Every leader thinks their organization’s culture is fine, just fine, maybe even superlative. Sometimes this perception is warranted and other times, not so much. Leaders can lose sight of their employee’s experience in the organization unless they purposely seek out worker’s opinions. In fact, recent studies show that power can inhibit empathy and change the way the brain perceives reality. Therefore, it’s easy for some leaders to become blind to signs that indicate a poor culture or even a toxic workplace.
There are several quantifiable signs that your culture and leadership style needs an overhaul. In this article, we’ll examine three common signs of a culture in trouble: high turnover, incivility, and unachieved strategic goals.
What office doesn’t have a kitchen in it? It’s inconceivable to design a modern office without a special room or corner that holds a refrigerator, microwave and coffee pot. And that is because of the universal human desire to share food in a communal setting. For millennia, human beings have gathered around food for nurturance, conversation and community. Sharing food at a common table is such a basic human need that scientists give it a fancy name: “commensality”. Commensality has been shown to bond people together and to create intimacy that can’t be achieved in any other way. The act of sharing food is so powerful that leaders should consider how to use food routines to embed and symbolize their corporate culture.
Usually when we think of building a positive company culture, we think of sharing noble ideas: values, vision, common purpose, goals, people policies and practices. These are intangible means to building a culture, appealing to team members’ hearts and mind. What about involving the physical body in symbols of a positive culture? If a leader really wants to embed a culture in team members, food is a vehicle to consider. Food ingested into the body becomes nutrition for cells, organs, bones and muscles. In addition, food is related in our experience to pleasure, nurturance, socialization and inclusion. In designing impactful routines that will bond a team and translate into symbols of the culture, food traditions are paramount.
A CEO once told me, “I don’t want my team just blowing sunshine at me all the time!” What she meant was that she wanted her leadership team to bring bad news to her early enough to do something about it. Trouble is, many executives squash bad news, either intentionally or unintentionally, by failing to encourage honest feedback or by punishing those who dare give it. The result? Poor business decisions due to narrow-minded perspectives.
Surrounding oneself with only “yes men” or “yes women” can ruin a business. The demise of Merrill Lynch during the recent great recession is an example of a CEO who fired or refused to talk to executives in the firm who disagreed with his strategy. (See this NY Times article.) Merrill was acquired by Bank of America in 2008, in a shotgun marriage that ended a century-long existence of a once-venerated brokerage firm.
Conscious Capitalism is all about the heart and soul of a business. It is a movement that is gaining momentum and excitement in the business community, and should be foremost on the minds of family business leaders. Conscious Capitalism contrasts with traditional capitalism, whose sole purpose is to maximize shareholder (or owner) wealth. In Conscious Capitalism, the purpose of business is to advance the common good and to make decisions that benefit not just the owners or shareholders, but all the stakeholders of the business: employees, customers, shareholders/owners, suppliers & vendors, society and any other constituents that are affected by the business.
If you think that talk about heart and soul of business is mushy, feel-good pablum, get this: Conscious businesses outperform the overall stock market by a ratio of more than 10:1 (Mackey, J. & Sosodia, R., 2014, p. 36). That means that Conscious Capitalism is a serious competitive advantage. It is a tough, business-minded, holistic approach to business that results in better financial performance.
“Consciousness precedes being... For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.”
- Václav Havel, 1999
The greatest leadership thinkers are those who are concerned about the inner essence or consciousness of the leader, not the more visible leadership skills and competencies. Although leadership skills are very important, skills can be taught to and learned by almost anyone; who you are is unique and is the result of the work you’ve down on the inside. Inner work is the work of the soul, and it shapes your consciousness, the essence of who you really are.
Leaders lead from who they are, not from their scholastic or business achievements. Who you are as a leader speaks louder than words and is projected on an imaginary screen for all your followers to see. They can see if you are true to your word; they can see if you react without fear and with a calm demeanor; they can see if you can articulate a 5-year vision rather than fixate on short term goals; they can see if you can respect and consider multiple perspectives. These qualities represent the inner consciousness of an effective leader.
“People are tired of going to a happy hour with their work colleagues,” says Hussain Manjee, Chief Success Officer at DHD Films in Dallas, TX. “Instead, we do community service events. In one afternoon, our team can build relationships, make an impact and have a fun time.” DHD Films, along with many other companies small and large, are discovering the importance and effectiveness of community service in building a positive company culture. These companies find that community service, one component of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), is an important aspect of living out their core values.
Research indicates that actively participating in company-sponsored volunteer activities increases employee engagement. The 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey of employees ages 21-35 determined that millennials who frequently participate in workplace volunteer activities are nearly twice as likely to rate their corporate culture as very positive and feel more loyalty to their company. In another study, researchers found, “The more available, hands on and integrated corporate citizenship is in an organization, the more it will positively impact employee engagement scores” (Ketvirtis, 2012). My research in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas region confirms these results.
During my morning hike today, I was approached by a woman walking in the opposite direction. She animatedly gestured and warned me, “There is a dangerous snake in the drainage ditch up ahead of you. Be sure to go around the standing water and avoid the snake!” I walked on ahead and came to the standing water. As I walked around it, my eyes were glued to the drainage ditch, scanning the water. I walked to the end of the water but didn’t see a snake. Then, I noticed a slight movement to in my peripheral vision, making me snap my head toward the left. It was the snake, slithering up a tree that was no more than two feet from me! I jumped backwards with a startle. I was glad that the snake was minding its own business and no harm came to me.
Last week, I flew from Dallas/Fort Worth to St Louis for my nephew’s graduation. I left on Wednesday morning on American Airlines and used a mobile boarding pass. On Saturday, I presciently got to the airport three hours before my departure, hoping to go standby on an earlier flight. However, I couldn’t get a boarding pass; neither the app on my phone nor the kiosk at the airport recognized my record locator. I went to the ticket counter, and discovered that my ticket had been cancelled because American Airlines had no record of me getting on the plane in Dallas/Fort Worth, three days previous.
Improving your company culture is simple but not easy. Culture transformation is a result of embedding your core values in everything you do. So, that’s the simple part – just tweaking what you already do. But sometimes the execution that gets tricky. It’s best to identify a handful of small, low-cost items that you can do quickly to improve your culture and get started. A journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. And, remember that improving your culture improves employee retention, productivity and profitability. It’s an investment that pays big dividends.
Here are six surprisingly low-cost hacks that can help you kickstart a culture transformation.
Who hasn’t seen the video of a passenger being brutally dragged off an over-booked United Airlines flight on April 9th? The incident became a public relations disaster, and has adversely affected both United’s stock price and revenue and cost the CEO a promotion to chairman. In contrast, American Airlines had a similar customer service snafu last weekend regarding a mother of twin toddlers who tried to bring a stroller onto the airplane. The company moved swiftly to right the situation and avoid any negative consequences.
The contrasting tales show how culture affects the bottom line.
The fact is, there will be customer service snafus, even in the best companies. Human beings work in companies, and human beings are imperfect and make mistakes from time to time. The proof of an organization’s culture is in the way it recovers from the service failure. In the customer service business, it’s called “service recovery.” How you recover from a service failure reflects the values and culture of the business.
From the Desk of