Business leaders: when I use the word “culture”, do you screw up your face and say “Love and peace, man”? I’m no aging hippie; in any case, I was born 10 years too late to be part of that movement. Business culture is no wiffly-waffly discretionary add-on. It’s central to effectiveness and business improvement. I do admit a fondness for better communication, greater self-awareness, lots more empathy and way less fear in the workplace (man), but this comes out of a firmly held view that there is huge scope for workplaces to be more humanised, which will have a huge impact on effectiveness. I also have a firmly held view that a real leader is one who seeks to steward the business culture; not find things to measure so they can prove how useless people are. My thinking about “culture” comes out of the intellectual rigour that is Systems Thinking.
To illustrate the power of culture, have a look at what is going on for Rebekah Brooks. Former editor of both The Sun and News of the World tabloids and former chief executive of News International, Brooks is reported as feeling astonished at the treatment she is receiving by prosecuting authorities in the UK, in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal that caused Rupert Murdoch to shut down The News of the World. She is quoted as saying, “Whilst I have always respected the criminal justice system, you have to question (do you Rebekah?) whether this decision has been made on a proper impartial assessment of the evidence. Although I understand the need for a thorough investigation, I am baffled by the decision to charge me.” Her husband goes on to say that she is the subject of a witch-hunt. Good word, that.
After reading about this, I was left wondering if anyone who ever had NI “journalists” camped outside their home for days on end in the pursuit of some salacious tittle-tattle felt hounded or witch-hunted or if those whose phones were hacked felt anger or bafflement at the invasion of their privacy? I also wonder if anyone who worked for News International ever felt compromised by the culture of the system? Or felt compromised by the practice of relentlessly stalking some celebrity or politician in pursuit of juicy gossip (usually not in the public interest, but more often in the public fascination)? Or felt compromised by the use of elaboration, insinuation or hyperbole in order to create prurient effect? I wonder if anyone who worked for News International has ever felt fearful about speaking up about unethical, unfair or unreasonable practices (such as phone hacking) within that business? I suspect they did.
Did Brooks really think that she wouldn’t be subject to the forces of the system which she presided over? The inquiry investigating the phone hacking has even heard that Brooks herself had her phone hacked. Surprising? Not much. In a system that, according to a former News of the World employee, was permeated by fear and riven with unethical practices, should she really be baffled that she felt its harsh bite? This same employee alleges lying, fabrication and blackmail and goes on to say that while he couldn’t justify his actions, the culture at the News of the World was somewhat to blame. Makes sense to me.
While I feel sympathy for anyone who is hounded and unfairly spotlighted, it is no surprise to me that Rebekah Brooks would be subject to the very same system forces that The Sun or News of the World’s “victims” were. I don’t say this out of schadenfreude; to my eyes, I simply see this as part of the whole. Not for nothing do we have expressions such as, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” or “Those who judge will be judged.” She is unfortunately, feeling the effects of the very same system. If you set up and maintain a system which is corrupt, hostile and defined by fear, you will also feel its effects.
What could stand in the way of someone challenging a sick or ineffective culture? Should they overcome their systems blindness and open their eyes to a system’s dysfunction, why might someone continue to do the “dumb” thing?
“A bad system will defeat a good person, every time.” Deming
In many businesses, the fear is palpable. Managers at all levels behave in ways that communicate, either directly or by implication, that people should not challenge the boss, challenge the status quo or give honest feedback. I’ve seen businesses where people fear doing or saying anything that might damage career prospects, where they worry about being excluded from decision-making because their ideas might seem a little too crazy and therefore an inconvenience to conventional thinking or where they are concerned about being judged for having an idea that is not clever enough. They see managers as task-masters as opposed to leaders who are there to assist them.
“Your people are doing their best, but their best efforts cannot compensate for your inadequate and dysfunctional system.” Scholtes
While I entirely accept that people need to know what is expected of them in their work so that they can make a valuable contribution to the business’ objectives, putting emphasis on measuring individual performance without attending to the culture will be detrimental to the whole. Even though a leader can legitimately challenge someone’s performance, there will be a line that they cross when a challenge is perceived as a threat. Even if fear, threats or intimidation manage to get people to achieve their KPIs, eventually the culture will undermine their efforts anyway.
“Beat horses and they will run faster….for a while.” Deming
Greater self-awareness on the part of the leader is essential, therefore. When you issue a challenge, does it come out of irritation? Or do you play the role of Investigator, seeking to uncover what may be behind poor performance: inadequate resources or information? fragmented workplace relationships? a need for training or development? lack of clarity? undefined vision? All of these things sit within the remit of the leader to address and an investigative approach will uncover what needs attending to in the system.
Be very careful how you generate greater effectiveness. Be very careful, also, to do things which proactively generate a culture of trust and collaboration. While most of us like to think we are peaceful people, if we join a system characterised by fear, we will eventually come down with the same sickness as everyone else and begin respond to people from a fear-based paradigm. Managers in such a system will therefore become driven by fear and abuse their authority. Drive out fear. Leaders must become more self-aware. They must notice how they respond and relate to people. They must be better able to notice themselves and understand how they inculcate fear in the culture. Before leaping on an individual about their performance, look at the culture you steward:
- Do you think that people limit themselves to saying what they think you want to hear?
- How clear are people as to what is expected of them?
- How well-resourced are people so that they can do their jobs? Do they have the information and networks in place that mean they can get on and do it? How would you know? If people require further training or development, what opportunities do you provide for them?
- How do you respond to “failure”?
- How competitive or political is your business? How much do you witness (or know of) backstabbing, damning with faint praise, belittling or undermining? (…and how much do you do this?)
What are you supposed to do about it? I hate 10 top tips; life is way messier than that. There are some directions you could head towards though. This is the stuff of culture.
- Make sure everyone knows the game you are all playing together. Ensure people have a clear understanding of the “why” of the business. Ensure people know exactly what is expected of them, the business has robust (but not too restrictive) systems and processes and that they have all they need to do their jobs. This is your job.
- Model trust in others. How are you going to drive out fear unless you embody trust. If you don’t trust people, take up some personal development. Can they trust you?
- Be curious, not punitive. In the face of “failure” or “dysfunction”, take up the role of Investigative Consultant, not the Sheriff; if Deming was correct, there are adjustments to the whole system that will probably lead to longer-lasting improvements. How do you respond to failure? Responding to people and situations with greater equanimity will go a long way to driving out fear. Struggling to develop curiosity and equanimity? Take up some personal development and deal with your anger issues.
- Be patient. Shifting a system does not happen overnight. While you might get “good behaviour” for a short while after tearing strips off someone, making adjustments to the whole system will not necessarily generate immediate results. However they will be longer lasting and much more significant for the business. Having trouble with being patient? Take up some personal development.
- Look for patterns. Not much in this universe is a one-off. If you can’t see the pattern, you just haven’t seen it yet. Address systemic patterns, take out blame, think bigger.