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Five Landmines That Threaten Organizational Culture

July 20, 2021
An intentional culture calls for monitoring what you are creating and making necessary changes to ensure you are accomplishing what you set out to achieve.

Most awake and aware leaders say they want a constructive corporate culture, but many do not know what it really takes to cause cultural change. Consequently, many executives and managers unintentionally create conditions for destructive culture to develop and grow throughout their organization. This happens when leaders focus too much on the tasks involved in implementing cultural change and lose sight of the culture that results from those efforts. When leaders step over, ignore, or inadvertently reward the five landmines, culture and strategy alignment fall apart. The landmines — enabling internal competition, micromanagement, resistance to collaboration, pursuit of perfection, and an overemphasis on being liked — erode teamwork, creativity and innovation, each one a requirement for a successful 21st century organization.

1. Internal competition. In competitive work cultures, members often are expected to operate in a “win-lose” framework, outperform peers, and work against (rather than with) their co-workers. What begins with a healthy race often devolves into unproductive, dog-eat-dog workplace behavior.

Winning is an incredibly powerful motivator. The desire to win can move mountains and bring in profits. However, when the need to win overrides better judgment, erodes core values, disregards people, and leads workers to the brink of exhaustion, it must be recognized and new behaviors that promote and inspire must be integrated into the culture. The cost of pursuing results above all else is paid in relationships, health and wellness, trust, quality and safety.

A healthy desire to “beat the competition,” gone unchecked, often creates opportunities for unproductive behavior, as well as perpetuates ideas and reactions that result in an organization turning on itself. This shows up as arguments among workers on the production floor, and in the management offices as fights for authority, influence, rewards, and resources. There is a focal shift from we to me, and siloed and personalized thinking prevails.

Even though the intentions of leaders who want to “win” are most always well-meaning, a workplace culture that values winning above all else can be fertile ground for destructive behavior and employment brand erosion.

2. Micromanagement. When organization leaders and team members are expected and even encouraged to exert power over others, people in the organization begin to view themselves as pawns in a micromanagement chess game, or as cogs in profit machine. They lose motivation and initiative, and they give less of their time and initiative to make the organization better. Commanding and controlling are stages in a vicious cycle. The only way out of it is to acknowledge it, and to implement a new way to lead and follow.

In power-driven organizations, hierarchy reigns and members of the management team are expected to take charge, control subordinates, and yield to the demands of superiors. Historically, this has been the “right” way to lead, and for many decades it actually worked. This model is flawed, however, and those managed by people who admire and enjoy this model atrophy and stagnate. In workplace cultures where this type of behavior is rewarded, the powerful take over and the powerless surrender.

3. Resistance to collaboration. Opposition shows up in communication such as, “Yes, but,” “We already tried that and it failed,” “I have been here for years and I know it won’t work,” and “No, because ….” While everyone ought to be working together in tolerance and engagement, members of this type of organization spend far more time navigating personalities and conflict than collaborating, innovating, and solving problems.

In oppositional workplace cultures, there often is a legacy of overcoming obstacles that served the organization well over years. But often, the methods that got us here will not get us there; and opposition is one of those elements of culture, much like winning at all costs, that turns the organization against itself. In work cultures where members are expected to be critical, oppose others’ ideas, and make “safe” decisions, people withdraw, and suppress their ideas and creativity.

4. Pursuit of perfection. Leaders of many modern organizations often stake their reputations on delivering excellence or superior service. Not many CEOs would stand for delivering less-than-quality products, but there is a subtle difference between standing for quality and being in pursuit of perfection.

Many leaders of quality-driven organizations pride themselves on their commitment to excellence. That commitment may have been sincere, initially, and congruent with the leader’s values, but often it unconsciously fosters an underlying value of “perfection.” In a culture of perfection, people do not try new things and they do not put themselves or their reputations at risk to make difficult improvements.

Perfection, by definition, leaves no room for risk-taking or creativity in your organization. When curiosity is stifled and appearances are emphasized, mistakes are hidden, learning is mitigated, and growth is constrained. In an environment where perfection is celebrated and rewarded, conventionality emerges as a safe approach.

In a workplace that prioritizes perfectionism, members are expected to follow the rules, and make a good impression. The byproduct of making a good impression and following the rules is that creativity and risk-taking are thwarted, and innovation becomes impossible. Resistance to change becomes a block to progress and complacency sets in. While certain roles demand perfection, a cultural focus on perfection limits an organization’s potential for progress.

5. Overemphasis on being liked. In a work culture that relies on the approval of authority figures, disagreements are frowned upon and people are encouraged to go along with the crowd. When team members fear conflict, even constructive conflict, they are incapable of engaging in debates or freely voicing opinions. They are discouraged from speaking against bad decisions, leading to poor organizational results.  

Everyone acknowledges the need for cooperation in the workplace, and the value of teamwork and collaboration. However, creating a work culture in which everyone must get along, with little or no emphasis on performance or results, often leads to over-the-top consensus building, perceived favoritism, a loss of focus and ambition, inconsistent accountability, and a destructive fear of conflict.   

It‘s necessary to understand that “keeping the peace” workplace cultures can deprive the organization of talent and opportunities for improvement. Keeping the peace potentially robs the organization and its people of experiencing professional fulfillment and satisfaction. When people and the organization in which they operate do not actively engage each other, including constructive conflict, speaking truthfully, proposing new ideas, and sharing insights of what is not working, they never achieve true engagement in the workplace.

These five landmines are slow killers of a high-performance culture. Over time, these behaviors influence human decision-making and then become “the way things are done around here.” These behaviors left unquestioned or unchecked erode creativity, collaboration, innovation, role fulfillment, self-expression, and employee engagement. Shaping constructive culture means intentionally causing the kind of corporate culture that exemplifies your brand promise. This takes a solid and palatable intention for that culture as a holistic human system, a system of people operating as a living and agile organism. An intentional culture calls for its leaders to monitor what they are creating and making necessary changes to ensure they are accomplishing what they set out to achieve.  

Magi Graziano is an employee-recruitment and engagement expert, and author of “The Wealth of Talent.” Learn more at www.KeenAlignment.com.