What To Do When Your Organization’s Culture Sucks

You may be compelled to stay with your company because the pay is good, the work itself is rewarding, or your peers are like family. But the organization culture is mediocre, at best. What do you do when the organization’s culture sucks, but the reasons to stay outweigh the motivation to move on?

I’ve been in this scenario many times: managers who fail to walk the talk, inane policies that defy logic, and practices that thwart progress at every turn. But along the way I’ve learned some lessons about what it takes to survive – even thrive – a company culture that seems to get more wrong than right when it comes to empowering people to contribute to the organization’s success.

10 Traits of Sucky Cultures (in no particular order)

  1. Lack of leadership accountability
  2. Emphasis on maintaining the status quo
  3. Undefined processes
  4. No opportunity to participate in decisions
  5. One size fits all solutions
  6. Command and control management
  7. No support for professional development
  8. Unclear expectations & mixed messages
  9. Undervaluing in-house expertise & insights
  10. Thinking only about the bottom line

Create an Island of Health in a Sea of Bad Culture

So many quips and quotes come to mind as I think about advice for carving out a little slice of heaven in the midst of organizational Hades:

“If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.”

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

I’m sure you can picture a hallway in your organization filled with motivational posters collecting dust. They are artwork, at some level, but certainly not beacons of inspiration that the purchasers envisioned. There used to be a Successories store in every major mall in America, but the platitudes and pictures of teams high-fiving and individuals scaling summits were so far from reality that they subconsciously demotivated us.

So what do I do if I’m committed to my job but am in an environment that brings me down? How do I keep going when the organization is doing so much to stop me from progress? Here are five recommendations for creating your island of health in a sea of bad culture:

  1. Know what you can do – and know your limits. Understanding your boundaries will help you adjust your mindset and not become overwhelmed by all that could and should be fixed. You may have no authority or power to fix policies, but you may be able to put some order to your world that makes things easier to manage. At the same time, be aware of signs that workplace stress is taking a toll on your health. No matter the benefits/reasons for staying with the company, when your health takes a hit, it’s time to walk.
  1. Become a stealth influencer. It’s amazing what you can do when you go undercover to influence up and down the org chart. Covert operations allow you to make recommendations and suggest improvements subtly, little-by-little. You may also benefit from piloting tweaks to processes and practices, sharing your positive outcomes after the fact. True, you probably won’t get recognition for your brilliant ideas, but your workplace will be better, which is more important.
  1. Bring others with you. You don’t have to be stranded alone on that desert island – bring someone with you! Band together with others who are committed to their jobs and want to see the organization culture improve. Partnership alone can do wonders for your job satisfaction! And even if you can’t make a cultural breakthrough, having a colleague to commiserate with will get you through hard days. Commit to being a mutual encouragement to one another.
  1. Be a burr with a sense of humor. Identify a few things that are worth fighting for and be the burr under the saddle of those who are in positions to do something about it. This is probably the most challenging of the five recommendations, since it takes an ability to pester without being labeled a pest. You don’t want to lose your influence, but you don’t want the door slammed in your face either. The key here is to have a sense of humor. If you present every opportunity as an urgent crisis you’ll not be heard (like the boy who cried “wolf!”.
  1. Celebrate successes, however small. Yes, it may be a “party of one,” but do take the time to recognize when your efforts have been successful. Whether it’s a grin as you leave your boss’s office with a new inch of ground, or a more tangible celebration (like cake!), it is important to your psychological well-being and continued motivation to reward yourself when progress is made.

There are plenty of articles and books, and consultants like myself who are available to assist leaders in creating positive workplace cultures, but if your executive team has yet to crack open any of Edgar Schein’s great works on designing culture perhaps the advice above will keep you engaged in the meantime. Or you might want to pick up a copy of one of these books and initiate a “lunch & learn” to talk about what might be done to create a great workplace culture!

By Edgar Schein:

The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, 2009

Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2010 ed.

By Others:

Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture (Cameron & Quinn), 2011

Organizational Traps: Leadership, Culture & Organizational Design (Argyris), 2012

(Order below from the CreativeGapMinding Bookstore):

      

The Butterfly Effect of a Leader

This blog was originally written for and posted on Linked2Leadership in March, 2011.
Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 6.16.26 AMIt took 30 years, but the scientific community finally embraced Edward Lorenz’ hypothesis that:

A butterfly could flap its wings and set molecules in motion, which would move other molecules of air, in turn moving more molecules of air – eventually capable of starting a hurricane on the other side of the planet.

