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Tim Hebert
January 03, 2017

Five Killers of Corporate Culture

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There are so many awesome articles, graphs, and reports out there that speak to the importance of creating a healthy corporate culture (Quick note: the inaugural issue of our Atrion digital magazine is ALL about culture. Check it out here!) For instance, did you know that according to a BambooHR study, the top five reasons employees quit their jobs are that:

  • Their bosses don’t trust them
  • They have differing thoughts of work expectations during time off
  • They feel they have difficult coworkers
  • Their bosses blame them for mistakes
  • They feel their work environment is inflexible

In other words, money isn’t even on this “deal breaker” list! Rather, these are all cultural problems.

I’ve had the chance to speak to so many folks about this concept of culture, asking for their stories about building a healthy culture and getting to the bottom of what kills great culture. At one point or another, we have all come face to face with these corporate culture killers, even at the best companies.

1.  Lack of Clarity

Most organizations and employees have an idea of where they want to go but they under-communicate their intended vision. Vision, if not well articulated, breeds uncertainty, stress, frustration and concern among employees. An organization without vision, or clear vision, is like trying to drive in a dense fog; everything slows down.

Here at Atrion, for example, we have been implementing a standard IT service management framework called ITIL to improve our service delivery (more on that here by our SVP of Service Delivery Ken Brindamour). We have been educating our engineers and IT practitioners on the ITIL vernacular, the methodologies and the basic principles and practices. But, more importantly, we must impart the wisdom of “WHY” we care about this framework and how it helps our clients or we are left with a disconnected vision and lack of clarity.

In our case, ITIL connects to our corporate vision to be a top 1 percent company because it allows us to standardize our processes so we can provide a consistent client experience.

A lack of clarity can cause significant breaks in corporate culture. Confusion around vision can lead employees to question the company’s road map, leading to speculation, gossip and worry.

To combat this culture killer, companies must put forth a clear vision, constantly communicate it and support an open environment for the exchange of ideas. If you’re looking for more about how to create compelling corporate vision, check out Chris Poe’s latest blog, “Three Keys to Creating ‘Big Bang Vision’ to Fuel Culture.” (Teaser: Chris contends that to shape culture you need to create a “Big Bang Vision,” a concept that gathers an incredible amount of potential energy and then releases it in a very deliberate way.)

2.  Micromanagement

Nothing kills culture faster than taking employees’ power away from them, which is the essence of micromanagement. You are essentially taking the most important asset in your organization, your people, and having them run on auto pilot. There is no quicker way to stifle innovation.

The challenge businesses face today is that in order to produce desired results, they need consistency. Many times, people confuse the need for consistency with the need to micromanage to maintain these standards. The tendency to micromanage is great for a number of leaders because, quite simply, it’s often easier to give orders than to spend the time empowering individuals to live up to their potential.

But you must invest in people, make them more knowledgeable and give them the tools —and confidence—to make better decisions. We all experience this process with our kids as they grow up. When they are young, we can micromanage them but at some point we have to give them the tools to manage on their own. The same must happen in the workplace.

As a leader, you have to possess a fundamental belief in people. You need to believe that they are capable and that they can succeed. When I reflect on our recent AlwaysOn Symposium, in which we tasked members of our team to take the big stage to deliver powerful keynotes, I had 100 percent faith that they would do an outstanding job. I never questioned whether they would succeed. Instead, I chose to believe in them. Believe in your team and they will achieve remarkable outcomes. But also if they struggle (or fail), understand that it’s OK.

3.  Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy and micromanagement go hand-in-hand. We’ve all experienced the culture killer of bureaucracy, or when layers upon layers of management, approval and delegation come between us and our initiatives. In lean times, we see different levels of bureaucracy crop up. We may suddenly see employees who had been using corporate credit cards at their own discretion told that they now need approval before making a charge. Or we may observe added levels of approval being required for a simple administrative task.

During these lean times, we need re-educate our teams to make better decisions in these new conditions as they will become the new normal. But instead, we often add on layers of bureaucracy, thereby stripping away their judgment.

What’s more, when a business experiences a surge in growth and an upward trajectory, that growth can create a “Wild, Wild West” environment in which things happen faster than companies can absorb them. The way companies often counteract this momentum is to put more rules, policies, procedures and approvals in place.

Too much bureaucracy leads to precious time being wasted. I’ve seen a lot of organizations—even ones I work with closely—that have great revenue-generating ideas originate on the front line that slowly wither. The idea gets passed along to various individuals who need to weigh in all along the chain of decision makers until the top link is reached. But by then the idea is no longer relevant or has morphed and is not the original concept that was presented. It’s because of this process that innovation gets killed.

To counter this culture killer, we must lean in to each other’s ideas, embrace an open door policy and make responsible decisions in both lean and growth times—without incurring unnecessary levels of approvals and governance.

4.  Big Egos

We come across big egos at all levels, from an entry-level worker bee to the CEO of a company. These individuals become the most important person in their worlds and, as a result, stop caring about others. They become bigger than the mission itself.

When people are solely focused on making themselves better, they don’t pay attention to the people around them. In addition, they forget that the purpose of an assigned task is to make the company or the team better. At their core, I find that people with big egos generally have a high degree of insecurity. They are fearful of the solidity of their position so they constantly feel the need to come across as “bigger and badder” than they really are. These are the individuals who seldom demonstrate an attitude of gratitude, often take credit for the work of others and typically treat others poorly.

But we need to stop these big egos from killing corporate culture. Our job becomes to remove our own personal ego to become humble. When you deal with egos, it’s an individual trait or characteristic; it’s not organizational. As leaders we have to not only spot our tendencies toward big egos ourselves, but we also have to encourage those around us to never lose sight of the corporate mission and our work toward a healthy, strong corporate culture.

5.  Never Offering Praise

When you think about it, offering a kind word is one of the easiest things to do as a leader, colleague or teammate. So why don’t we especially those of us in leadership positions offer praise more often?

I believe that in the business world, there are some myths or phobias that exist surrounding praise that are not properly founded. First, I don’t have enough time and, second, too much praise can be a bad thing. With regards to the latter, a number of managers will rely on the “if every player on the team gets a trophy” analogy—meaning if you dole out too many compliments, the value of a compliment is diminished. But if it’s true meaningful praise, you can never give too much of it.

Look at Facebook as proof that we need validation every day. We crave “likes” and “comments” from our peers. We want to know that our thoughts, behaviors and opinions are accepted by others. This form of validation is what makes us connect to other people. Praise makes people believe they belong to the culture or to the team, and if they don’t receive the positive feedback they will begin to disengage with your company.

So embrace an attitude of gratitude. Start small and offer praise yourself. Look at the work of others and find a way to offer meaningful, positive feedback. Then encourage others around you to do the same.

Looking Forward

Employees may be quick to feel, or say, that a toxic work environment is not their problem. But it is their problem. As individuals, we all have a responsibility to help the culture stay intact and, if we see signs of these killers, we need to take action to address them in a positive way.

I’d love to hear from you! What characteristics and behaviors do you think quickly kill corporate culture? How can we all support one another to put an end to toxic work environments? Let me know in the comments box below!

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