How to Build a Healthy Organizational Culture in Human Services

March 28, 2018
Receptionist behind a desk helping a woman

Building an organizational culture in human services with intention is critical to providing excellent care.

Organizational cultures can develop by default — or they can be developed with intention. Both kinds can have a powerful impact on the function of an organization — and the care it provides to its clients — but there’s a key difference:

  • In cultures that exist by design, a clear understanding of mission and purpose is practiced through shared values.
  • In cultures that exist by default, the environment and its practices are driven not by a central mission statement, but by the agendas of its most powerful members.

If an organization doesn’t shape its own destiny through shared values that are unified by a mission statement, it becomes vulnerable to dysfunction.

Building culture in human services with intention is particularly critical because what we model as professionals impacts our clients’ ability to meaningfully cope with the challenges that require our services.

Hear how Tom drove a culture-by-design change initiative in a Boston residential facility:

The tools we use for our clients exist for our own use as well — but if we’re not implementing these best practices, what are we actually modeling to our clients?

Family therapy models can teach us a lot about how healthy our organizational culture really is.

The therapeutic perspective we take in offering treatment and support to our clients can be just as useful in cultivating healthy dynamics in our organizations.

For example, think about the concept of the “identified patient” in family therapy.

This individual is the person in the family who has been unofficially, often unconsciously, portrayed as the troublemaker — if this one person would just get their act together, the whole family would be fine.

But the reality is that as long as the identified patient is seen as the sole problem, or used effectively as a distraction, the deeper dysfunction within the family remains masked.

Think about this dynamic and how it plays out in your organization. It’s easier to blame dysfunction on an identified patient — like a specific department or process — than to understand that dysfunctional dynamics are perpetuated by the entire organization.

It feels safer to place the blame on an identified patient because it eliminates the need for an organization to look at the range of hidden behaviors that fuel dysfunction — everything from illicit activity or abuse to duplicity, negligence, or safety violations.

In the same way that treatment can empower an individual to make meaningful choices in their recovery, a coherent mission statement supported by core values empowers an organization to develop a meaningful culture. Such a culture fosters successful client outcomes and staff wellbeing.

Without this clarified sense of purpose and definition of values, people and organizations are left to make sense of their environment the best way they know how. Relying on the paradigms we’ve grown up with — as individuals and as organizations — doesn’t always serve the best practices and optimal outcomes of our agency.

The dysfunction that plays out internally within an organization gets modeled to its clients in the same way transgenerational trauma fuels dysfunctional family dynamics.

So we have to ask ourselves:

Is our organization empowering our clients to credibly and consistently develop new ways of relating, or are we setting the stage for them to recapitulate their past?

Treatment takes time — but healthy organizational culture strategies can help you heal your paradigm

Many treatment modalities rely on some form of reframing experience, change in belief system, or paradigm shift.

Similarly, you can use reframing to drive culture change within your organization to improve the overall health and functionality of your workplace.

We must actively replace dysfunctional behaviors (control, indirect communication, manipulation, denial, or distortion) with shared, timeless values (honesty, fairness, respect, or direct communication).

This takes time, because a quick-fix mentality from leadership can feel like a manipulation to staff — and won’t ultimately move a culture into healthier dynamics.

Treatment at the organizational level requires the same principles of intervention we might use with a client, but in this scenario, we’re involving the entire staff. Educating the collective organization about dysfunctional behaviors and dynamics is critical — and this means openly identifying these dysfunctional behaviors in a nonjudgmental and supportive way.

Just as our clients can become vulnerable in the introspection process of treatment, we need to handle the treatment process of our organizations responsibly.

Men and women sitting on a couch talking

Support and safety are paramount in the process of gathering feedback and identifying dysfunctional cultural elements — this is ultimately a time to learn and heal, not an occasion to create new wounds.

The organizational mindset must be supportive, above all else. There are heavy responsibilities at the leadership level when it comes to developing culture with intention.

But the solution lies in collaboration — leaders and staff working together to establish core values through ethical behavior and principle-centered leadership strategies.

Your organization’s mission statement is the best gauge of whether your culture aligns with your values.

Testing your mission statement against the sub-units of the organization is an excellent way to assess your cultural alignment.

Do individual staff members embrace your mission statement as a philosophy that they embody with clients? And do your organization’s systems, protocols, policies, and procedures reflect this vision?

Here are some key questions to consider when assessing your organizational culture in relationship to your mission statement:

  1. Does your mission statement adequately reflect your organization’s philosophy?
  2. Are quality management principles part of the intentional design of your culture, and do they support the purpose and meaning of your mission statement?
  3. Are your goals and objectives aligned with your mission statement?
  4. Is your mission statement reflected in the climate or milieu that your organization purports to provide?
  5. Is your mission statement compatible with the level of treatment and service your organization provides?
  6. Does it promote the health and honesty that staff should be modeling and teaching to clients?
  7. Do designed structures support staff in doing their work?
  8. Do your budget, line items, development, and process support your mission?
  9. Do hiring and staffing practices adequately represent the community your organization serves, with diversity reflected at each level of the structure?
  10. How is supervision used in your organization?
  11. How is corrective action implemented?
  12. If your organization seeks to diversify its offerings, do these new endeavors align with your mission?

Alignment between your stated mission, the policies of your organization, the practices of your organization, and the behavior of staff are essential — and what doesn’t align must be reconciled. “Mission creep” can erode or derail an agency’s identity and core purpose.

It’s vital to acknowledge and commit to the reality that successful treatment is a long-term effort. It takes time to be honest with each other and with ourselves. It takes time to adopt new paradigms and master more congruent behaviors.

Just like in family therapy, the entire group needs to participate. If it took time for things to become dysfunctional, it will take time for them to become healthy.

Culture change doesn’t happen overnight.

When we live our mission statement, every staff member thinks like an owner. Because what we do as an organization has a direct impact on how we treat our clients.

Change can be scary — systemic, objective, and confidential support are essential. Remember that collaboration is the central component of implementing meaningful culture change. It can best be depicted through the Partnership of Change Paradigm.

Partnership graphic
Through involvement comes investment. From investment comes ownership. From ownership comes accountability.

The positive outcomes when cultural dysfunction is replaced with health are reflected in the clients we care for who make permanent positive changes.

Involving our staff in the development process is a form of practicing what we preach—modeling to one another what we’re trying to teach our clients to do for themselves.
And in human services organizations, it boils down to a fairly simple but striking question:

If we don’t believe that people can act responsibly, why are we working in behavioral health?

We each must share in commitment to the mission statement of our organization and live its values in our culture.
When talking about the importance of intentionally treating dysfunction within human services organizations, it’s helpful to recall the analogy that it wouldn’t make sense for a cobbler’s son to have no shoes. In the field of mental health, we’re uniquely equipped to guide meaningful culture change for the health and betterment of ourselves and our clients.
What are we waiting for?

This article was adapted from collected work by T.D. Loftus, a Senior Level CPI Certified Instructor. With a Master of Science degree from Northeastern University in Counseling Psychology and a BA in Psychology from Boston College, T.D. is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a quality management and compliance officer in a community mental health agency. He’s also a Reiki Master Level II and a Kettlebell Instructor through the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation.

Schedule a Consultation

Learn how CPI’s training programs can benefit your organization.

Let's Connect