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.
1. High Turnover
In a marketplace of low unemployment, it is hard to retain good people. A positive company culture is the best antidote to high turnover, because people who work in happy, challenging environments are hard to lure away. Conversely, employees who are unhappy or deeply frustrated vote with their feet and find another job. The cost to the organization of losing good employees is very high: One of my clients, an accounting firm, conservatively estimated the cost of hiring a single new employee to be upwards of $40,000. High turnover is not only financially costly to an organization, it is a symptom of an
organizational illness: a negative culture.
Does your organization track turnover by department? Every leader should be watching this number like a hawk, creating systems in which she or he receives the metrics of employee exits, sorted by voluntary or involuntary departures by department, and a summary of the exit interviews conducted. Yes, this implies that you conduct exit interviews, which are usually conducted by someone in HR or an outside consultant. Although this can be costly in time, the benefit of doing this is in the invaluable information you harvest from the practice. In my company culture consulting, I routinely conduct exit
interviews of the most recently departed employees to understand why they left.
To create an early warning system of potential turnover, some companies conduct Pulse surveys of their employees in which they gather weekly or monthly feedback on aspects of their organizational and leadership culture. For example, one company sends out employee engagement surveys consisting of one question each week. The question is selected from a collection of culture-related questions (like the Gallup Q12 questions) and asks employees to answer the question using a 1 to 5 scale. They compile the results by manager to proactively identify potential trouble spots that might result in employee
attrition. In this way, they can act before losing employees.
2. Incivility: Bullying, rudeness, shouting and interrupting
Incivility has been the subject of recent research, with sobering results. Dr. Christine Porath of Georgetown University has found that yelling, rudeness, bullying and other uncivil behaviors is a silent killer of workplace happiness, productivity and employee health. You can take Dr. Porath’s Civility Self- Assessment online to see if you are contributing to a toxic organizational culture. You may be surprised to learn that something as simple as forgetting to say please and thank you can contribute to an uncivil work environment.
It has been proven that the simple act of yelling has negative effects on the brain of the hearer: Screaming is the verbal equivalent of an attack, so when yelled at, the brain’s fight or flight response is activated. This in turn turns off the brain’s ability to use higher cognitive skills such as creativity, problem solving, planning and organizing – all skills that are needed in today’s fast-paced workplace. Incivility reduces normally creative and resourceful workers to ruminating survivalists. How can that be good for business?
I recently had coffee with a colleague, to whom I mentioned that incivility is a sign of a stinking culture. She looked aghast and blurted, “I lived that in my last job!” I asked her what the effect of being yelled at and belittled was. She quickly ticked off the effects on her fingers: “The quality of your work suffers, you question your expertise, your self-esteem suffers, you question everything you do, you get physically ill. And, you lose all productivity.” My informal research confirms Dr. Porath’s conclusions about toxic workplaces.
In light of this, what can you do to measure incivility in your workplace? The answer: By simple observation and listening to your employees. In the meetings you attend, notice how many times people interrupt others, raise their voices, demean a co-worker or pass the blame. Notice also when attendees show up – on time or late? You could create a checklist of Porath’s Civility Self-Assessment and ask others to track how many times uncivil behaviors show up in the meetings they attend. Even healthy organizational cultures will have a few tick marks on their scorecard – passion can crowd out civility at times – but the numbers should be low. If not, this is a good sign that your culture needs work.
3. Strategic goals aren’t achieved
One CEO sought out my services as a culture consultant because he was frustrated that his best-made strategic plans were not being executed. “We spent hours and hours creating beautiful, intentional strategic plans for several years, but every year, all I got was excuses as to why we didn’t achieve them,” he said. “Finally, I thought it was time to look at my leadership and my leadership team’s style to figure out what was wrong.” We helped him identify the issues that were holding the organization back from success and started a leadership development program of training and individual coaching. He is seeing
results from this effort in the form of higher revenues and more success in completing initiatives.
As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Leaders can drum up the best strategic plans that reflect months of market research, competitive reviews and future trends. But it’s your employees that implement the strategy, and if they are not pulling together, if they are not being held accountable, if there are competing factions in the organization, then the strategy you created will be worth only the paper it’s written on.
Even if you perceive one or more of these signs in your organization, don’t despair! Culture
transformation is possible for any organization and starts at the top with changing the way the leaders lead. This is most quickly accomplished through training and one-on- one leadership coaching. Once the leaders are all singing in harmony, the rest of the organization will soon take up the song.
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