Insights When to shoot the messenger – four behaviors great cultures change

When to shoot the messenger – four behaviors great cultures change

What is the difference between a great culture and a terrible culture? The best cultures are ones that are based on transparent and honest relationships among people who care about each other’s success and the success of the mission of the business. I’ve heard the term “culture eats strategy for breakfast” before, but never really knew what that means in a concrete way until now.  The best cultures continue facilitate the right behaviors because they don’t tolerate negative behaviors.  Let’s explore what they are:

Unacceptable Behavior 1:  Misalignment to Mission

The most important thing to a business is its alignment to mission.  Why does the business exist in the first place?  What is its mission in the world?  Ineffective organizations are full of people who exist for the job, but don’t exist for the core mission of the business. The most important behavior is that team members understand and are bought into the mission of the business in a real and tangible way. They need to understand it, breath it, live it, and convey it.  If they are not aligned to the mission they’ll be performing actions that are inconsistent with its implementation in the world.  Note that when I say “misalignment to mission”, I don’t mean, “misalignment to a bad mission”.  In many cases, the best decision a person can make is to leave a company or force the redefinition of the mission to something better.  But, once the mission has been defined and agreed to, the responsibility of every leader is to ensure that mission is carried out in the lives of the team.

Imagine your organization exists to provide the “The Most Ethical and Best Footware for Every Person on the Planet”, but the production of shoes is performed using destructive labor practices because the business managers are not truly bought into that mission. The mission can’t be created in name only, it needs to be the heart and soul of every function of the organization.  If the mission of the business is based on ethical and best footwear, it needs to follow-through on both engines.  The only way it does that is through mission-aligned people who take mission-aligned actions.

The antidote? Being clear about the mission, taking about it constantly, and redefining the company internally and externally. A company that did this in recent memory was Microsoft.  Think about the perception of Microsoft in the Steve Balmer days vs. in the Satya Nadella days.  Steve might get a bad rap, but his sales-orientation vs. mission-orientation created a harmful reputation and mis-alignment of teams within Microsoft.  Satya Nadella’s calling card has been to define the clear mission of the business, convey it constantly, and make business decisions grounded in that mission.

The question every business should ask themselves is, “is this decision aligned to the mission of my business”?  If you can’t answer it at all… it might be a reason to redefine the mission.  If you can, it’s a means to evaluate the behavior.

Unacceptable Behavior 2:  Relationship Disfunction

In general a great business practice is never to say something about a person you aren’t comfortable saying directly to their face.  Further, before providing feedback to a manager or another leader, that feedback should likely be provided in a respectful and appropriate way directly to the person (with some exceptions). I appreciate the book Radical Candor (care personally and challenge directly), meaning our behavior is always focused on the care of the person, not on our own movement within an organization. If you are going to talk about a person’s behavior with a leader, you likely should have discussed it with the person directly in a respectful and appropriate way, unless providing that feedback would place you in danger.

Note that backstabbing is different than talking openly about a problem in an organization. Successful organizations are always challenging themselves to be better. However, if a discussion is happening surrounding a functional domain, it should largely include the individuals responsible for that domain, unless the discussion is occurring “above them” in a strategic intervention.  Even in that case, an open and honest conversation needs to happen with the individuals in that team.  For instance, they might not be accepting of change and a conversation needs to happen to soften their reception of that change.  The inappropriate conversation might be… “can you believe so-and-so?  Shhh… their coming!”… whereas a more appropriate conversation might be, “how can we help so-and-so to be more accepting of this change”?

The best businesses identify backstabbing or passive-aggressive behavior and call it out.  They realize that this is removing effectiveness from the culture and focus energy on improving relationships…

The idea of “broken relationships” can be a difficult one to define because it can differ slightly between organizations, but we all know when it is occurring.  Asking the question, “do I treat this person with respect and allow them the room to be their best self”, is critical to successful businesses.  Dis-functional relationships are full of unspoken tension, “walking on thin ice”, and heightened emotions.  When these factors are not handled appropriately they spread and create additional problems in the business’s ability to execute on its mission.  If five people are in a boat and two won’t listen to the signal caller, the performance of the team will suffer.  They might all WANT to be rowing in the same direction, but their relationships are preventing the acting out of the goal.

