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Your Organization’s Culture Might be Sick but You Can Heal It

Strep Culture on a Petri DishMost days we walk through life unaware of conversations occurring around us.  And then there are those times you overhear a conversation that stops you dead in your tracks. You actually have to hit rewind in your brain and ask “did they actually just say that?” Ever have one of those moments? Clearly I did recently.

I was heading to a client site the other morning. As I headed out of my hotel room, I was rumblin’ bumblin’ stumblin’ down the hall (can I get a Chris Berman “holla holla!”?).

My sole mission in life at that point was to get a second cup of coffee from the lobby (and anyone who knows me knows The Rule – don’t speak to me until after my second cup o’ Joe). Clearly my mind was foggier than Yoda’s swamp on Dagobah.

As I passed two housekeepers who were conversing in the hallway, I heard it – the statement that shocked me more than hearing “I’m your father Luke.”

One housekeeper said “Just look busy when she goes by. That’ll keep her off your ass for the rest of the morning.” Note: this was VERBATIM!

Despite the caffeine-deficiency-induced lack of a solid connection between my brain and my eardrum at that point, I was still able to process the enormity of this statement. “Just look busy.” Wow. I was floored.

As I listened to another sentence or two, I figured out “she” was their boss and the housekeeper giving the advice was breaking in a rookie. Danger Will Robinson! This organization’s culture was about to crash harder than an Explorer still riding on recalled Firestones. If you want to see an example of a toxic culture, check this post out on what happens when you create a customer-hostile culture.

“Just look busy.” Amazing advice. The implications were staggering. Clearly the culture here had some major issues:

1. Their manager clearly emphasized activity more than output. This is the kind of person who wants to see hundreds of reports and checklists. They want to see people scurrying around all the time. They focus maniacally on “busy” and lose sight of the outcome. As long as arms and legs are moving, good things must be happening.

2. Training in this organization is lax. There’s no QC to ensure only the best and most capable associates are given the privilege of onboarding a rookie. Missing this critical step only ensures bad habits are passed from one generation to the next.

3. Senior management isn’t doing their job. They’re letting the manager in the first bullet point above run their organization into the ground. Senior management should be out scouring the organization looking for these critical warning signs of a culture heading toward the cliff.

Gee, thanks Mike. Like it’s hard to throw rocks at bad behaviors?

Fine. I know you’re looking for something practical you can use. How about the following:

1. Results count. Not activity. Results. Clearly articulate for your team what OUTCOMES you’re looking for and hold them accountable for delivering them. Give them primacy of purpose so they know where they’re trying to go and will figure out the right set of activities to get them there. When you see wasted activity that doesn’t drive toward a result you’ve agreed upon, send a strong message to the organization and kill said activity. Explain to them you don’t pay for activity – you pay for results. Show them how said activity does nothing to advance the organization toward the outcomes you’re striving for.

2. Invest the time in figuring out who’s allowed to talk to newbies (or as my son would call you on XBOX Live – a “noob”). Make it a badge of honor for an associate to be designated an official “on-boarder.” The Ritz Carlton does some amazing work in this arena. Seasoned associates work closely with their assigned new hire for a prolonged period of time before that new hire is even allowed to speak to a guest. When someone achieves the status of Noob Onboarder, make it an event. Praise them for being competent enough for you to place the trust of the organization in their hands. Bestow the honor and responsibility for being a steward of the culture upon them (and punctuate it with the great Spider-Man line of “with great power comes great responsibility”). Help your folks understand in a very tangible way what you expect of them. Show, don’t tell. Give them an experience like the ones we discussed HERE.

3. If you’re “senior management,” go walk your halls. You’ll see and learn some amazing things. And remember – if you see it, you own it! If everyone knows who you are and is on their best behavior when they see you, send a surrogate out to walk the halls for you so they can observe your associates’ behaviors in their natural habitat. Have the pulse of the organization and when you hear “just look busy” find that manager responsible and fix it. Immediately.

Look – none of us want to work somewhere where the culture is crappy and lax (or even worse give our business to said organization). Emphasize the importance of results. Help your team understand they carry your culture every day. If that culture is toxic, you’ll simply poison your noobs and make it worse. As a leader, it’s on you to ensure only the purest essence of what you want your culture to be is passed along to future generations of leaders on your team.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

- If you want to get better at articulating your performance standards and strengthening your culture, One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership can help you do that – if you put in the effort.

- The picture accompanying this post is a strep throat culture on a Petri dish.  Get it?  I made a science funny.

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