What Lorenz called the Butterfly Effect became the much more scientific sounding Law of Sensitive Dependence Upon Initial Conditions. I prefer Lorenz’ much more poetic & compelling image of a butterfly’s wings setting off a chain of events that leads to a mighty storm.

In a frame on my office wall I keep the following quote, from James C. Hunter’s book The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership.

How we behave as the boss at work today affects what goes on around the dinner table in other people’s homes tonight.

In other words, the actions we take, the words we use, the priorities we set begin the Butterfly Effect in the lives of followers, colleagues, clients and, according to the theory, everyone we encounter.

In his book titled The Butterfly Effect Andy Andrews tells two stories that illustrate the impact of our actions today on generations to come. First, he traces the decision made by a schoolteacher-turned-Civil War commander who quite possibly kept the U.S. from becoming fragmented into multiple nations. Andrews claims that without the Confederate win at Gettysburg the world would not have benefited from the U.S. allegiance that toppled Hitler during WW II.

The second story involves the story of George Washington Carver, in reverse, that led to the development, generations after Carver, of a disease-resistant seed later that does well in arid climates and has consequently provided grain around the globe and saved an estimated 2 billion people. Andrews makes the point that the origin of that discovery can be traced back further and further to decisions that set future events in motion.

Our own impact may or may not be so dramatic. We watch movies such as Freedom Writers, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dead Poet’s Society and other inspirational tales of one person making a difference in the lives of many and our hearts are stirred. But do we consider that we have the ability to do the same thing in the lives of our direct reports, peers and others?

When your name comes up around the dinner table, what is being said about you? If you were a fly on the wall, would you hear statements like, “He always shoots down my ideas and won’t give me a chance” or “She only cares about the bottom line and has to always do things her way”?

Research from Gallup shows that what followers need most from leaders are trust, stability, hope, and compassion (Strengths Based Leadership, 2008). Luthans, Youssef & Avolio (Psychological Capital, 2007) identify efficacy (self-confidence), hope, optimism and resiliency as “psychological capital” that can positively impact the workplace.

Positive butterfly effects from leaders, then, start with intentionally infusing hope, optimism, resiliency, trust and other positive traits into daily encounters with followers. In the midst of chaotic, stressful and sometimes impossible circumstances, leaders can create a legacy that positively influences the outcomes of other people’s lives with a ripple effect that goes on for generations to come.

Dr. Henry Cloud in his book Integrity writes

When a person travels a few years with an organization, or with a partnership, or any other kind of working relationship, he leaves a ‘wake’ behind in these two areas, task and relationship: what did he accomplish and how did he deal with people? And we can tell a lot about that person from the nature of the wake.

If we are going to leave a wake one way or another, why not be intentional about it? Why not choose the direction the molecules of our actions will travel? Why not decide to unleash a tsunami of hope, optimism, resiliency and trust?

   

Four Keys to Influencing Up the Org Chart

(Getting the boss’s attention when you know something you wish they did too)

I led a training session recently for a group of production and operations supervisors from a mid-size global firm. Our topic for the day was teams and trust, and our focus was on optimal functioning for work teams that they managed. They described, however, a scenario that is all too familiar: their new leader (less than a year) was clueless about how to run the operation. Hired for his lean manufacturing experience, he suggested skipping over some critical aspects of the operation to save time. Based on these “efficiencies” he suggested the product would be defective, even unsafe, and would require hours of rework.

For nearly a year these supervisors, with an average tenure of 15 years, had tried to explain the process to their boss. He took notes, smiled and nodded as though he was in agreement, then went away and disregarded not just their advice and experience, but the scientific facts of the process.

We had a long discussion about how they could influence the boss to do the right thing, to listen to them and heed their warnings. They were frustrated and disillusioned. Some of their peers had already left the organization, taking with them decades of experience. We needed to figure out a way to stop the exodus of talent and have a meaningful impact up the organizational chart.

Whether we want to share a new idea or fix a broken process, influencing up the organization chart is an important skill for everyone in the chain of command.

The best managers, of course, want to hear from people – they welcome new ideas, challenges to the process, and suggestions for adopting technology to make work easier, cheaper, or faster. But not all bosses are open to others’ ideas.

I’m reading Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings. He describes three kinds of people that we encounter in life:

  • Wise
  • Foolish
  • Evil

If you’ve ever read the Old Testament book of Proverbs, these designations will be pretty familiar to you. For instance, Proverbs 3:35 says, “The wise inherit honor, but fools get only shame.” Proverbs 6 talks about the evil person who “plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict.”

