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It is time for corporate and institutional leaders to be honest with themselves and one another about the real problems that keep companies from achieving their goals.

They don’t miss  their goals  because Sally in Accounting is a poor performer or because the company inexplicably developed a voluntary turnover problem when seven or eight of their key employees coincidentally decided that each of them had a pressing personal reason to change jobs.

The actual turnover an organization experiences is the tip of the iceberg, of course. However many disgruntled employees flew the coop, a much larger number of unhappy employees is still on your payroll, stymied and unproductive.

Of course your company isn’t meeting its goals! How could the company possibly meet its goals when there’s a huge, tangled, smelly and unaddressed energy blockage making it impossible for anyone to do their work, much less care about their work?

When your culture goes south, your employees will quit and they won’t tell you the truth about why they’re leaving. They don’t want to burn bridges — and we can’t blame them for that! — so they will tell you that they’re moving to a different employer because it’s closer to their child’s school or some other invented reason.

It’s your responsibility to know that they are leaving because the job you gave them doesn’t meet their needs anymore. It is very easy for leaders to delude themselves that everything in an organization is hunky-dory when in fact there are termites crawling in the baseboards and eating through the two-by-fours just behind the walls, out of sight.

It is easy for leaders to talk about problems with production and Quality Control and customer service. It is easy to say that your competitors are temporarily out-marketing you or that your product-launch delays are unavoidable and tied to a vendor’s shortcomings, but those explanations leave out the most important factor.

Every business problem is a culture problem. Whatever went wrong in your operations was caused by a breakdown in communication and a fraying of your cultural fabric.

Somebody didn’t know something somebody else thought they did know, or they knew but they forget or they didn’t care. You can discipline and fire the miscreants until the cows come home, but  until you face up to and solve your cultural problem your disciplinary measures, up to and including firing whole departments, won’t accomplish a thing.

In fact, this is how formerly-great organizations devolve and decay every day. They begin to treat their systemic cultural problems as individual-performance problems, missing the forest for the trees. They can’t or won’t look at their own broken culture, so they move managers around and re-organize departments and write new Strategic Goals and publish them, all to no avail.

None of those moves will touch what’s actually broken. No rewards programs and no punishments will fix the cultural problem. Nothing will fix it until your culture problem comes out of the closet!

As leaders we have no vocabulary for discussion of cultural problems. We have a hard time saying “Something terrible happened to our culture. This is not a fun place to work anymore.”

As leaders we stay in denial about problems that crop up in our organization’s culture, because here in the western hemisphere we grew up believing that if something goes wrong, someone is at fault. The CEO of the business is not about to take the blame for whatever isn’t working, so naturally the blame runs downhill.

That is how fear in an organization works. The chief-in-charge is afraid of losing face and having to take responsibility for the broken culture by saying “It’s my job to make this a great place to work,” so he or she blames the rank-and-file employees, instead.

Those folks are afraid to tell the emperor that the emperor is naked, and nobody tells the truth about what’s happening except very quietly in the stairwells and when they’re out to lunch, far away from nosy co-workers and supervisors. Employees, managers and senior executives settle into a conspiracy of non-truth-telling, while the organization sputters and struggles to survive and customers drift away.

Here are ten signs your company has a culture problem. You can spot these signs very easily if you’re even slightly attuned to the energy in your workplace — and staying tuned in is every leader’s number one priority!

Ten Signs Your Company Has a Culture Problem

  1. A good day, week and month in your organization is a day, week or month when nothing goes wrong and every goal and deadline is met. There is no expectation of or discussion about creativity, coloring outside the lines or taking risks. Success is defined by the people at the top, and the folks doing the work do not get to set their own goals or decide how best to do their jobs.
  2. Your organization has a policy and procedure for everything. Everyone in the place is accustomed to saying “Better check the policy manual before you do that!” or “You’d better ask your manager if that’s allowed.” Culturally, your organization resembles a strict boarding school or a minimum-security correctional institution more than a community of creative collaborators.
  3. When people quit, there is little to no discussion about it. An employee’s departure, even when it is sudden and unexpected, does not lead to conversations in which employees are asked “How do you folks  like working here? What would make this a better place for you to work?” It’s just the opposite. Employees are afraid to mention their former colleague’s name after he or she leaves. Once somebody quits, it’s as though your former and well-liked co-worker never existed.
  4. Your HR department is all about rules and policies, compensation and benefits and other “hard” topics. “Soft” topics like conflict, workload, work/life balance, roles and their overlaps, and the good or bad energy flowing throughout the workplace are the last topics anyone would dream of bringing to HR. Employees don’t go to HR with their concerns and suggestions because they have learned through harsh experience that it doesn’t pay to speak up — it only puts a target on your back.
  5. Managers spend their time supervising rather than coaching and inspiring their teammates. Everybody in your workplace  knows that when a manager speaks, he or she is not to be questioned. There is no appetite on the part of your leadership team for getting to know the employees or understanding how they feel. The only feedback mechanism available to employees is a once-or-twice-a-year Employee Engagement Survey that never leads to changes, to more truthful conversation or to stronger relationships between team members and their leaders.
  6. Small things get a lot of attention. Dress code and arrival and departure times are very big deals. Nobody talks about the toxic energy in the company, but everybody talks about the memo that was circulated by management warning employees not to take a sick day right after a holiday. Absenteeism is one of the surest signs of a broken culture.
  7. Everything your employees do is measured and evaluated, and employees are ranked and stacked in comparison to one another all the time. They are also reminded that if they don’t want the job, there are plenty of other job-seekers who would be happy to have it.
  8. Managers are trained in Best Practices in their functions but not in new-millennium leadership practices and techniques. They lead through fear instead of trust. People walk on eggshells trying to keep their managers happy, and managers walk on eggshells trying to keep Directors and VPs happy. As a direct consequence, no one is happy — least of all your customers and shareholders.
  9. There are plans and forecasts and strategies for everything in your organization, but no overriding mission that people can grab hold of and care about. Anyone who might be tempted to care about the organization’s success and who might inquire about its topmost goals is told “That’s none of your business — just finish the work on your desk.”
  10. Employees in your company get constant reminders that their employment is at the whim of their managers and that their personal lives are their own problems. Even as they are pressured to donate personal time to the company’s cause, their obligations outside of work are given no weight or value and they are told on a regular basis, “You have to manage your personal affairs on your own time.”

You can solve a culture problem easily if you can step out of the traditional frame in which managers give the orders and employees carry them out.  You can get to the heart of what’s broken in your culture and you can fix it.

You don’t need a Change Management process or some overblown organizational restructuring effort. All of that is just window dressing. The solution to a culture problem is much faster, easier and cost-effective than a broad-scale corporate initiative, but it also takes more guts. It takes leaders who are willing to say “We’ve allowed the culture in this place to disintegrate to an unacceptable degree. This is what we have to talk about — and we have to talk about it all the time, until we fix it!”

When your employees know that their work is valued and that they are also valued for who they are and not just their output, your culture problems will begin to recede. When your teammates know that they can tell the truth about what isn’t working in your organization and fear no consequences, they’ll tell you the truth.

It’s easy to build trust in an organization if you can only tell the truth to yourself and to your teammates.  Can your organization rise to the challenge?

Liz Ryan is the CEO and founder of Human Workplace. Follow her on Twitter

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