Would You Want to Work Here? The Attributes of Healthy Systems

Recently, I read an excellent blog, “How to Keep Someone with You Forever” that outlined the components of unhealthy systems (i.e., work environment). As I read, I realized that all the values I cherish could be used as tools against me, values such as loyalty, a strong work ethic, and hope. I reflected on how my values had been used against me in the past, and I wondered how I could protect myself from that happening again. The blog provided an excellent description of what working in an unhealthy system was like but it did not identify what working in a healthy system would be like.

 Healthy systems whether they be in families or in the workplace have the same attributes.

Attributes of A Healthy System


Systems that place a high value on both-and thinking instead of either-or thinking are healthier and provide more opportunities for innovation. A both-and perspective lays the foundation for the importance and respect for diversity, prevents an organization from limiting ideas from its employees and provides the space needed for individuals to create and innovate through the knowledge that each individual is unique, valuable and respected. In a both-and environment, the needs of both the employee and employer are essential to the partnership.

 Time to Reflect and Play

In a sick system, everyone is too busy and too exhausted to think. Without time to think, reflect and play, creativity and innovation rarely occur. Of course, innovation happens at times in a sick system, but it is an anomaly and not a product of the system.

As Albert Einstein reminds us, sparks of genius come from moments of play. True play is joyous and free from worry. It happens in safe environments or brave spaces where all essential needs are met. Its only goal is to have fun. Through times of play, the bonds between employees are strengthened, stress levels are decreased, and satisfaction increases.

It is essential to also have time to set back and reflect, consider, and try new things. Providing time to reflect gives an employee an opportunity to think about the work, make deeper connections and to see patterns or new perspectives. The ability to try new things without fear of failure provides space for creativity that can lead to innovation.

Having the time to reflect and play is not helpful if reflection and play are not valued. If employees are given the message that they must always be productive, play can be seen as frivolous and not crucial to the health and wellbeing of the company and the employee.

 A healthy system values play, reflection and trying new ideas, and provides time for it in the employees’ schedule. Having lower levels of stress allows the employee to engage their whole brain. Play, reflection and the space for trying out new ideas provide the spark for creativity and innovation.

 Freedom of Choice

In a healthy system, there is the ability to freely decide one’s actions whether those actions hurt the relationship or whether those actions are mutually beneficial. It is true that when given choices some people will make selfish decisions that will hurt their company. The key is the ability to make choices, even if those choices are bad choices.

Ultimately, we want an employee to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do but to do that they must have the ability to choose. Often companies limit an employee’s ability to make decisions. Companies either block the choices that are available or dictate a specific choice because it is viewed as the most efficient way to manage people.

The action of choosing comes from the neocortex where all information is considered, including information from the body and nervous system then the decision is implemented. We want to make choices a whole brain activity where the facts are debated, and information from the limbic system is included in the decision-making process.  The more employees practice decision making, the better decision makers they will be. Being a good decision maker is good for the individual and for the company.

Rhythm and Predictability

To make choices with the whole brain, the environment must be safe. That is, it must have a rhythm, be predictable, and there must be the appropriate movement of each person’s feet in response to the other. Rhythm can be as simple as how individuals greet each other in the morning, or the conversation around the coffee pot before the work day begins. Giving regular or scheduled feedback, raises and following through are part of a workplace being predictable. Appropriate responses to other people are a demonstration of the dance of relationships. In a healthy system, it is safe to make mistakes, to disagree, and to openly and honestly communicate.

Sick systems are arrhythmic and keep everyone off balance. Employees working within a sick system are functioning in the survival regions of their brains instead of using their whole brains.

Seek Cooperation

Many companies seek compliance from their employees instead of cooperation. Compliance appears ideal, but it is a subcortical response with minimal involvement of the neocortex. Compliance is a yielding to another’s will while cooperation is working together. To have employees who are creative and innovative employees must be able to utilize their whole brains. Asking for cooperation instead of compliance from employees gives employees’ ownership over and an investment in the outcome. When employees are invested, they are more productive and engaged.

Individual Regulation and Boundaries are Essential

Healthy systems consist of individuals who are well regulated and have appropriate boundaries. The ability to respond well to situations comes from the ability to modulate the affective and physiological responses of the body (regulation) so that the whole brain can be engaged.

