A potted plant at the foot of a couch

We’ve all witnessed the recent turmoil in the business world where many CEOs have stepped down in light of calls for workplace equality and racial justice. There seems to be a reckoning of sorts, and a call for change and integrity—a culture of accountability. People are no longer comfortable maintaining and promoting people and systems that are inhibiting equity and inclusion.

It’s as if these companies and their employees are announcing what cannot remain in order for progress to happen. This call for accountability in the workplace is not wholly different from the health necessary for interpersonal relationships to work.

As an individual and couples therapist, I often look at events like these through a therapeutic and relational lens. Oftentimes, what works in the smaller subcultures of a couple or family can often teach us a lot about what works (and doesn’t work) in organizations. At the heart of any organization—for good or bad—are relationships, and unhealthy relationships can’t become healthy without the right conditions for change. 

At the heart of any organization—for good or bad—are relationships.

In a couples therapy training, I was taught the “contraindications” to applying the therapy model. Contraindications are the issues that will prevent therapy from working if they’re present in the relationship. A couple must deal with them if they want to reestablish a healthy relationship. It doesn’t matter how amazing a therapist I am or how well they apply the therapy if these underlying issues are not addressed. Without the accountability to expose and remove the underlying issue, progress will not be made. The same goes for any business or organization.

For couples, this can include any kind of active abuse (emotional, physical or sexual), an untreated addiction or an active affair (where the party engaged in the affair keeps it a secret or doesn’t intend to end it). At first glance, it may be hard to draw the connection, but let me explain. A couple is a system—a small organization of sorts. When that system is hurting or seeking healing, these issues must be addressed first for that healing and progress to happen.

When abuse is present, there’s mistreatment that’s toxic and dangerous. Sometimes, abuse is obvious and glaring. Other times, like when you’re gaslit, abuse is subtle and confusing. Abuse of all kinds is possible in professional organizations, and they often stem from one specific abuse—the abuse of power. Unless the abuse of power in a work environment is addressed, there won’t be health and equity in the organization. 

Unless the abuse of power in a work environment is addressed, there won’t be health and equity in the organization. 

When it comes to untreated addiction, the key word for organizations is “untreated.” How often are unhealthy behaviors and structures able to persist and even grow inside companies without treatment? When these issues are left untreated—in ourselves, in our relationships and in our organizations—we can’t move toward health. We must treat what’s hurting in order for us to build a healthy, thriving system. 

Finally, the contraindication of an affair undermines health in a relationship. The heart of this issue is that the person in the affair has their interests elsewhere. You can’t work on building a healthy relationship if your energy is focused somewhere else. In the same way, when leadership is focused on their own needs instead of the needs of their employees and the health of the organization, it won’t be able to flourish. It just doesn’t add up relationally. Where we put our focus only grows and what we neglect withers.

Where we put our focus only grows and what we neglect withers. 

Racial injustice and inequality are contraindications for a healthy organization. With their existence, a professional workplace will not be equitable nor fair. Some of the relational aspects that uphold racial injustice and inequity are not unlike the relational roadblocks that keep a couple from reaching a healthy place.

Whether in business or in personal relationships, we must address abuse of any kind. Instead of turning a blind eye, let’s treat the areas where we’re struggling and put our focus in the right place.

Have you ever encountered or witnessed a biased or inequitable workplace? What are some signs that an organization is not a fair place for all employees?

Image via Joe Schmelzer, Darling Issue No. 19


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