Not long ago I was working with a CEO to help build more collaboration and cohesion on his leadership team.
On this day, the CEO was lamenting that there was so much more that he felt the organization could do — but everything seemed like it was a fight. What seemed like the simplest of goals would degrade into a drawn-out quagmire of passive aggressive behaviors and inaction. His theory was that the problem was with a couple of people on the team who just weren’t pulling their weight. He was actually thinking it might be time to encourage at least one of them to consider other career options. Let’s call him “Al.”
“Al” was consistently late to meetings and he kept an excessively busy schedule, all of which sounded to me more like style differences than anything. But, the leader does have the right (and the responsibility) to set the standards. When I asked what conversations he had with “Al” to clarify what needed to change, the response was, “I know what the reactions will be and honestly, I just don’t have the energy to deal with his stuff right now.” (Red Flag #1)
Later, his leadership team was gathering for its weekly meeting. True to form, 8 minutes past the scheduled start time, “Al” was not yet there. The really interesting part happened in those 8 minutes.
As each other member of the leadership team arrived, the CEO would ask them “Have you seen Al” or “Does anyone know where he is?” Comments were soon tossed around like, “Should we put a GPS on him?” or “Does he even know when these meetings are?” (Red Flag #2)
As if on que, about that time “Al” came in. Immediately, the tone shifted and everyone was as polite and courteous as could be. No mention of being late or inquiry as to why. No snide comments. Just plastic cordiality. (Red Flag #3)
Welcome to the roots of a culture of cordial hypocrisy. This happens when everyone sees a problem but collegiality overrides collaboration and real conversation.
Culture is alive in every organization, even yours
Your organization WILL develop its own culture. As leaders, you are not the victim of your organization’s culture. In fact, you are the gardener; you cultivate it. It will grow if you tend to it just as it will if you are blind to it.
Culture feeds itself. It feeds off of the conversations (those that happen and those that are missing), the interactions, the tone that people take with each other, the moods that people carry with them. Culture lives throughout the entire organization. The primary trough from which it feeds comes from the leaders. This trough can nourish a productive, healthy culture or it can feed a defensive, caustic culture. You choose.
Drop 10 and Add 15
Creating and changing a culture is a lot like losing weight. It takes hours of exercise, weeks of eating right and getting plenty of rest to drop 10-15 pounds. But it seems like those same 10 pounds (and then some) can get packed right back on in only one weekend of too much pizza, nachos, and beer.
Culture can be like this. It may take a year or more for leaders to nurture the baseline of a constructive, healthy culture. And, just like that (he said with a snap) things can change.
It starts to change when the CEO starts to talk badly about one of the members of their leadership team in the presence of the rest of the team. From there it continues to devolve when the members of that leadership team start doing the same to some of their own managers. In a matter of weeks, a new climate of back-stabbing and disengagement has emerged. Cultures often manifest themselves in new and unique ways. In the end, your culture becomes, as Daniel Forrester says, “just the way things are done here.”
There is Hope For Your Culture, Though
Here are 3 steps any leaders can take today to nurture a constructive culture:
- Declare what kind of culture you want
As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. “ Focus on defining and identifying the kind of constructive cultural behaviors you want. Deciding not to declare the kind of culture you want is actually is a decision to accept develops.
- Start by trying to fix a specific and real problem.
As culture guru Edgar Schein says, don’t start by trying to fix the culture. Start by trying to fix a problem. For example, if your leadership team isn’t working well together, then address that. Get them the coaching they need to engage in effective conversations. Teach them how to work as a collaborative team.
- Nurture your culture every day.
Understand the drivers of culture and engage in practices of assessing how those drivers are helping to advance the growth of your desired culture. This happens through effective conversations.
One of the most important things that leaders can do is to foster conversations about how people are being engaged in helping to create the desired, constructive culture.