Have you ever worked somewhere with a ‘toxic’ social atmosphere? You know the place where there are whispered conversations, frequent long lunches, above average sick days?
How about somewhere where you LOVED going to work – you loved your colleagues, you enjoyed the work, and felt on purpose, aligned, and fulfilled?
The secret ingredient for either a cesspool of sick or an odyssey of bliss is, of course, corporate culture.
And what is the nebulous intangible? A mystical force invented by management consultants? That may be partly true, but no one can deny the visceral effect of either a culture gone wrong, or a culture with happy pants.
Here are 3 myths debunked about corporate culture and its genesis in organisations.
Myth 1. It’s all down to the leader.
No doubt the leader (read: person with positional authority) has a significant impact on culture. If they act as the corporate culture steward, deliberately craft its values and behaviours, hold people accountable to these, and role model them as well, then the leader can be a tremendous force for good.
But the organisation is not just ONE person. It’s all of the people. It’s all of their aspirations, talents, energy, enthusiasm, and commitment, their relationships and rapport all rolled in together. This is a vibrant, dynamic web of energy and engagements between individuals and sub-groups (such as work units). These sub-groups have their own micro-culture that impacts the whole.
Even a bad leader can be counterbalanced by strong, positive micro-cultures. At least for a little while. The fish truly does rot from the head.
Myth 2. One bad apple spoils the barrel.
It’s true that if someone is not a fit for the culture, then this can have a de-stalibilising effect on the others. If this hapless individual is not assisted in to a role that suits, or to an organisation with different values, then their unhappiness can have a dampening effect. No one likes hanging out with a sour puss!
However, a mis-matched person is not necessarily the vehicle for ‘culture rot’. When management avoids dealing with the issue, this is the fracture that can become a chasm in culture.
Why? Because the staff feels betrayed; their values, their way of doing things, the synergy of performance is not being respected or championed when management buries their head in the sand. Trust – that juggernaut of all good cultures – is broken. Open arms turn to crossed arms.
Myth 3. Don’t grease the squeaky wheel.
There’s a difference between a chronic victim (aka the squeaky wheel) who blames anyone and everything for their helplessness, and a ‘constructive subversive’.
A victim is eager to criticise, comfortable with complaining, and happy to let others fix the problems. Don’t grease this sucker!
A ‘constructive subversive’ asks questions – difficult ones. Questions about ethics, about results, about process, about morale, about culture. They seek to right the sinking ship, to shine the light in dark places others would rather avoid.
Others often feel threatened by ‘constructive subversives’ because their questioning may lead to rigorous and confronting self-assessment; an admission of faults, mistakes, errors in judgements, and in some cases, lack of competency.
In healthy cultures, ‘constructive subversives’ are encouraged because they act as CT-scans for organisational health. They go deep inside to see if there is something eating away at the core that needs to be addressed. Because there is trust within the team, and this is built by encouraging vulnerability as a strength (i.e. admitting mistakes so as to learn from them), then the culture can withstand rigorous scanning and assessment as all stakeholders know this is in everyone’s best interest. There is an attitude of, ‘let’s find the cancer before it takes over.’
Where there is no trust, where there is no encouragement of vulnerability by supportive review of mistakes for the sake of learning, then the ‘constructive subversive’ becomes a dangerous threat, perceived as a challenge to positional authority and a self-interested rock-the-boat egoist. A squeaky wheel at best, an undermining problem at worst.
The ‘constructive subversive’ becomes the scapegoat, and is ostracised and alienated from the team. Out of fear, an unhealthy culture avoids any suggestion of ‘cancer’ in the organisation. In denial, the cancer spreads. Eventually this catches up with them in various forms of calamity and crisis such as high staff turnover and failing performance.
Lessons from the trenches
If you wanted to build (or re-build) a healthy corporate culture, where do you start?
- Take stock of where you are now. What works, what doesn’t.
- Articulate as a collective what is most important to the group – its values, and more importantly the behaviour it wants in order to be highly effective, high performing team.
- Start building trust. How do you do this? One genuine, heart-felt, conversation at a time.
This is part 1 of a series on Corporate Culture.