4 Sure-Fire Ways to Mess Up Your Company Culture

This month we have dedicated our blogosphere to the “soft stuff” of culture: why it matters to organizational success, what individual employees and leaders can do to make theirs better, and the North American business mega-culture that affects us all.

As we near the end of the month, let’s be crystal clear about four big ways you can mess up your organizational culture and cause lasting damage:

  1. Espousing one set of values but practicing another.

At the heart, company culture lives and breathes in the beliefs and assumptions held by the employees within. You can have pretty, glossy values statements posted all over your organization, in the employee manual, and tattooed on every leader, but if you say you value something and then you act in ways that are incongruent with those values, your employees (and your customers) will smell a rat and instantly lower their trust.

For example, a company with a written value such as, “People are our most important asset,” will have problems if they fail to deal with their high accident/injury rates due to outdated safety practices. In this situation, what employees actually see is, “We value our product production as most important even if it is dangerous.”

Act in accordance with your values, every time. Anything else will knock your culture on its ass, and fast.

  1. Allowing leaders who don’t walk the talk to reign supreme.

Leaders don’t always initiate company culture, but they certainly contribute. I can’t tell you how often we discover pockets of managers within organizations who completely undermine the stated cultural norms. Their employees know it, their customers know it, and even the managers involved know it.

I remember one organization who claimed it had a culture of, “inclusion and relentless communication,” and yet this same company also continuously rewarded a Senior VP who almost always failed to involve his team, communicate accurate information, or practice partnership with any of his colleagues. No matter what the organization said about how they did things, this leader did not model it, and the employees’ faith and confidence in the culture was fragile, at best.

Deal with your managers who aren’t on the bus. Hold them accountable for culture creation and support. Expect them to contribute positively and to embody the organizational culture in their everyday actions. If they can’t (or won’t) replace them with someone who can, and will.

  1. Assuming company culture will take care of itself.

I can see why leaders long to have their company culture simply evolve, oftentimes assuming that if they put the right ingredients in a bowl, a healthy culture will emerge. Culture is mercurial, and hard to see and measure. It is not a major focus of most MBA programs, and it often seems so amorphous as to be mostly magic. Maybe so, but still, why leave it to chance?

Senior leaders pay attention to the minutia of product development, marketing strategies, and shareholder concerns, and yet maybe in total spend 2 hours a year even thinking about culture. Deliberately deciding how you want to do things in your organization ensures that the culture you end up with strategically serves your goals and mission. We know that culture is hard to change, so why not invest in deliberately creating a healthy, purposeful one?

  1. Having two cultures: one for customers and one for employees.

Do you really think customers are that shallow or clueless? I recently had an airline experience that illustrated a culture faux pas in this area. I had a flight cancel, and was rebooking. The agent helping me actually said these words:

“Ma’am, I totally understand what I can do to fix this problem and get you where you want to go, but I am not authorized to take responsibility to fix it. I suggest you call the 1-800 number to see if the agent you reach has the authority to fix this for you.”

Really? This agent clearly knew that treating me well as a customer mattered and that solving problems was her job. She wanted to help me and she knew her company promise was to help me. But the level of authority she was given completely limited her ability to actually help. The dissonance was astounding, and I left feeling bad for her, bad for me, and bad for the airline who will continue to shed customers like me to other airlines because of their cultural misalignment. Treat your customers and your employees consistently. Anything less is risky for the future of your business.

Though it takes consciousness and effort, avoiding the booby traps for messing up your company with a crappy culture is not rocket science. It demands a will within senior leaders to model healthy cultural elements throughout the fabric of their business. Effective leaders who care result in healthy organizations with healthy cultures, which attract top talent and repeat customers.

Jim Morris