InterlockingWhen I was a child, things were “sturdy”.  We built things that were “sturdy,” and our shoes were “sturdy.”  Mid-Westerners were “sturdy”.  It connoted resilience, strength, the ability to hear bad news, suck it up, and keep going.  And I grew up with mottos of sturdiness, like “Function in crisis, finish in style, then fall apart—privately.”  Crying, gnashing of teeth—all private. Other mottoes?  “Only the best foot forward around others,”  “no sniveling, “whatever is wrong, make the best of it,” “you can do anything you want to if you can read.”

Sturdy relationships are important in customer- and client-facing roles in businesses.  Each contact a person has with your organization—the place, the people, and the processes—from the time they they step out of their car in your parking lot until the time they leave is what is called a “moment of truth.”  Each interaction informs them of three vital facts:

  1. How authentic the organization is (e.g., walking the talk).
  2. Who they are to the organization and to the people who work there, and
  3. What they can expect in terms of quality of interaction and care.

In any agency setting working with people who have problems in daily living (homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence, sexual assault), these moments of truth either humanize or dehumanize clients, positively or negatively affecting their sturdiness.  Sturdiness is a function of resilience.

Organizational change—implementing electronic health records, decoding the mysteries of meaningful use, adapting to changes in regulations or requirements, wrestling with changes in staffing or programs and many other changes—means that sturdiness in different levels of staff is critical.  For example:

The C level.  C-level executives (CEO, CFO, COO and so on) better have a level of sturdiness that comes with their position.  They create plans that others are compelled to follow, sometimes by the C-level’s sturdiness alone.  When the C-level decrees that a change will occur, it is likely that the rest of the staff must follow, ready, sturdy, or not. The C Suite demonstrates organizational sturdiness in collaborative process, in experiencing the challenge of change with the rest of the staff instead of being stand offish, in transparency, and in honesty.

Administrative support staff.  Folks in administration have a lot of power.  But if their personal or professional style lacks sturdiness, they may have difficulty creating and sustaining the power needed to avoid staff mutiny and customer alienation.  Just think about the office manager who seethes internally when a customer wants a copy of a detailed bill and unconsciously institutes a slow-down on delivery to demonstrate who’s really in charge.  Or the IT person who works with staff who chronically misuse their computers. Without sturdiness, administrative and support staff can be prone to misusing their power.  Sturdiness here is a balance between engagement, compassion, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Customer- or client-facing positions. Chances are the people who come through the doors of your agency get plenty of feedback from the media and maybe from others in their daily life about whom they should be and who society is afraid they might be. If your agency works with people with diagnoses, or people who are homeless or otherwise generally considered “less than,” these clients may already feel less than sturdy themselves. So if you serve people who are considered somehow ill, defective, or damaged, having staff who are sturdy is critical.  Sturdiness allows your staff to offer unconditional respect, assume that each person is truly doing the best that he or she can, and avoid taking a (sometimes subconscious) punitive approach.

In other words, everyone in an organization benefits from sturdy relationships. Sturdy relationships are about choice instead of control (even in very small things), recognizing when we revert to our fallback positions under duress, and changing those positions to be more congruent with the ones we hold when things are going well. In a mental health agency, sturdiness is about reinforcing the desirable behavior to strengthen it and believing in people’s ability to grow and heal.  In an organization, these moments that test your sturdiness are significant points of potential change.

These are some of the benefit of sturdiness. But how do you develop it?

  • A commitment to a healthy organization is first, from the top down.
  • Enough authenticity to be willing to recognize one’s own patterns is critical.
  • Leaning in to the tough times with celebration and reflection is a mandate.
  • Using tools such as Marshall Rosenberg’s nonviolent communication ( deflect and reduce conflict.
  • DMAIC—define, measure, analyze, implement and control—processes need to be applied to refine processes involving employees and the clients.
  • Focusing on moments of truth that test sturdiness today and make the success (or failure) stories of the future.

Sturdiness.  Not only is it an individual capacity, it is also an organizational capacity.  With it, your organization can endure the buffeting change brings and recover with minimal disruption.  You model it for the people you serve, which helps in their recovery and healing from the traumatic events in their lives.  Sturdiness is an invaluable quality in trauma-responsive systems.


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