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company culture blind spots

9 Surprising Blind Spots That Scuttle Company Culture

Leaders — even the best among us — are only human. And as such, we’ve all got blind spots that harm company culture.

Blind spots lead our best laid plans to backfire. We intend well. We don’t see clearly. We stumble and blunder into obstacles we cannot perceive, and wonder how we got all these bruises on our legs (metaphorically).

The truth in the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s bookWhat Got You Here Won’t Get You There, cannot be overstated. It takes clearer vision and filled-in blind spots to begin to navigate around the obstacles that have us stuck.

The good news… These blind spots are easier to fill in than a between-the-teeth cavity. So, let’s shed some light into what you might be missing today so you can build a stronger company culture tomorrow.

The 9 Blind Spots

1) “THEY” are the problem.

Are you blaming people on your team for conditions that you don’t like and that currently exist in your company?

If you’re looking at THEM as the problem (I tell you with all the empathy of someone who’s made this mistake more than once), then a significant portion of the problem rests with you. It’s not that you’re necessarily wrong. THEY may be doing unprofessional, inadvisable, undesirable, and even indefensible things. And, people’s behavior reflects the leadership they receive and the structures and environment they work in. So how do you know if you’ve got this blind spot? Maybe you catch yourself saying sentences of complaint that start with, “they.”

  • They don’t get it.
  • They are not accountable.
  • They don’t pay attention.
  • They do the minimum to just get by.
  • They don’t seem to care.
  • They lack common sense! (see #8 below)

Ask yourself, “How am I complicit in (or even contributing to) the conditions I deplore?” Your company culture is powerfully affected by the thoughts you permit yourself to entertain about your team.

2) THESE sound good. Let’s go with THESE. 

Are your core values carefully chosen, well defined, and jealously defended? Or are they casual platitudes?

Many companies have values on the wall that don’t mean much to the people who work there and don’t guide the decisions they make. They were chosen because they seemed like good ideas, because they are core values common among other companies. If the core values you espouse are not idiosyncratic, if they don’t reflect what sets you apart, then the fact that they’re generic will relegate them to meaninglessness.

Ho-hum values make for ho-hum culture, ho-hum work life, and ho-hum company performance.

Patrick Lencioni has a lesser known book, The Advantage,  in which he calls values like integrity, “pay to play,” (they’re obligatory to even have the right to be doing business) and not, “core.” The book’s subtitle says it all, “Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business.”

One more thing on values… If they don’t guide the decisions made in your company, then they aren’t actually core values at all.

3) Allowing policy decisions that essentially say, “Yeah, BUT…” 

Do you have policies and procedures in your company that conflict with your values?

One such conflict we see often is in companies that either list “TRUST” as a core value, or that espouse trust as an important part of their culture. Many of those companies that hold trust as a “must have” also tell employees that they must bring doctors’ notes to work when they return from a hospitalization. They track people’s minute-to-minute computer use to insure they’re not on social media. They ask for trust… And then they send a not-so-subtle message, “We don’t trust you a bit.” This misalignment is not purposeful. It is impactful. Remember that generic core value, “Integrity?” This incongruence is not integrity.

To a large degree, your policy decisions ARE your company culture.

4) “Add that to the employee handbook!”

Do you have a rulebook that grows year-by-year because employees do foolish, wrong-headed, or unprofessional things? Do you add rules to prevent the next person from behaving the way this one did?

Professionalism isn’t something to codify in exacting and increasing detail, and you cannot build a “foolproof” employee handbook. Trying to is a fool’s errand. It’s not uncommon for leaders to try to legislate their way out of difficult conversations. Those conversations are actually tremendously valuable. They help you to create and strengthen relationships, build rapport, and fine-tune organizational health and culture.

Here’s what Mary Barra understood when she took over as CEO of GM and shortened their multi-page dress code to two words, “Dress appropriately.” Barra understood, these are conversations that you WANT, not conversations to avoid by putting everything in writing.

5) “Bring me the RESULTS, but don’t make the DECISIONS.” 

Does everyone have the authority they need to deliver the results they’re responsible for?

I remember once being hired (because of my training and expertise) to be the Director of a lake’s waterfront where our guests swam and boated. I was in charge of the lifeguarding staff, and responsible to keep swimmers, staff, and all other visitors safe. And then my employers forced waterfront policy decisions on my staff and me that I knew unnecessarily compromised the safety of our guests. I felt demoralized. So did my staff.

For further illustration, many (most? nearly all?) call centers have a misalignment between responsibility and authority. They evaluate a rep’s performance by percentage of a) single-call resolutions that are, b) swift, and that c) are not escalated to a supervisor. Their jobs feel torturous because while those are their metrics of success, they are not given the decision making authority to satisfy what their customers want. It takes a supervisor’s pay-scale to make those decisions. Damned if you don’t. And hands are tied.

6) “You SUCK!”

Do the leaders in your organization punish failing? Or, do they encourage someone who’s fallen flat to look at their results and how they got there for important lessons that can help ensure greater success in the future?

Are you sure? Sometimes the punishment for failing can be subtle.

