When Wall Street Sneezes …

When Wall Street Sneezes … 1024 682 The Body Corporate

It’s flu season! If your world is anything like mine, you’re surrounded by glazed eyes, shiny faces and husky voices. Which made me think … is there anything we can learn from the human immune system to keep our organizations healthy?

Most people are probably familiar with the adage that “When Wall Street sneezes, the whole world catches a cold”. The phrase can be traced back to the 1950s and 1960s, although there is uncertainty about the original author. Several variations of the phrase have been used. The subject has been replaced with America, Asia, Europe, Paris, China and several others. Depending on the context, the downstream implications range from a cold to full blown pneumonia. Whatever the phrase, the meaning is clear. A prominent power’s economic ailment can be transmitted to others.

As a physician and corporate executive, this made me wonder which infectious diseases threaten human organizational life the most. I’m not talking about physical disease. I’m thinking about trends and events in the life of businesses and non-profits that spread contagiously with significant negative impact.

“Financial Contagion” is well-accepted economic terminology that describes the regional spread of financial disaster. The more fluid, global economy may be accelerating this phenomenon. The recent paranoia in Europe, although more complicated in etiology, had financial leaders looking with disdain at Greece as though they had a highly contagious disease. Neighbors fear plummeting asset values, the result of dubious economic policy and sliding confidence. Not many of us are responsible for national economies, so I prefer to focus instead on ailments that appear to be transferable between smaller organizations. In particular, what can we do to prevent their spread (even as we keep our doors open for the sharing of successful practices)?

Perhaps the most obvious organizational contagion relates to confidence, or more accurately lack of confidence, as suggested by the Wall Street sneeze quote. It has always puzzled me how rapidly this disease can spread, often with little factual substance to the bleak forecasts that perpetuate it. Negative prophesies from influential analysts can rapidly cripple specific markets, and doubt and fear seem to jump market boundaries like wildfire. I have seen corruption spread in an emerging market as historic controls are overturned. The downward creep in ethical standards is often subtle, driven by both greed and competition. I have seen malaise spread within large corporations like cancer during times of uncertainty or poor leadership. Motivation, and its absence, is highly contagious. Traditionally, we believe that “the fish rots from the head”, meaning that bad things start with corporate leaders and spread throughout the organization. Undoubtedly, this is true, but there have also been examples of bad problems starting within a localized group, perhaps the sales force, or the research labs, and progressing to systemic organizational disruption.

Using the model of a transmissible disease suggests the adoption of a protective strategy based in wellness, prevention and early detection. What should this strategy look like? Here’s a physician’s advice:

First, keep the patient in good health. We know from many infectious diseases that the best way to protect the body is to keep it strong. This means good nutrition, exercise and adequate rest, and ensures a robust immune system. In many cases, if we are healthy, we ward off infectious diseases without even knowing it. For example, tuberculosis is a major disease in the malnourished and immune-compromised, while most healthy people resist infection. What would this look like in an organization? A healthy, happy employee group will look after themselves. Without prompting, they will resist infection, detect it quickly, and recover quickly if infection is inevitable.

Immune surveillance is the lynchpin of a resilient human immune system. The body makes an army of immune cells that travel in the blood to monitor every recess. They have huge ears! That’s right. Their job is primarily to listen. They are actively patrolling, listening for the earliest sign of invasion. The instant they detect a problem, they trumpet loudly for help. If the infecting agent is small (in size and number), they may be able to defeat it locally. Immune cells that are first on the scene secrete chemicals that summon other immune cells into the area to fight the infection. Giant immune cells ingest and break down bacteria on site. Others rush to wall off the area, creating a leaky perimeter that allows good soldiers through to the site of battle, while preventing efflux of invaders. Even in situations in which the first responders are able to contain the infection locally, they secrete chemicals into the blood that are hurried to the spleen and bone marrow. Here, they ramp up production of immune soldiers that rush back out to defend the body.

My intention is not to draw attention to the massive flood of activity that is triggered by the early responders. I suspect that many organizations and their leaders know how to respond once an infectious threat is detected. It has been my experience that more organizations lack the ability to detect these infections early. This is where leaders should spend their time. It’s hard to picture individual employees hired and trained with the specific function of traveling organizational corridors looking for trouble (other than the obvious security personnel). All employees and leaders should share this task, with the human resource department taking the lead if appropriately positioned within the organization. My simple advice to leaders: listen carefully and continuously, and ask direct questions in a safe manner that evokes honest responses.

What should you listen for? The “cardinal signs” of infection in an animal host are rubor (redness), calor (heat), tumor (swelling), dolor (pain) and functio laesa (loss of function). The attentive leader should listen for minor changes in local mood and productivity. The human body signals infection in more general ways too, such as an elevated body temperature, the shivering and sweats of a fever, and the racing pulse of systemic infection. But these are signs of severe or disseminated infection. Similarly, systematic employee satisfaction surveys are helpful, but are generally annual affairs shrouded with significant political tension and detect only well-established ailments. I consider these useful in tracking organizational health over the long term, but largely useless in the rapid detection of infectious threat. To detect infection early, leaders have to walk the corridors, and pay attention to the voices of those what frequent the real workplaces.

Of course, first prize is to avoid infection in the first place. Corporate policy that outlines business practice norms and standards, and advises employees on how to identify “safe” business partners are probably helpful. Training courses may serve as immunization campaigns do, raising awareness and rehearsing responses that prevent significant infection. In particular, simulations may mimic vaccines in that inert surrogates are used to train the immune system in preparation for the real thing.

Which brings me back to the flu season. Each year we prepare vaccines with the known influenza virus strains likely to be epidemic in the next flu season. All readers that got flu despite receiving the vaccine know that nature is not quite as obliging, and often serves up strains of the virus that we have not anticipated. So too in corporate infection.

Which brings me rapidly back to the best advice I can offer. Keep your organization strong. Feed it and nourish it. Exercise it. Ensure it has enough rest and recovery. Take your vitamin C, and wash your hands often. These simple measures will always be your best defense.

Have fun,


(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at Body-Corporate.org if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

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