Organizations are often anthropomorphized—attributed with the characteristics of living things. One might describe an organization as strong or weak. Organizations might be said to flourish or wither. They might be said to experience periods of peace or other periods in which they are under attack and in a position of mortal danger. We might describe an organization as a family or as a team. The stock price of a company may be said to dive or to soar. Organizations are said to be born and, sadly, they often die.
Organizations are, of course, not living things. You will not find them listed in any biological text. They do, however, behave in ways that are analogous to living organisms, and nature is often an effective teacher.
The terminology used to describe stress in an organization is nearly identical to the language used in physiology to describe the body’s reaction to both appropriate amounts of stress and stress overload. A comparison of organizational and physiological adaptation to stress yields an important lesson.
In the body, as in an organization, stress is needed for growth. Without stress there is the opposite of growth: atrophy. Overstress leads to breakdown. As tissues are stressed, an inflammatory reaction occurs, which leads to environmental changes including increased temperature, a lack of blood flow to the affected area, a buildup of damaging acids, an accumulation of waste products, and a lack of oxygen. This environment, though unpleasant, does have beneficial side effects. If the body is stressed, cells called osteoblasts spring into action and repair an area using collagen, a bony material that makes the tissue stronger. Osteoblasts function only in a hot, acidic, low-oxygen environment, and so stress is always needed to strengthen tissues. There is no growth without inflammation and no inflammation without stress. The next time the tissue is stressed, through exercise or mild trauma, it takes more stress to cause the area to become inflamed because the body is now stronger and more stress resistant. Continued mild stress applied to tissue being repaired causes it to form itself to new job demands. This process is known as remodeling. It’s a great system.
The only problem is that the osteoblasts have no intelligence. They cannot say, “Gosh that seems like plenty of collagen; let’s stop the repair (change) process now.” Instead, they will continue to lay down bony tissue as long as their environment tells them to. This can lead to too much bone on a joint surface (osteoarthritis) or in a muscle (myositis), making the joint surface operate less smoothly or making the muscle less pliable. Since the muscle and joint then do not operate efficiently, they tend to become inflamed more easily. This, in turn, leads to a continued hot, acidic environment, which leads to even more bone being laid down by the osteoblasts. The system is cyclical, and what was once a promising repair system is now the cause of the injury, often long after the original cause of damage is gone.
Change in the body or in an organization can be due to healthy overload (such as increased business in an organization or exercise in the body) or trauma (such as an organizational crisis or a fracture in the body). In either case, even though the environment produced is unpleasant, the repair (change) process can make the organism stronger. In order to do this, the process has to follow a sensible pattern of overload followed by rebuilding. In either case, total absence of activity is never the answer. Without stress, tissues or organizations will not remodel themselves to their new demands. They will simply become scarred. The trick in either the body or the organization is to allow progressive overload to occur without creating an environment that proves to be chronically toxic, leading to a cyclical breakdown. This can be done through wellplanned, progressive growth (through exercise or progressive change) or through a sensible healing and remodeling phase (following bodily or organizational trauma). The rate of change should not stress the damaged tissue or organization to a point where chronic overload causes a state of repeated breakdown and scarring.
Change is inevitable. Study of physiology and study of leadership show us that organisms and organizations are rarely static; at any moment they are either becoming stronger or becoming weaker. Appropriate levels of stress are needed to elicit growth. Stasis leads to atrophy. What is needed for either organizational or physiological change, however, is careful monitoring of the environment to ensure that the results of change land between weakness caused by atrophy and inflexible scarring caused by a chronically inflamed environment.
Mark J. Carroll is a faculty member in the physical therapy program at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted from “Using Stress to Create Change, Just as Nature Intended” in Academic Leader 21.8(2005)6 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.