Influencing a wise boss is easy, because they are open to feedback, want to learn, and don’t get defensive when you challenge their ideas. The wise person has understanding and discernment, an ability to take in information and objectively and skillfully accept the facts without feeling challenged.

A foolish boss listens, but takes not action. They nod and smile, but lack the motivation, resolve, or interest to make things better. They may be prideful or lacking in judgment. The foolish person is often insecure, which leads them to hoard information and shut down any ideas that did not originate with them.

The evil person covets control and power, acting like a puppet-master to direct the outcomes that put them at an advantage over others. They are untrustworthy, deceptive and, often, disagreeable. They may tell you what you want to hear, but will use the information to put you in your place later. Though rare, bosses like this exist – I know from experience!

Whether you want to upward-influence a wise, foolish, or evil boss, there are some keys to help you succeed:

Know Your Stuff. The best way to influence others is to be seen as an expert. Subject-matter expertise opens many doors and allows you to be an internal consultant. Don’t settle on past knowledge – actively pursue professional development and educate yourself on new technologies and trends in your field.

The wise manager will readily accept your insights and suggestions because they trust your experience and know-how. Do your homework, though, since a really wise person may probe to get the full picture.

The foolish manager will require some careful planning. Since they resist influence due to their self-protective nature, you will need a heavy dose of humility to sell the idea as theirs. They may feel threatened by your expertise, so you have to be careful that your know-how doesn’t come across as know-it-all.

Learn to read people. Emotional intelligence is extremely important in trying to upward-influence. Learn to read social cues and understand personalities and what motivates the person you want to influence. You don’t have to give someone a formal assessment to get insight into what makes them tick. Knowing motivations is perhaps the most useful awareness when it comes to influencing.

Take a look at their work space and listen to what they talk about. Is it all work and know play? Is it centered on family, friends and relationships? How do they learn best – reading, hearing, or hands-on?

We sometimes use our own preferences when we’re trying to influence others, which is not very effective. Get to know the person you want to influence and you’ll be seen as credible and trustworthy. Your wise boss will appreciate your insights, the foolish boss will probably be surprised you understand them so well, and the evil manager may watch you a little more closely to see if you have ulterior motives.

Choose your words carefully. Once you’re able to read people you can much more easily decide how to talk with them. Words are important, as is the way you deliver them.

Our attitude impacts the words we use and the way we say them. If we are angry, we’ll sound it. If we’re fearful of how the other person will react, we’ll sound timid and unsure.

If you have done your homework to become a subject matter expert, and have some insights into what motivates the person you want to influence, you can come across as confident and smart. Make a case for your idea or suggestion, always keeping in mind the point of view of the other person. Use terms that make sense to them, speak to what is important to them (quality, the bottom line, customer service, etc.). Clearly show how your idea will help achieve their goals. Make your pitch compelling, interesting, factual, and wise. Don’t make it an information dump, but do give some materials and bullet points that they can refer back to later.

Be patient and persistent. This last key is the hardest one to apply. When we have an idea or suggestion, especially when we see an urgent need to change the current course, we find it hard to wait patiently for the boss to weigh the merits of your case. They may not have the same level of pain or concern as you.

Give them time to consider, realizing that they probably have greater insight into the big picture and may need to do their own upward-influencing to get the ear (and budget) of their boss.

Don’t dump and run! Follow up within a week after the initial conversation, possibly adding some additional information, answering questions, and asking when they think a decision will be made. Don’t be a pest, and accept their decision graciously.

What if They Don’t Change Their Mind?

You may do a great job of presenting your case but still not influence your boss to adopt your suggestion or change their mind. Ask them for some feedback so that you can understand their thinking and decision-making process. They may or may not have a good reason for saying no, but their response may give you insights that will help you in the future.

You have a choice whether to accept their decision and move on, determine to try again with a different tactic, or decide to move on because of the critical consequences you see for not changing the current course. Just as a salesperson has to make a lot of presentations before they get a buyer, someone who wants to influence upwardly must be OK with a little rejection.

Influence is the primary task of leadership, and when we are able to influence up the organizational chart we show that leadership can happen at any level and go in any direction. It takes skill to influence others, since we are breaking them out of a particular way of thinking. Our minds are not easily changed, but when we show our expertise, tap into the other person’s interests, frame our case well, and are persistent and patient, we greatly improve the odds of winning someone over to our way of thinking.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)

Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Second Edition (Paperback)

How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age