Monday, November 30, 2015

Signs of a Broken Corporate Culture? Been there, got the tee-shirts (and the pink slips) to prove it…

Let’s face it, anyone with a blog called Pink Slip is going to be over the topic of “broken corporate culture.” Looking back on my full-time career, it’s hard to believe that, when it comes to corporate culture, there’s any other kind.

Thus, I was white-on-rice to a post by Liz Ryan I saw on on the signs of a broken corporate culture.

When the energy in a company is good, you can feel the cushion of air that carries you throughout your workday. When the energy is bad, you can feel the gray cloud that hangs over the place and makes everything so much harder to do. ( Source: Forbes.

Ryan ticks off the signs of a bad culture, starting with people quitting left and right, but no one addressing the problem head on. Instead, they have an excuse for everyone who exits the building: bad fit, etc.

This is all true, but, of course, in my case, I tended to be one of the bitter-enders, sticking with a high-toxicity culture (they do tend to be wildly interesting) unless or until the toxicity flames started licking my heels. And then it became a case of why quit now. Let them make it worth my while.

Maybe they’re quitting because nobody knows what “the plan” is.

It’s certainly true that, in my places of work, there was often a lack of clarity about the company’s strategy, goals, and tactics. Often, there was lip service paid to something that sounded coherent (at least on paper). And yet we’d see time and time again that there’d be some “opportunity” that was off-track and, no matter how hare-brained and inconsistent it was, we’d head off in a new direction. Wheeeee!

Then there’s Ryan’s observation that, in a broken culture nobody tells the truth.

I’d counter this with my personal experience, which was that there were always a couple of folks willing to tell the truth, but they (me) were perceived as naysayers, Debbie Downers.

In one of my liar-liar-company-pants-of-fire outfit I worked at for many years, I sat down with my manager (the president) and went through observations of what we weren’t doing well and what I thought our prospects were. His response was that, in his moments of weakness, he felt the same way.


I would have thought that those would have been his moments of strength.

To me, unless you have an accurate read on a situation, you can’t do anything about it.

As it turned out, we both should have saved our breaths. Within a couple of months of that conversation, our little company was put out of its misery and rolled into another entity our parent company had also acquired.

For Ryan, a sign of a broken company culture is the the priority governing decisions is “don’t screw up.”

I’m trying to put my finger on what the overarching decision priority in the companies I worked for was. It doesn’t seem to me that it was “don’t screw up” so much as “don’t make waves.” (There is a difference.) You could screw up all you wanted as long as it was in pursuit of something that the “bigs” had declared worth doing.

Ryan’s point is that in a healthy culture, people make mistakes and learn from them. I’d say that in an unhealthy culture, people make mistakes all the time. It’s just that, after the fact, there’s no analysis of what went wrong. Thus, no one ever learns from their screw ups and, as I saw time and again, companies were condemned to repeat them.

Ryan is spot on with her notion that the blame/shame game is a hallmark of a broken culture.

In the companies I worked for, at those times when the culture was at its very worst, blame and shame ran rampant.

On a number of occasions, I saw very senior managers throw someone on their team under the bus in very public ways. Just hideous.

The final item on Ryan’s list is that w
hen a company culture is broken, the joy and creative excitement of any job disappear.”

In my experience, this isn’t necessarily true.

My full time career was almost exclusively in companies where, in many respects, the culture was as often as not broken. The clearest demonstration of just how broken was that most of them ended up in a death spiral.

Interesting, the company that had just about the WORST culture in ways that went well beyond Ryan’s list is still standing. Go figure.

What’s missing from Ryan’s post is this:

There are plenty of places with crappy culture that end up going out of business, but there may well be aspects of those cultures that work – or are at least fun and entertaining. I tended to favor cultures that favored smart odd-balls, and there was something about having great, smart odd-ball colleagues that made you (or me at least) forgive the lying, denying, blaming, shaming, etc. that characterized the overall culture as set from the top.

At the same time, there are plenty of successful companies where I would have hated the culture. (I’m thinking GE in its prime.)

This post is top of head, but I’m going to have to think about this broken corporate culture thing a bit more.

Stay tuned. Pink Slip may have a list of its own coming up.

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