Breaking Bad: Corporate Edition
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Technology is forever changing. Products are basically a snapshot in time. They too come and go. But corporate culture is enduring. In some ways, it defines what a company is. In other ways, it reflects it. Companies that diligently nurture a positive culture thrive. But what do you do if the corporate culture needs a little work?
The first step in making progress is admitting you have a problem. There never seems to be alignment in the company, but that is easily explained away by the lack of process. Maybe decisions take too long to make, but that’s because there are a lot of competing viewpoints. It could be that there is some overarching conflict in the organization, but of course there is that one bad apple.
It’s frighteningly easy to explain away almost anything that ails the company. There is always some excuse. But it’s the fact that there is always some excuse that is the problem in the first place. If you find that you are always explaining away symptoms, that’s the first sign that you might have a culture problem.
So the first rule of breaking the cycle is to stop being a culture apologist. Rather than rationalize everything away, you need to take a measured assessment. Basically, if someone who didn’t know anything about your company was asked to write down some conclusions based only on what they saw, what would those conclusions be?
For example, it might be that your company prides itself on open and honest communication. But would an outside observer who talks to individual contributors find that everyone has access to information? Or is information shared at some levels but not reliably propagated through the rest of the company? Maybe your company is based on honest feedback in support of a meritocracy. But are issues resolved primarily in the open or through rigorous backchannel communications?
It’s tough to stare into that mirror. Because we all know that culture in some ways reflects who we are, when a culture seems less than ideal, we end up looking right back at ourselves. Drawing the conclusion that we are in part to blame for the very thing we wish was different can be a soul-searching moment.
And you are likely to not be compelled to change the first time you see the reflection.
Coming out of college, I spent more time working and less time working out. Over time, I became a little squidgy around the edges. I stared at myself in the mirror everyday, but it didn’t really hit me until we took family photos at Christmas. Staring at the photo, I was a bit incredulous. Is that REALLY me? Despite seeing myself everyday, I needed the jarring image to commit to doing something different.
So it is with culture.
If you sense that the culture might not be ideal, you might need to take a look at it from the outside. Try talking to people in the organization who are newer or maybe not in established circles. Ask them to describe how the company works. Don’t ask them about the culture per say, but rather how information is shared, what the corporate vision is, how the company is doing… And then listen. Not the kind of listening where you are formulating responses in your head and waiting for them to take a breath so you can chime in. Really listen. Commit to being quiet other than asking clarifying questions. Your only interjections ought to be “Thank you” and “Tell me more”.
Getting a sober view of the current State of the Union gets you halfway there. But what do you actually do about it?
Making cultural change is hard work. There is no silver bullet. You can’t send a company memo or make a presentation at a corporate all-hands meeting. There is no retreat or ropes course that will change things. Adding signs to the lobby espousing your aspirational goals is useless. And if you think you will train your way out of a bad culture, you are delusional.
Culture runs deeper than that. It takes personal commitment and personal change. It takes recognition and deliberate action. If you want to break bad habits, you have to start with yourself.
For example, if the company culture is a bit risk averse (a culture of ‘No’), you need to be particularly mindful of that in your own behavior. When you are in discussions about new ideas, do you find yourself tilting towards the negative? In the moment, it is extremely easy to justify this behavior. It’s a bad idea. We shouldn’t be doing that. But there are other ways to handle the situation.
In that moment, at the point of attack, you might consider deliberately suspending disbelief. Even if your instinct is to say no, explicitly work through the problem from the other side: What would have to be true for this to be a yes? A simple re-framing of the situation changes your approach to the conversation. Instead of shooting holes in the argument, you fight to make the idea more sound.
This seems dead simple, but consider for a moment what it feels like for the recipient. It changes the entire nature of the exchange. An immediate no puts her on the defensive, whereas fighting for yes makes the two of you partners. This subtle difference echoed through the entire organization can be culture-changing.
The point here is less about the specific example and more about the need for deliberate, in-the-moment consideration of your actions. If the culture is important to you, it takes dedicated, focused efforts. When left unchecked, your actions have contributed to whatever the current culture is. If you really want a different outcome, you have to be explicit about offering a different input.
[Today’s fun fact: An Ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain. I feel like an ostrich some days.]