One of my clients, the CEO of a successful business with a well-deserved reputation for outstanding customer focus and staffed with dedicated professionals, reported over time an increasing unhappiness with his job: “I don’t enjoy being here any more. I don’t like what’s happening.” He had a hard time putting his finger on what it was that caused his discomfort. When he did, it was an even more troubling realization: “People in the company – and especially some of my top people – aren’t doing what’s right for the firm, only what they see as benefitting themselves.” He went on to describe diversions of blame when goals were not met, lack of personal accountability to the firm’s goals, and decisions in one line of business that disadvantaged others. He wondered how such a reputable and caring culture could have shifted without his seeing it sooner.
One thing he may not have taken into account was the outside world. No business, however cocooned in its own culture, lives outside shifting societal norms. Some of those norms may give lift to a firm, like the increasingly entrepreneurial outlook of the workforce. And some may lend a patina of acceptability to dysfunctional behaviors. When we’re bombarded every day with the political reality of an inability to get much done to develop our country, what effect does it have on our workplace decision-making? When acts of violence against innocent people become common, how does it affect our trust of others at work? When respected institutions are tainted by intentional malfeasance, what does it suggest is reasonable business behavior?
As a leader, you are wise to be attentive to how society’s challenges may be subtly reshaping your corporate culture. Here’s a quick quiz to assess whether these challenges are creeping into your culture:
How we make decisions:
- Have we spent more time lately blaming each other than getting to productive decisions?
- Are our decisions more ‘do little damage’ than ‘do significant good’?
- Are we finding ourselves more guided by what the competition is doing than by our own corporate and individual values?
How we view and treat each other:
- Are we hearing more mistrust of our colleagues’ and bosses’ motivations?
- Are we more wary or judgmental about diversity than encouraging it?
- Are we treating each other with less respect than in the past?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to re-take control of your corporate culture. This is not for the faint of heart – you will be challenging influences largely beyond your control. But here’s where you can start:
- Name the disconnects. “I have always understood (name the value) to be important to our values. But this is what I think I’m seeing.” Position it as what your gut is telling you. It’s harder to argue against someone’s gut feelings.
- Ask for reflection. “Is this something we really want to become part of how we operate? If not, what do we need to proactively do to turn the tide?”
- Put a stake in the ground. Be clear what you support and what you don’t. “I know we’re seeing a lot of this every day on the news, but that doesn’t make it the right thing for us to emulate. I want us to…….”
- Pound that stake regularly. Stop unproductive behavior when you see it – develop code language from society’s challenges to make the connections easy. “Whoops! I don’t think we intended to filibuster John’s idea without hearing him out. Let’s start over again.” “Is this the best decision to get us where we need to go, or is this just allowing a sequester to occur?”
- Make it a point of honor to buck the norm. “We got to where we are because our personal and corporate values are rich and well-aligned. We don’t have to act like everyone else. Let’s continue to stand out from the crowd in how we act in the face of our country’s – and the world’s – challenges. Let’s become our own counter-culture!”
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant