Here’s How We Cope When Our Workplace Culture Is On Fire

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Sep 30, 2014

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. We don’t need no water let the m-f burn.” – The Bloodhound Gang

At least, that’s the melodic hip-hop mantra many of us have wanted to repetitively belt out at some point in our world of work lives (with an unapologetic emphasis on the unabbreviated curse word, of course).

Not because we’re having so much fun dancing around the water cooler, or in the break room, or the conference room, house music thumping in our heads, but because our workplace culture around has all but burned out our aspirational goals.

Dealing with workforce “dragons”

Many years ago I worked for a firm with an unsettlingly quiet dragon at the helm, one that erupted at the most seemingly inconsequential things, especially when he felt out of the communication loop of any minute detail of the client services work we delivered week to week.

Most mythic dragons spew toxic flames but usually telegraph their eruptions. Heroes have time to duck and cover, but most of us expendables, however, do not.

But this particular dragon? No telegraphing whatsoever. Nothing but surprise eruption after surprise eruption, with the complete “why” context not quite becoming clear until after the smoke literally cleared and you were sweeping your own ashes from a dust pan into your cubicle trash bin.

After surviving the first year unscathed, jousting internal “windmills” and ungrateful clients, I was presented the opportunity to travel internationally and work on site for at least six months with a great client of ours. My excitement was palpable and was exceeded only by my naïve, inquisitive nature.

So I started asking the client questions about where I’d be living and how much my per diem would be each day, and the like.

It seemed to me to be innocuous enough, as did the client, but as soon as the dragon caught wind of my inquiries, my days of being a hero were doomed. Without notice, and no more than an hour after my client email exchange, the dragon swooped down the long hallway to where the account managers worked and let loose an ungodly stream of fire that decimated every single cell in my godforsaken soul, something I had never experienced before, nor since.

Damn, let the m-f burn – and burn I did

I lasted just over 36 months in that hardcore culture, never really fitting it. While I learned a lot of valuable lessons and had sound relationships with many colleagues, some that still exist to this date, when I left there I never looked back.

I imagined that I was the dragon burning that place to the ground, over and over and over again, A=all the while bouncing to the house music, curse words intact.

The quest for all of us is to find a company culture that fits, which is the one that forever eludes us. But mercy me, we must keep working towards the goal of finding, and/or making it, and keeping it.

According to Strategy& of PwC, 96 percent of employees have stated a “culture change” is needed at their company. Only about half of all employees say their leaders treat culture as a priority on a day-to-day basis. Fewer still say culture is effectively managed at their companies.

But culture goes deeper than workplace flexibility, pizza lunches, ping-pong tables – or international travel to exotic client locales. In fact, it should drive most every aspect of business, from customer relations to internal practices.

Culture is a living breathing entity in companies and one of the most important drivers.

3 ways to increase business performance

Today, talent science shows us that we perform better when we’re a fit with our workplace culture. This is the science of using quantifiable data to find and hire employees that will be most engaged with the company, its culture, and therefore contributing more to the bottom line and driving business outcomes.

But when we talked about this recently on the TalentCulture #TChat Show, we all rediscovered what we already knew so very well, and only now we can better analyze it – the fact that there are many, many layers of cultural nuance, driven by leadership as well as every single individual contributor in the organization.

This is why we can increase business performance through applied culture science and employee engagement technology if we can:

  • Measure it. The first thing you have to do is to “look in the mirror” and measure the values of everyone in the company, via surveys and assessments. How’s everyone really wired in the organization and why? Personal values are the best predictors of what’s happening in company, but until recently we really didn’t have the powerful combination of modern psychology, computing power and rigorous algorithms. Now we do.
  • Analyze it. For example, take a mid-size firm growing rapidly that burned through a huge investment but wasn’t performing. Their board of directors of course found the firm’s lackluster performance less than acceptable and demanded the “righting of the ship.” Internally they thought accountability was the issue, but after measuring the values and analyzing the results, the most challenging issue was really about rules — half wanted rules, structure and discipline, and the other half wanted flexibility and freedom, to be more spontaneous. This was at the real root of their stagnation
  • Then, change it. Once identified, they realized that communication was at the heart of their rules issue, one that had previously only been paid lip service, if any at all. Over the course of six months clear communication channels were developed and maintained, and the course corrections they made impacted employee development, hiring those who shared the same newly unified values, and improving overall engagement that had immediate and long-term improvements, especially business growth.

Vital issues to help keep you dragon-safe

Values and engagement aren’t just nice-to-haves, they’re personally vital, and when our workplace culture is on fire from jousting fiery dragons and ungrateful exchanges, it kills our shared values, productive affinity and the business mojo within.

Gathering the right cultural data and analyzing what’s wrong with collective values allows organizations to make the changes that insulate the entire business and keep them somewhat dragon safe.

This was originally published on Kevin Grossman’s Reach West blog.

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