Now the idea of a broken relationship doesn’t mean, “you just fire them”, it means that the business recognizes that this is occurring and organization works to fix the relationships.  We have a saying at Concurrency, “assume positive intent”, but that’s easier said than done.  We’ve gotten comfortable challenging each other on “are you assuming positive intent with this conversation?”  So often we can create an adversarial relationship in our mind that doesn’t actually exist in real life, but we spend so much time thinking about it that is disrupts all of our other actions.

The best businesses identify broken relationships and focus on finding the source, aiming to build each person to the best version of themselves.  They might discover that for the betterment of a person, this simply isn’t the right company for them.  That’s ok!  In many cases the right company is something we discover later, or we discover a trait that is following us from company-to-company that we need to fix.

Unacceptable Behavior 3:  Give a S#$t Factor

A disheartening thing to a group of people is when you see a person who clearly isn’t carrying their weight. Not because they can’t, but because they just don’t care or are not able to care at the moment. Engagement creates more engagement. Lack of engagement pulls down a whole group because the group feels they need to make up for that individual’s lack of engagement. This isn’t about any one person’s laziness… often the “Give a S#$t” Factor is about understanding the relationship between a person’s goals and the state of the business. The best organizations put the responsibility back on the leaders to identify the WHY behind a person’s engagement level and identify if (1) this is the right place for them and (2) what needs to change to re-enable a meaningful future at the company.

The goal of any organization is to maximize the potential of every person towards the goals available. The reason for the dis-engagement might be a lack of interest in the job being performed, the challenge, or something happening in their life. Whatever the cause, the necessary courage needs to exist to call out the missing piece. It doesn’t help any individual or team to pretend it doesn’t exist. In contrast, a person might not be engaged because of a personal challenge and the best thing is to build enablement toward that goal.

It’s also possible that a company and an individual identify that this opportunity isn’t the right fit. That’s ok… as it opens up the future for both to seek the best fit and result from different person-to-role alignment. We’ve all worked in positions or short-term engagements that we know don’t hit our “superpower”, but the best companies identify this (even if it is uncomfortable) and align.

Unacceptable Behavior 4:  Unbalanced Work Ethic

The best businesses self-regulate work ethic toward a norm that is life-giving and also effective at producing the mission of the business.  This is understanding that many businesses have diverse hours, efforts, and goals.  However, the unacceptable behavior is when that work ethic become unbalanced and negatively affects not only themselves, but everyone around them. When a person is unreliable, mis-aligned, dis-engaged, or just plain lazy the business needs to recognize this behavior and clearly identify a plan to help the individual improve their engagement.  There may be a reason beyond their control that is affecting this that can be corrected.  If they are an over-worker, they might be making up for gaps in other places of the organization that need staff or engagement available.  If they are an under-worker, they may not be properly directed by their manager.  If they are mid-directed worker (working on the wrong things), they also might have a mis-alignment of the activities they need to spend.

If these behaviors are allowed to continue the business is not only encouraging dysfunctional engagement, but also missing results. A clear way to identify this is unhealthy friction. In a business with “good friction” people disagree and can align on a go-forward plan that they are aligned to.  In a business with “bad friction” there is unspoken disagreement that centers around behaviors above, or an individual’s “they work hard, but it isn’t aligned”.  The best thing to happen here is to get alignment across the teams on role, responsibilities, and actions.

Do you have these behaviors in your team?  If so, the best person to look at is yourself.  How can I change the way I act to encourage the right outcomes?  Then… how can we encourage the leadership team to reframe the way it looks at the future of the business?  The best leaders encourage this and create it because they know that aligned teams are more powerful than any one individual.