Why You Must Manage Culture – or Face the Tragic Consequences

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Dec 23, 2013

Culture is clearly a powerful force, but it’s unfortunately being used as an excuse for disasters ranging from the banking crisis five years ago to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and even the locker room hazing crisis of the Miami Dolphins.

If culture is a contributing cause to so many disasters then it’s especially concerning considering the recent Booz & Company survey where 96 percent of respondents felt culture change was needed in their organization and 51 percent felt a major culture overhaul was needed.

What crisis is next and could there be a disaster looming in your organization?

The impact of culture in the San Francisco plane crash

Culture was recently raised in an interesting Anderson Cooper CNN interview of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg about the current NTSB probe into the crash landing of Asiana Flight 214 in July 6. Three people were killed in the crash and over 200 were injured. They discussed key points about the “cockpit culture” that may have contributed to the disaster including:

  • Not noticing they were going too slow until right before impact even though a co-pilot warned three times that the plane was dropping too fast.
  • Challenging the pilot may have been considered disrespectful.
  • Pilots would not wear sunglasses, even if blinded, because it would be “impolite.”
  • No member of a professional crew intervened until seconds before impact.

Sully gave some good advice about the need to widen the investigation to fully understand the cultural issues in the organization and their society. He emphasized the need to investigate how pilots are trained but he stopped short of getting at the heart of these issues.

Leaders MUST manage their culture

Leaders must take the steps to understand and effectively manage their culture. I am all for building an environment where shared accountability and ownership exists but the ultimate responsibility and accountability rests with leaders at all levels.

I am incredibly frustrated with leaders that say culture work can’t fit in their priorities at the moment due to a host of different reasons: financial turnaround, major system transition, personnel changes, reorganizations, new strategies, etc.

These responses show that many leaders either don’t understand the power of culture to influence every major priority or they are unwilling to take the first step because they don’t know how to effectively manage culture with confidence. Culture work isn’t about preventing disasters but building a high-performance culture that delivers sustainable results for the organization and every employee involved.

Don’t think you are off the hook if you aren’t a top leader. The best practices to build an effective culture work in every sub-group and team. Waiting for someone else to take action is a sure way to continue to reinforce your present culture and any flaws that may exist in your department, location, or even your cockpit.

Do people act on “what they know?”

The co-pilot from the Asiana flight told investigators he “prepared in his mind to recommend something” to the two more-senior pilots at the controls, “but he did not.”

Think about whether people in your organization hesitate or neglect to proactively take the action you need due to some aspect of fear or uncertainty in your culture? I believe one characteristic of an effective culture is that “people act on what they know.” This simple goal is often very hard to achieve and the consequences can be tragic.

Is culture management one of your top priorities? Why do many leaders defer action on their culture and what could be done to create a sense of urgency about the need to manage culture effectively?

A version of this post was originally published on the RoundPegg blog.