Culture Killers: Things that can hurt corporate culture

By: Marty Parker

“I couldn’t repair your brakes, so I made your horn louder” Steven Wright.

When I first heard Steven Wright’s quote, I immediately saw the connection to organizational culture.  You can be the greatest communicator, have the most distributed communications across the organization in terms of representing your culture but if the things that support the culture are broken – if your proverbial breaks are broken –  it’s only going to end up being a louder death, it’s not going to stop it from happening.

When we talk about culture, we often talk about things that can make your culture great.  On the flip side there are things that can negatively impact your culture.  We call these “Culture Killers”.  Below you’ll find the most common and easily identifiable killers that can have a huge impact on your culture.

New Leadership

New leadership in an organization will often come in with an outsider’s eye and see ways to change the business that that they think are beneficial.  And most often than not, will try to do too much too fast.  Culture takes time to change and evolve.  In our most recent Canadian Corporate Culture Study, we asked if a new leader could change culture, 88% responded yes.  But changing culture isn’t always good and certainly comes with more risk if it’s done too quickly.

There’s a real issue that follows is the “do as I say, not as I do” motto.  When new leaders are enforcing change too fast, without them themselves or the leadership team leading by example you’ll often have employees scratching their heads, wondering what’s going on.

You need to set the tone from the top and take your time.  I often recommend doing a culture assessment when the new leader joins, and then again in three years’ time.  It gives a good indication of what and how things have changed in a timed, measured approach. If you try to move to fast or try to do too many things that aren’t in alignment with the culture, you’ll have a significant problem.

Misalignment of Systems or Processes that support the business

This happens often because of when the systems or process were designed to support culture.  A great example of this is compensation in a sales focused organization.  Early on in the business you develop a very aggressive sales compensation system to support a growing sales culture.  Years later the business is mature, targets aren’t as aggressive and the previous objectives aren’t being met.  The system ends up losing its value and ends up not meaning much to the very people is was intended to reward.

Lack of perceived value and importance have a real impact on organizational culture.  You have to have systems and processes that support the culture.  You want your systems and processes to last, and if they aren’t going to last be aware that they’ll then need to change to remain aligned with your organization’s culture.

Accepting bad behaviour from high performers

Organizations that are performance focused, meaning the outcomes are much more important than the “how” they occur or the behaviours that drive them, can get themselves into trouble.

Do your top people alienate others or offend them because of the outcomes they are trying to achieve?  If you are accepting that behaviour, or even rewarding it without realizing, it can have a real impact on your culture.

Thomas Dimitroff, an old friend and current general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, has experienced major cultural changes within the organization under owner Arthur Blank’s ownership, part of which was the Michael Vick situation of 2007.  When we spoke about it, I asked him “What do you do if a high performer – whether it be a player, coach management team member – acts contrary to what your culture is about?”  His response was a simple one – “We cut him…get rid of him, right away no questions asked.” Why?  His reasoning was straightforward “if you don’t, you’re accepting it and it becomes the new standard.”

Getting rid of top performers whose behaviour runs counter to your organizations culture is not easy, but it’s a defining moment that sends a strong message.

Neglecting your Culture when you’re expanding

When you’re expanding into a new market and you’re assuming that you’re going to have a whole new culture and do things differently and that you will still be aligned with your home market or core business you’re making a mistake.

A great example of this is when the Fairmont Hotel would open in a new market they’d send a “Culture Carrier” someone who knew their business, knew the culture, had been with the organization for a long time would come in and help in expansion mode.  When you’re looking at running an operation miles away, you have to have the behavioural continuity represented in how you do things.

In my book, Culture Connection, we get deeper into the topic of Culture Killers.  You’ll find other killers, ones that I guarantee will surprise you, and we explore ways to combat them.