As a result, the project was choppy, confusing, and frustrating for all involved. I found myself micro-managing the team and being more directive than usual. I even found myself pointing to gaps in team members’ skills as well as my own as a leader. After debriefing with the team, we realized that there were significant gaps in the process, norms and structures used in this situation. Some staff were not fully familiar with the previous system, while others had outgrown it. Our methodology and perspectives had organically evolved over time as well. I realized that as the leader of a new organization, or any organization, norms and functions need to fit the structures and processes we build, and that we need to build them proactively to ensure we are creating a culture where individuals feel amplified and therefore, thrive.

The responsibility to stay in tune with your people, and create an environment that best suits your team can feel overwhelming and never-ending, especially when it involves large-scale items, such as business processes, policies, organizational design or infrastructure.

In navigating how to decide the best path forward, the following steps to be helpful:

  1. Identify the original intention and purpose of your system and structures.

  2. Evaluate the current performance.

  3. Identify the root cause or problem within the current system.

  4. Explore the feasibility of the system.

  5. Commit to action.

  6. Implement change and monitor progress.

You can also find this article through the CPHR website here:

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