Have you ever bought an orange that looked nice and bright on the outside, but the juice was too sour to enjoy? Have you ever seen the model, picture-perfect, family, only to learn their life is filled with turmoil? Maybe you’ve heard “I love you” from someone carelessly causing you pain? Maybe you know someone who’s a really good liar? We never really know what’s on the inside of a person, place, or even a system, until it’s under pressure. Whether a devastating medical diagnosis, the ending of a valued relationship, or the letting go of a treasured job, the health of a relationship often remains hidden until things go south. In reflection, the signs may magically appear – like blazing torches – asking ourselves “how could I have missed those cues!”
Culture is the silent language, the unspoken message, the devil in the details. It hides out until it is named. It spreads effortlessly until identified and consumes until contained. A culture of dysfunctional communication, much like cancer, kills. Energy. Ambition. Success. Connection. What if instead of allowing dysfunction to hide out, like cancer within the marrow of a bone, we paid closer attention to signs and symptoms of organizational dis-ease? What if embracing tensions, identifying symptoms, and responding more quickly to treat the side effects of communication challenges, we strengthened our organizational health? As any survivor will tell you, cancer has a way of changing us for the better, if we let it.
As an outside hire for a leadership role many years ago, I immediately witnessed multiple personnel dysfunctions. I was charged to identify "cancer" within the team - specific behaviors decaying productivity, clogging organizational flow, and impeding company growth. Like a good steward, deeply concerned with the health of his ecosystem, the CEO sought a fresh perspective. And like a good mother, my experience and passion for the industry supported efforts of constructive criticism while listening for social cries for help. Peering through a lens of maternal leadership and responsibility, I spotted some carcinogens. Hidden within safe harbors and quietly overlooked corners were passive aggressions, tolerated bullying, and social assassinations. With connections weak, toxicity spreading, and wounds festering, this was a job for courage and hope. Spackling our holes, we declared the power to improve simply by diagnosing our dysfunctions. We named them, identified their presence, and made plans to work them out. Within a year, we were speaking openly about conflict without taking offense, we were celebrating growth with the fruit of our painful labors. We had increased organizational strength and gained momentum.
Shortly after recognizing our success, my young child was diagnosed with Leukemia, a blood cancer. It, too, had been hiding out from recognition, slowly zapping her life-energy, and was leading our entire family down a devastating path. This diagnosis metaphor that I was using to unite teams now became personal. It was my turn to face a disease. It was my turn to accept the maternal responsibility and leadership of laboring to improve the health of not just one person, but an entire family ecosystem.
Diagnosis has a way of blossoming a willingness to do whatever it takes to fight for something. Diagnosis surges an eagerness to shave our heads in solidarity for the afflicted. Faced with the stages of grief, I sat in denial, stood in anger, and looked for someone to blame. Then, I remembered what I asked of my team, and decided to open communication flows. First with myself, then on to my daughter, my partner, and the nurses and doctors working on all our behalf. From the inside out, the comfort of denial was disrupted, the callousness of anger softened, and the letting go of blame freed my attitude to shift perspective. I paid closer attention to the language I used when speaking to myself and others. Proactively, I designed frameworks for intentional communication to flow, allowing frustration to find its way up, and out, of our life.
As my daughter progressed through remission, I returned to work with a gift from cancer: something of an x-ray vision. I look for what’s neglected. I listen for the pains of onboarding, and I'm on high alert for the faint sounds of a system causing humanity harm. I search for unintentional practices, I dig for unclear language, and I peel back the stickers covering up the sight of a dead-end job. I can smell the stench of stagnant communications from miles away. Equipped with experience, data, and case studies, I carry this experience, into my work in strategic communications at Gonzaga University. Grappling with dysfunctions in a cultural context fascinates me and communication theories stand as pillars of knowledge that serve to treat wounds caused by company cogs.
What do communication and cancer have in common? They both rely on hope.
Not all dysfunctions are salvageable, just as not all cancers are survivable, but if we remain willing to fight – for something - hope will also fight for us.