Do your leaders ever raise their voices? Ever? Do they say unwise things (that some people think are wise) like, “Don’t bring me a problem unless you’ve got a solution?” Do they take over on projects that aren’t going fast enough, or aren’t being done they way they want? Do they bring up these failures in needlessly public settings?

Look also to your front lines. If people try to hide their failures instead of sharing with the team what they learned from those failures, it’s very likely they fear some form of ridicule, embarrassment, or other punishment.

If you don’t get this right, you’ll never be able to build a company culture of independent problem solving.

7) “He may be BAD… But he’s so GOOD!”

Are you tolerating the intolerable?

There’s a reason that Robert Sutton felt the need to write the book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. And there’s a reason that an article he wrote earlier for Harvard Business Review was called, “More Trouble Than They’re Worth.”

The reasons are more profound than — and still boil down to — one fact. They’re more trouble than they’re worth.

On the face of it, it can seem like firing a “strong performer” for poor people skills and demeaning behaviors would hurt your bottom line even if it would save others’ morale.

The truth is, their rain-making benefits are obvious. The profound costs are hidden — and they’re higher. Keeping troublesome performers is a net loss… usually to the bottom line, and always to our souls.

There’s a very impactful quote I’ve seen attributed to many different people. Who knows who said it first? And who cares? Its potency is unaffected.

“Your company culture is defined by the worst behaviors tolerated.”

8) “Everyone knows what I mean. It’s COMMON SENSE!”

Do you have clearly and repeatedly defined expectations or do you rely on your understanding of COMMON SENSE?

At The Yes Works, hearing people complain about others’ lack of common sense is a frequent occurrence. Trouble is, that complaint is usually a thinly veiled means for shifting (shirking) responsibility for a failure of communication. And it’s always a sure-fire way of ensuring that whatever misalignment this complaint is pointing to will never be resolved.

What’s more, the concept of “common sense” is a fiction. Common sense comes with common experience — and we don’t all have common experience.

9)”Yeah, well, you know… We’ve got awesome people, so we’ve got a great culture.”

Are you leaving tomorrow’s culture to chance? 

At The Yes Works, we define culture as the set of contagious behaviors and attitudes in a community (and your company is a community. The tricky thing is, ALL behaviors and attitudes are contagious. New hires change company culture. New technologies, new trends, and news stories affect your culture. Deaths, marriages, health crises, and births affect your culture. Therefore, your company culture will always be changing and evolving in response to new developments among your people.

If all behaviors are contagious, and your people are exposed to so very many influences, then the question becomes… Which behaviors will have the greatest contagion factor? Which will be most contagious?

And if you want to select for the most effective behaviors — those that contribute to the company and to the quality of life of the people in it — then you’ll be rewarded for finding systematic ways to embed the behaviors you want deep into the fabric of your company.

Here’s what Philip Goward, the CEO of TextExpander, had to say about why he chose to invest in Company Culture Engineering with The Yes Works. “We had a great culture because we hired very well. And that’s not a sustainable or scalable model for keeping a great culture as we double and triple in size over the next few years… Your work with us is part of the fabric of this company. Thank you.”

Whether you choose to work with us, or to DIY your system for propagating healthy culture, you’ll be richly rewarded for systematizing the means by which people and continually nurtured to healthy communication, collaboration, and decision making. And lady-luck may make you regret it if you don’t.

Bonus Blind Spot #10) “I hire great people, and I get out of their way!”

Here’s another common saying that sounds wise on the surface. Remember my story about the waterfront where my employers got in my way and endangered our guests by doing so?

Certainly it’s wise to hire great people and not get in their way. The reason this is included here as a dangerous blind spot is that too many leaders take this to mean that they don’t interfere or exert influence at all. As a result:

  • Efforts within the company are insufficiently coordinated. Great people are doing great work. They’re simply missing out on opportunities for aligned efforts to deliver compounding results. One plus one can equal three.
  • People don’t end up feeling like they belong. Companies with outstanding talent retention have a number of things in common. One is that they build a sense of tribe, of belonging. And so when people contemplate changing employer, they’re not calculating only the difference in salary, title, and work they’ll be doing. They contemplate also whether the gains they might get in those areas meet the loss of the valuable community they have at work.
  • People don’t learn, grow, and improve as fast. The need for belonging named above is joined on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs by the human need to “self-actualize,” to learn and grow. So while people don’t want their supervisors to interfere or obstruct their work, employees DO want to be influenced and supported to grow, improve, learn — to be better tomorrow than they are today. Leaders who, “stay out of the way,” very often don’t contribute much either.

You’re Not Alone

I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.

The good news is, you’re not the only one with some of these blind spots. We’ve got them because society has taught them to us. So, you’re in good company and you can let yourself off the blame-hook.

The bad news is, you’re not the only one with some of these blind spots. We’ve got them because society has taught them to us. So, while you’re in good company, you cannot let yourself off the responsibility-hook.

If you want to build a sustainably awesome culture that drives your business and your people to thrive, you may just need support (we all do at one time and another) to fill in some of these blind spots.

And it’s my fervent hope that this article has contributed even just a bit of that support.

(If this has helped you see what you’d been missing, and has helped you see leverage you have to influence your company culture, I’d be honored to hear or read your story. Please get in touch.)

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