Without Definition, Toxic Company Cultures Flourish

toxic company culture
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Investopedia defines a corporate culture as its beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions. They say it can develop organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires. Too often, however, a corporate culture becomes implied and not expressly defined, leading to interpretation and conflict.

Edwards Deming stated, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” That quote from the acknowledged father of the quality movement can be used as a description of how a company’s culture can turn toxic.

With recent events highlighting company cultures at Google and Uber, why is no one talking about the root issues – the fundamental cause of that toxicity? When we diagnose the health of the root, we can foresee the strength or the weakness of the company.

 

What is the root cause of toxicity?

Natural law says we can count on people being people. When people are left to their own devices to interpret procedures, policies, and processes, they will do it to the best of their abilities, but everyone will come up with their own interpretations. Those various interpretations are at the root of most conflicts in the workplace. Conflict can turn a culture toxic.

A policy, procedure, or process that is open to interpretation is described as “subjective.” Subjectivity is the root to this evil in the workplace. Objective procedures, policies, and processes are the cure.

Fuzzy language and expectations are dangerous and hide in plain sight. “Fuzzy” means subjective – open to interpretation. That is where the few bad apples that want to resist, or to counteract a positive culture will hide.

For example, a financial services company in the Southwest had to recover from its first sexual harassment scandal and had to recover quickly. Until that point, it had been a good-ol’-boy culture in which the compliant phrases about sexual harassment had been circulated, but the policies were fuzzy with plenty of room to protect the perpetrators that were used to getting around the rules.

Without objective definition, phrases such as “unwelcome conduct,” an offensive environment,” are examples of fuzzies. This is where the people that might cause trouble begin to rationalize their actions and hide behind the interpretations.

Fuzzies are dangerous when they are written into the policies, procedures, and consequences. If there is something open to interpretation, there are grounds for conflict.

 

What is the remedy?

Fuzzies can be squeezed out of policies, processes, and consequences through a relatively simple process taught by human performance guru, Dr. Robert Mager. He calls it Goal Analysis, but he describes it as defuzzifying fuzzies.

Once a fuzzy is discovered, it must be translated to observable performances. If done in conversation it sounds something like this:

Boss: “There will be no unwelcome conduct!”

Defuzzifier: “Well said, Boss. When you observe “unwelcome conduct” (or whatever the fuzzy is) what actions are you observing?”

Boss: “Well, no one should tell jokes that the listeners consider to be inappropriate for the workplace,”

Defuzzifier: “Fair enough. What else?”

Boss: “There should be no pictures on display that people consider to be sexually oriented.”

Defuzzifier: “Got it. What else?”

The “what elses” continue until the boss or even business affairs decides the list of observable performances describes her fuzzy of “unwelcome conduct.”

That process is how the fuzzies were addressed in the policies and in all of the communications dealing with sexual harassment in the financial services company. That complemented the leadership’s strong message of the cultural “clarification.” With the fuzzies translated into observable performances, there were no places left to hide.

Calling this a “simple” process does not mean this conversation or the efforts to review and revise work processes to rid them of subjectivity are easy. It takes a lot of effort, but the process is not complex.

The work processes that must be reviewed are all of those that support the message. In our sexual harassment example there are processes for:

  • Educating people on the subject
  • Reporting violations
  • Addressing reports of violations
  • Taking disciplinary actions
  • Reviewing and revising policies

Each process is made-up of steps taken in order to achieve the intended outcome. The steps must be reviewed to insure there are no gaps in the process and that the language is free of fuzzies.

 

What is the danger of other cultural fuzzies?

Subjectivity cannot be allowed in the language, policies, and practices of a critical cultural component of an organization. Sexual harassment is an obvious example, but this applies also to cultural descriptions, such as “high performance culture,” or “an inclusive culture.”

The problem with having fuzzies is that it puts bosses in the tenuous position of being the judge. Yes, you want bosses to have good judgment, but you don’t want work processes to cause them to interpret subjective guidance on what should be done, how it should be done, and how it should be evaluated. That opens each situation to conflict, which is a tremendous obstacle to performance in the workplace.

When you drill down to the root of most workplace conflict, you will find the disagreement is over a work process that is subjective – left open to interpretation. Subjective interpretations can lead to even worsening conditions of personal subjective biases. Even a good boss will find it difficult to be good when they are trying to defend subjective work processes and systems. That is why the bad systems will beat the good people every time. Define your corporate culture and do it objectively.

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Rex Conner

Rex Conner

Lead Partner, Owner at Mager Consortium
Rex Conner (aka “Trainasaurus Rex”) is the author of What if Common Sense Was CommonPractice in Business?, and the lead partner and owner of Mager Consortium, they apply the uniquely effective processes of Dr. Robert Mager to the entire spectrum of human performance in the workplace. Conner has witnessed the common violations of common sense while working as a trusted partner inside of more than 50 companies in dozens of industries over the last three decades.