Culture Made Me Do It

Culture Made Me Do It“Has culture
become a legitimate
basis for avoiding
responsibility?”

The concept of corporate culture burst on to management’s radar in 1982 with publication of Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy’s groundbreaking book, Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life. The notion that financial results were not completely tied to financial planning, HR policies, or cost controls, but rather the values, rites, and rituals of the organization were a novel and somewhat controversial concept. Edgar Schein and other management theorists began to explore culture as an organizational success variable and culture fast became a tenet of organization development practitioners–yours truly included.

Which made the argument by defense attorneys that two Vanderbilt University students charged in the gang rape of another student “were changed by a culture of binge drinking and sex at Vanderbilt”  just a bit more than legal novelty. According to a report by Associated Press, defense attorneys questioning a neuropsychologist about the attackers state of mind asked “Is there anything in Vanderbilt’s culture that might influence the way they act or the way they think or the way they make decisions?” The neuropsychologist responded saying, “Yes, at that age peer pressure is critical… you tend to take on the behavior of people around you.”  The jury hearing the case disregarded the “culture made me do it” defense and found both students guilty.

While the abuse of drugs, and alcohol on college campuses is likely the worst kept secret ever, the notion that somehow the culture of college life is now responsible for sexual assaults and other forms of violence seems wildly out-of-place. What has become of personal responsibility, integrity, and respect among peers? What has become of looking out for one another? Is this particular form of misogyny, recklessness, and failure to accept responsibility being created on college campuses or has the “participation trophy generation” come to its natural end? How much of this culture is now being exported into the working world?

Leaders face never-ending challenges when it comes to holding people and teams accountable for their actions, inactivity, successes and shortcomings. The notion that somehow “culture” now becomes a legitimate basis for avoiding responsibility for personal behavior is almost too much to contemplate.

So what is the leader’s role in fostering positive work place culture? As a leader here are the five areas I’ve focused on with good results:

1. Healthy Doses of Sunlight. It’s starts with be as open as possible about what’s going on throughout the enterprise followed by assuring a healthy dose of respect among all team members. The sharing of goals, strategic plans, and financial results can fuel a focus on achievement. The mantra “we’re all in this together” is well, more than just a mantra. It’s a fact. There is little that will do more damage to an organization than allowing an environment where secrecy, negativity, put-down humor, gossip, or sexist attitudes can flourish. Some workplaces are still infected with mindless leftovers from another era and your job is to eradicate them or remove the people responsible for them as quickly as possible.

2. Recognizing Good Works. We all work for a reason. For some, it’s a desire to make a difference for our families. For others work is a means to fulfill their wish to change the world. And there are lots of other reasons in between. Whatever a team member’s reasons, recognizing their work contributions in a public, meaningful way is vitally important to the health of the team and the organization. Praise is a powerful motivational tool. Engaged team members are 50% more likely to exceed expectations and organizations will out-perform competitors with less engaged workforces. A contributing team member, with a positive attitude, willing to do whatever needs doing, matters way more than we often realize. Make sure you recognize it.

3. Strengthen Communications Transparency. Someone asked me the other day how you be sure you are communicating enough to your team? My response was simple. “Are you sick of saying it?” No?  Then keep repeating your message. Find new ways to share your goals. Post scorecards in the break room. Use different communication channels. Try walking around a bit to talk with other team members both inside and outside your immediate hierarchy. Keep in mind, that if you’re doing your job well there are no communication surprises for your team. Hopefully you’ve engaged them in crafting the messages you are sharing along the way. Rinse. Repeat.

4. Find and Foster Learning Opportunities. According to Forbes Magazine, companies spend over $130 billion worldwide for training. It’s well-known that high performing companies spend more with leadership development training capturing 35% of their training spend. In the accounting profession growing firms spend 4-6% of revenues on continuing professional education versus 1-2% for the typical firm. Leaders need to assess the potential of their teams and make certain they are receiving training for both hard and soft skills. Few things derail progress faster than having a team without the essential skills that foster productivity, help them excel at managing projects, or use their time effectively. Helping your team “sharpen the saw” is vital to their growth and essential to your organization and leadership capacity.

5. Keep The Organization’s Immune System In Good Order. Michael Watkins, author of The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter says culture offers “protection that prevents “wrong thinking” and “wrong people” from entering the organization in the first place.” If that’s so, keeping your organization’s culture healthy is critical to your leadership success. Being selective in your hiring, attentive to team member’s needs, using social events, public recognition ceremonies, and celebrations to foster a sense of unity–all serve your organization’s immune system. Whatever you can do to support a positive, engaging, and stimulating environment will go a long ways to keeping your cultural immune system in good working order. One caution–be certain your organization’s immune system isn’t so strong, it kills off new ideas and or changes before they bloom. Vigilance is required to keep up a healthy balance. And that is precisely what effective leaders do.

What are you doing that’s different in your organization culture that is positively impacting engagement? Share it here.

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