Each person is responsible for regulating their own affective and physiological responses. Co-regulation can occur when individuals are near other individuals who are regulated. It is crucial that each person control himself and remember that it is the job of others to control themselves. Controlling or attempting to control another individual is a sign of a “sick” system.

It is also critical that the individuals within the system maintain appropriate physical and emotional boundaries. Individuals in a healthy system respect each other’s values, and ideas even if they do not agree with them. Each individual sets and enforces his/her boundaries, and those boundaries are respected by the others in the system. In healthy systems, individuals are supportive of each other and do not hurt each other with their words or with their bodies.

Appropriate Energy

People within a healthy system assertively express themselves. They do not engage in mindreading (passive) or use coercion or threats (aggressive). They always use the least amount of pressure (energy) necessary to communicate what they are requesting. When a request is ignored, an incremental increase in pressure (energy) is used until cooperation is achieved. When a request is resisted (seeking a different answer), the expectation and energy remain the same until cooperation is achieved. Pressure (decrease in energy) is released when cooperation has been attained.

When emotions are high or the stakes or high it is essential that the leaders are well regulated and communicate with the appropriate energy. It negatively impacts a system when a leader or manager communicates with more energy or less energy than is needed to convey a thought or request. When too much energy is used, it creates an unpredictable environment and an arrhythmic dance within the company. An unpredictable and arrhythmic environment causes individuals to function out of the lower regions of their brains which impacts the quality of work, as well as the innovation capability of the company.

Correction with Connection

As individuals grow they require information about their interactions with others and their job performance. In a healthy system, it is just as important to highlight the individual’s strengths and the areas where they excel, as it is to discuss areas of growth. Healthy systems understand that everyone has areas of growth. Growth is a vital part of any system and should be viewed as part of the vitality of the system.

Evaluations in healthy systems are an opportunity for the employee and manager to share information. At minimum bi-directional evaluations provide needed information on the areas of growth in many parts of the system. Systems that allow peer evaluations in addition to bi-directional evaluations demonstrate the value of all voices in a system, prevent one voice from having all the influence in a system and highlight that every aspect of the system is vital and needs to grow.

When feedback is provided to an individual in a healthy system, the feedback focuses on skills that the individual needs to learn or skills that he/she needs to more successfully implement. Feedback is given in a matter of fact tone and with the care and concern of the individual in mind. If managers expect for their employees to interact professionally and show concern for the customer, managers must interact with their employees professionally and show concern for them. Individuals cannot give what they have not been given.

Connection and Attunement Are Vital

In healthy systems connected and attuned interactions are paramount. Natural Lifemanship teaches that what is good for one, must ultimately be good for both if it is going to be good for the relationship or partnership. Careful consideration is needed because decisions that appear to be good for both in the short-term maybe detrimental for one in the long-term.

Healthy systems care about the needs and meet the needs of those that are in it (ex the company and its employees). There is a balance so that the needs of both are met in the partnership. Attunement is characterized by seeing, hearing and responding appropriately to the spoken and the unspoken. Think of attunement as a whole brain activity that uses information from the limbic system and observations from the cortex.

From a connected and attuned relationship, we are able to see the value and uniqueness of each individual. We are able to hold with compassion our experiences and those of others. We are able to listen and to hear one another.

There are A Million Ways

Where there are individuals who are passionate and who are encouraged to create and innovate there will be conflict. Conflict often stems from the belief that we must all think and do the same things or that there is one answer. When systems believe that are a million ways to achieve something, they are able to equally hear all ideas. The ability to hear all ideas equally reduces an individual’s need to be the loudest since all ideas are recognized and valued.

In healthy systems, Individuals are encouraged to problem solve amongst themselves, and a high value is placed on repair and cooperation. There is more self and peer management/correction than there is a manager-employee management/correction.

Mistakes are Valued

Companies that are dynamic and innovative employ individual who make mistakes. Successful companies and healthy systems view mistakes as information and not as something to avoid. Mistakes come from pushing the limits, from trying new ideas, and new perspectives. Perfection is considered to be stagnation instead of something to be attained.

In the end, a healthy system is identified by the level and quality of connectedness within it. It provides the space to breathe, to learn, to play, and to have the courage to create and innovate. Each individual is secure in the knowledge that he/she is unique, valuable and respected and that his/her needs will not be crushed by the needs of the system.

These attributes were developed from a Natural Lifemanship perspective. Natural Lifemanship teaches principles that help us learn how to connect and be in healthy relationships with one another.