Apple and Google surpassed Microsoft. Why? Microsoft didn’t necessarily lack knowledgeable staff or technological capability: Microsoft invented the first tablet a decade ago. They brought sci-fi to life: OmniTouch, Gaze Control, muscle-controlled computers. It’s mind-boggling. Equally intriguing is why, with this level of creativity and invention, the company stagnates. Blame culture. Infighting, “stack ranking,” fiefdoms, cliques, and other insidious factors created an atmosphere of distrust and insecurity that affects productivity, collaboration, and results. Bad culture can break your company. What can cause a good culture to break down in the first place?
In Part 1, I wrote about my top Five Culture Builders. Following are Five Culture Breakers that can suck the life out of your people and organization:
- Turnover. You are not purposely weeding out C players; causing your A and B players to abandon ship because they don’t like working in your organization. It’s too regimented, too lax, poorly incented, marred with infighting, or too steeply vertical. Whatever repels people, constant turnover prevents them from staying long enough to build a workplace environment and ethos. Without a consistent employee presence, particularly in the executive ranks, there is no opportunity to set a culture, which grows over time.
- A Workaholic Atmosphere. When people come in to work at 7:30, it’s usually not because they love their jobs. Overwhelmed with work, they have to extend their hours – and they also don’t want to look bad compared to those who come in at 7:00. A recent study found that more than half of US employees feel overworked and stressed, and 70 percent dream of having a different job. If everyone has his/her head down, grinding through work, social morale suffers. Teamwork suffers, mood suffers. Your culture becomes one of exhaustion instead of collaboration, and anxiety instead of innovation. When you work people to death, you kill good culture too.
- Senior People Who Don’t Fit. You hire a new COO. She came highly recommended and has a resume that you could frame and put on display. The problem is that she has a completely different mindset. Maybe you’re trying to foster a culture of teamwork, and she is all for cubicles and hierarchy. She may not fit, and taking it further, she may try to kill the culture. “Deculturation,” or wiping out the existing culture, undermines the entire organization. Hiring for fit is critical; otherwise, people will purposely or unconsciously sabotage your efforts.
- Viewing Employees as “Just Workers.” If you know you are an interchangeable cog in the machine, easily replaced by another just like you, how much effort will you put into your job? Will you take the time to help others succeed? Will you bother to think of solutions to pressing problems or possible innovations that could boost productivity and profitability? Nope! You’ll punch your time card until you can find a better job. Companies that treat their employees as commodities rather than assets put themselves at a tremendous disadvantage. They are not leveraging the unique abilities and potential contributions of individuals.
- Letting Culture Bubble Up From Below. When the CEO is not strong or doesn’t have a particular idea about the culture he/she wants to foster, it creates a vacuum. In the absence of leadership, culture will emerge from the bottom up. If you’re lucky, it might be conducive to your goals and vision. However, depending on luck is a poor strategy. Often, culture devolves into goofing off, water cooler drama and gossip, infighting, and backstabbing.
This is what happened with Microsoft. Journalist Kurt Eichenwald writes, “Potential market-busting businesses — such as e-book and Smartphone technology — were killed, derailed, or delayed amid bickering and power plays.”This type of atmosphere is more than a culture killer; it can bring down an organization.
When we, as leaders, do not establish and manage a strong culture that aligns with our values, vision, and goals, we risk losing our competitive advantage and our best people. We can be eclipsed by competition with strong, positive cultures. Edgar Schein, pioneer in the field of corporate culture, once said, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” Everything else follows.