While most awake and aware leaders say they want a constructive corporate culture, many are uncertain of what it really takes to cause cultural change. Consequently, many executives and managers unintentionally create conditions in their work environment for a destructive culture to ferment and metastasize throughout their organization. This happens when leaders focus too much on the task dimension and lose sight of the culture dimension. When leaders step over, ignore, or inadvertently reward the five lethal landmines, culture and strategy alignment fragment and fall apart.
The lethal landmines — cultural norms from the Organizational Culture Inventory® — include enablement of internal competition, micromanagement, resistance to collaboration, pursuit of perfection, and an overemphasis on being liked. These slow killers erode teamwork, creativity, and innovation — all requirements in a 21st-century organization.
Inside competitive work cultures, members are often expected to operate in a “win-lose” framework, outperform peers, and work against (rather than with) their co-workers. What begins with a healthy race often devolves into unproductive, dog-eat-dog internal workplace behavior.
Winning is an incredibly powerful motivator. The desire to win can move mountains and bring in profits. However, when the need to win overrides better judgment, fragments and erodes core values, and runs over people and leads them to the brink of exhaustion, it must be called out and new behaviors that promote and inspire must be integrated into the culture. A pursuit of results above all else can cost relationships, health and wellness, trust, quality, and safety.
When gone unchecked, a once-healthy desire to “beat the competition” very often creates opportunities for unproductive behavior, as well as perpetuating neural pathways and automatic ways of thinking and being that result in an organization eating itself alive. This shows up on the floor with people arguing for win-lose scenarios and in-fighting for power, control, rewards, promotions, and resources. A focal shift from “we” to “me” occurs, where siloed and personalized thinking prevails.
Even though the intentions of leaders who want to “win” are almost always well-meaning, a workplace culture that values winning above all else can be fertile ground for destructive behavior and employment brand erosion.
When leaders and team members are expected and even encouraged to “power up” over others, people in the organization often view themselves as pawns in the micromanagement chess game, or simply as cogs in the organizational profit wheel. They lose motivation and initiative and give less of their discretionary time to make the organization better. Commanding and controlling is a vicious cycle, and the only way out is to declare it and inspire a new way to lead and follow.
In power-driven organizations, hierarchy reigns and members of the management team are expected to take charge, control subordinates, and yield to the demands of superiors. Historically, this has been the “right” way to lead, and for many decades, it actually worked. This model is flawed, however, and those managed by people who admire and enjoy this model atrophy and stagnate. In workplace cultures where this type of behavior is rewarded, the powerful take over and the powerless surrender.
Resistance to collaboration
Opposition shows up in communication such as, “Yes, but;” “We already tried that and it failed;” “I have been here for years and I know it won’t work;” and “No, because.” While everyone ought to be singing from the same hymnal and working together in tolerance and engagement, members of this type of organization spend far too much time navigating personalities and conflict than collaborating, innovating, and solving problems.
In oppositional workplace cultures, there is often a root of overcoming obstacles that afforded the organization sustainability and success over years. But often what got us here will not get us there, and opposition is one of those elements of culture, much like winning at all costs, that turns the organization against itself. In work cultures where members are expected to be critical, oppose ideas of others, and make “safe” decisions, people drop into fear and suppress their ideas and creativity.
Pursuit of perfection
Leaders of many modern organizations often stake their reputations on delivering excellence or superior service. There are not many CEOs who would stand behind, for example, sending out sloppy work or delivering code to customers littered with errors, but there is a subtle difference between standing for quality and being in pursuit of perfection.
Many, if not most, leaders of quality-driven organizations pride themselves on a commitment to excellence. While that intention may have been initially pure and congruent with the leader’s values, all too often the unconscious underlying behavior that is fostered with this value is perfection. In a culture of perfection, people do not take risks, they do not try new things, and they almost certainly do not put themselves or their reputations at risk to color outside the lines.
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Perfection, by definition, leaves very little room for risk taking and creativity in your organization. When curiosity is stifled and looking good is the primary focus, mistakes are hidden, learning is mitigated, and growth is constrained. In an environment where perfection is celebrated and rewarded, conventionality emerges as a safe bet for staying out of the boss’ crosshairs. In a workplace that prioritizes perfectionism, members are expected to conform, follow the rules, and make a good impression. The byproduct of making a good impression and following the rules is that creativity and risk taking are thwarted and innovation becomes impossible. Resistance to change becomes a blocker to progress and complacency sets in. While certain roles demand perfection or someone could die, perfection as a culture limits and constrains what is possible for the organization.
Overemphasis on being liked
In a work culture where needing approval is a core component of how the organization works, team members are expected to agree with, gain the approval of, and be liked by others. In a workplace such as this, disagreements are frowned upon and people are encouraged to go along with the crowd — even when the crowd is prepared to drive off a cliff. When team members fear conflict, even constructive conflict, they are incapable of engaging in debates or openly voicing opinions. The team avoids conflicts that involve speaking up against bad decisions, thus leading to inferior organizational results.
Everyone who is anyone in business understands the need to cooperate with others in the workplace and the need for teamwork and collaboration. However, creating a work culture where everyone has to be liked and get along with little to no emphasis on performance or results most often leads to over-the-top consensus building, perceived favoritism, a loss of focus and ambition, inconsistent accountability, and a very destructive fear of conflict.
It’s imperative to understand that “keeping the peace” workplace cultures can be an insidious thief of organizational and talent optimization. Keeping the peace has the potential to rob the organization and its people of experiencing the highest levels of role fulfillment and satisfaction. When people and the human system they operate in do not actively engage in productive ways of being, including constructive conflict, speaking their truth, giving new ideas, and sharing insights of what is not working, they can never achieve true engagement in the workplace.
Build an intentional culture to avoid landmines
The five lethal landmines are slow killers of a high-performance culture. Over time, these ways of being seep into the human system and become “the way things are done around here.” This behavior, when left unquestioned or unchecked, erodes creativity, collaboration, innovation, role fulfillment, self-expression, and employee engagement.
Shaping a constructive culture is about intentionally developing the kind of corporate culture that exemplifies your brand promise. This takes a solid and palatable intention for that culture as a holistic human system — a system of people operating as a living and agile organism. Intentional culture is all about monitoring what you are creating and making necessary shifts along the way to ensure you are accomplishing what you set out to by creating the intentional culture in the first place.
This article was first published on Human Synergistics.