August 10, 2011 Culture, Executive, Leadership

Is your organizational culture what you think it is?

In my role I have the opportunity to work with leaders at all levels of all kinds of organizations. About half of my work involves leadership skill building and team process effectiveness; culture for the most part makes up the other half.

It is impossible for me to go into an organization without subconsciously (maybe consciously) assessing the culture of their work environment. I observe and listen for how people are expected to behave, to perform, to treat each other and their customers.

I often hear about practices and philosophies from the leadership that clearly is not in practice within the organization.  And I can say that you need to use a lot of diplomacy to tell the CEO, “I know what you’re saying happens, but it doesn’t happen that way”.  It’s hard to hear that you have tried to build something a specific way and that way is not happening.

Whether an organization has intentionally created their culture or that culture evolved by default, it does have a culture that is tangible and observable. If your culture was created by default, it is likely that unintentional values or norms exist. If you consistently see conflicts,
blame, poor performance, and frustration, your culture is eroding employee morale with every passing minute! Let’s look at two very powerful systems which may reinforce undesirable valued behaviors in your organization.

Rewards and Incentives

Whether you have formalized values and valued behaviors or not, rewards and incentive systems can cause distinct behaviors, some good, some not good. For example, if you desire a team culture but your organization offers only individual compensation, you will likely see “I win, you lose” behaviors by team members.

A few years back a client described the following inappropriate, incentive-driven behaviors by a salesperson. The company paid a very low base; over 70% of sales staff compensation was in the form of commissions. One salesperson negotiated with a few of his big clients to sell
them product at the end of each quarter. The sales person enjoyed commissions on these sales. Then, one month into the new quarter, he would process returns of that product and refund the client’s money. He was generating commissions on “ghost” sales. This went on every quarter. Everyone – the salesperson, the client, the finance team of his company – knew what he was doing and tolerated this behavior. Eventually the company changed the rules about commissions on product returns, but the damage had been done.

 Recognition and Messaging

Every time you publicly celebrate someone for a behavior or action, you are reinforcing that behavior or action. If you recognize a player for goal accomplishment but everyone knows that they’ve taken inappropriate short cuts (for example) to reach that goal, you are reinforcing undesirable actions.

Even praising the RIGHT behavior can have unintended (and undesirable) consequences. One client celebrated a staff member who learned the wrong materials had been shipped to a client. That person packed the right material and drove to the airport just in time for overnight shipment by UPS. Recovery was expensive but the materials arrived on time. The client celebrated this terrific proactive solution and such recoveries became more frequent. The client realized they needed to celebrate solving the “why do we ship the wrong materials?” problem more than celebrating the recovery!

You don’t have to be a CEO to create values clarity in your own workteam. If you experience unintentional values in your workplace, start setting values expectations now.