If you don’t avoid these mistakes, culture can become toxic.
Culture is a delicate thing. Without proper care and feeding, it can fester and fall apart in truly destructive ways. There are seven common ways leaders inadvertently torpedo their culture. The key is to be aware of them and do everything you can to avoid these mistakes.
1. You ignore it
I’ve written before that if you don’t manage your culture, someone else will. That matters, because if you want to create a high-performance company, you need a culture to match and fuel it. And if you’re not paying close attention to your culture, you might be working to destroy it. More importantly, if you are not managing your culture, then others in the organization will develop their own view of it and enforce it through their informal network. It is very hard to regain control once you have lost it.
2. You don’t know what it is
Another topic I’ve covered before is the idea that you can actually measure the effectiveness of your culture. But there are leaders who don’t even seem to know what words they can use to define their culture or what behaviors are to be encouraged (or discouraged). That’s why it’s so incredibly important that leaders truly understand and can articulate what their culture is. This comes to a head when considering acquisitions and attempting to figure out how two cultures can meld. This is hard if you don’t understand your own.
One of the worst ways to tend to your culture is to treat it in an inconsistent manner. You might define your culture one way in good times — we should always operate ethically, perhaps — but as soon as challenging times hit, you fail to act on those words. If it looks like you’re going to miss your numbers for the quarter, for instance, do you encourage people to bend the rules a bit to extend the quarter by another day or two? Or even by doing something worse? It’s one thing to say you want a culture built on ethics. But if you don’t practice that consistently, you will do irreparable damage.
4. Hiring the wrong people
Companies with strong cultures work hard at hiring people who are consistent with that culture. Southwest Airlines comes to mind. Just about anyone you can meet is fun and engaging — which matches up with the core values of their culture. And the better you are at hiring people who match the culture and screening out the misfits, the more self-reinforcing it becomes, because people with similar wiring will seek you out as an employer of choice.
5. Not removing people
One of the most difficult decisions any leader has to make, especially if you’re new to the organization, is weeding out people who don’t fit the culture. The hardest cases, though, involve high performers. If you have a salesperson who absolutely kills their sales numbers every month but is absolutely hated by everyone else in the company, your choice should be easy: You must let the salesperson go. Otherwise, you are destroying the culture. People will recognize that you don’t mean what you say, and, as a result, they won’t trust you.
6. Not saying “No” enough
You can learn a lot about someone from the kinds of things they say yes to. But it may be even more illustrative to see what they say no to. This is a trap that many salespeople who step up into leadership roles face. If you’re in sales, you want to say yes to everything. But as a leader, if you try to sell something to someone who isn’t aligned with your culture, you can do serious damage to it. The concept is that the organization is not defined by what they say yes to, it is defined by what they say no to. That’s why you might not be saying no enough.
7. Failing to reward culture warriors
There are always going to be people inside the organization who reflect the culture better than others. The worst thing you can do is ignore them. One way to find them is by interviewing your people and asking them to highlight peers they think embody the company’s culture. When you identify your culture champions, it then becomes an opportunity to reward them. And it doesn’t have to be anything big — think plaques, a gift certificate, or putting their picture up on a wall. The point is to make it clear to everyone that these individuals are being rewarded not just for their performance, but because they work in a way that is consistent with the organization’s culture.
If you want to do everything you can to reinforce the culture inside your organization, assess yourself in these seven areas and see how you stack up. If you find yourself scoring low on any of these measures, you might be destroying your culture without knowing it. The good news is, it’s not too late to start making the kinds of needed changes to reinforce your high-performance culture instead.