Leaders and Dysfunctional Cultures

By Thomas J. Lee

I recently participated in a panel discussion on corporate cultures. Sponsored by The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, the discussion was organized for the benefit of first-year graduate students, most of whom are looking forward to professional employment. We panelists were asked specifically to talk about coping with bureaucracy on the job, but the subject quickly metastasized to include other demons of the workplace: miscommunication, office politics, interpersonal rivalries, and just plain awful people.

Not every organization is so afflicted, of course, but enough of them are to render the subject important and relevant. Often the persons who are least aware of it and least sensitive to it are locked in their own isolation chamber at the top of the org chart. Down below, in the bowels of the organization, these demons can roam wild and inflict unnecessary stress and pain on nearly everyone. Companies pay a handsome price for it, too. While it is commonly said that people join companies but quit supervisors, it is also true that people quit sick and abusive cultures. That’s doubly true for the best people. They want to work in cultures conducive to excellence, not in cultures conditioned to expect and accept excuses and blame.

Bureaucracy was the easiest nut for us to crack, though I cannot say we offered much help to the students. Most people think of bureaucracy as red tape, paperwork, process, and hierarchy. It may seem mindless, but much of it is there for a reason. In any case, as a practical matter, there’s only so much you can do about it. Other, worthwhile things will deserve more attention.

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of a sham Silicon Valley startup, and presently under federal indictment, created a dysfunctional corporate culture. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes is in production.

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of a sham Silicon Valley startup, and presently under federal indictment, created a dysfunctional corporate culture. A movie starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes is in production.

Miscommunication is a universal problem. All communication is subject to interpretation, and therefore all communication is at risk of misinterpretation. So much of what people write and say is construed to mean something else altogether unintended. A routine tone of cool, aloof, businesslike efficiency, for example, can be seen as impersonal and uncaring. An email sent to some persons but not others can be upsetting to the others. Two particular problems are snicker-proof credibility and the breezy brevity of social media. They show up as mixed messages, muddled messages, and mute messages. But here, good training can go a long way toward mitigating the problem.

Office politics and interpersonal rivalries are common as well. My advice on these is to go out of your way to build strong relationships and repair weak relationships. Recruit as many allies as possible. Identify rivals or skeptics and go out to lunch with them. Make it easy for people to work with you. Grow trust; ideally, people will be disinclined to believe something unless and until they hear it from you. Do favors, liberally. Find excuses to laugh with people. Wherever you go and whatever you do, build bridges, not barriers.

Dealing with awful people—the proper technical term for them is “jerks and jackasses”—is more challenging. Trolls, who find fault with everyone but themselves, often burn themselves out and bounce from place to place. Saboteurs, who do deliberate damage to the organization or to a work product, while few in number, can be enormously hurtful. They need to be exposed and run out of Dodge, and perhaps even criminally prosecuted. Gainsayers, those nattering nabobs of negativity always ready to “play the devil’s advocate,” can be sweet-talked to docility. Egos the size of skyscrapers almost always have feet of clay and stand on sand.

How does it all play out?

In preparing for the panel, I reflected on my years in the workplace. Some long-forgotten dramas returned to my memory:

  • I recalled an executive—let’s call him Johnson—whose office was filled with crucifixes. They adorned all four walls, his desktop, even a leather portfolio. I was startled the first time I saw it. The company was strictly secular, and its culture was quite formal and quietly gallant and polite. On the cloistered executive floors, profanity was rare, except in Johnson’s office. He swore constantly, and he didn’t care who heard him. It seemed as if half his vocabulary consisted of scatological and coital bombs of one sort or another. Though the irony between sight and sound was laughable, my ears burned after every meeting.

  • A manager by the name of Antoinette, who held a Ph.D. in organizational behavior, was an intemperate control freak. She flew off the handle at the slightest provocation. No one was good enough, despite the evident fact that the company had a long track record of hiring really good people. The odd thing was that her conduct and demeanor were so strikingly at odds with almost any reasonable description of optimal organizational behavior.

  • Then there was Kent, who never accomplished much but managed to offend everyone else in the process. I still don’t understand how he kept his job, especially after an incident in which he gained access to a colleague’s computer one weekend. Alone in the office, he maliciously changed the title of a slide deck, by removing the L from the word Public. It was an adolescent thing to do, of course. He found it frat-boy funny.

Leaders have a special responsibility here. If they’re serious about optimizing their organization’s performance, they need to find out what is really happening and take aggressive measures to replace the dysfunctional behaviors with normative conduct. That requires assertive work, and it isn’t the kind of work that MBAs are trained for, nor is it the kind of work that corporate boards and human resources policies recognize and reward.

What specifically can leaders do?

First, get out of your office. My favorite business clients are senior managers who understand and embrace the importance of wandering around. (Note: MBWA does not stand for “managing by walking around.” It’s “management by wandering around,” and the difference is crucial.) They know the culture, and they often challenge those aspects of it that are dysfunctional or unproductive.

Second, ask a lot of open questions, and then stop talking and really listen to the answers. Brace yourself for the proverbial bucket of ice water. If you don’t like what you are hearing, listen all the more closely. Then, check it out for yourself.

Third, look for patterns. If multiple people are fingering Joe in operations or Mary in accounting as their source of negativity, the problem may indeed be Joe and Mary. But keep an open mind. It’s also quite possible that Joe and Mary just have higher standards, and the real problem is their low-bar naysayers.

Fourth, accept responsibility for the culture (or, in teams and departments, the micro-culture) and work to change it for the better. Remember this: Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch, and everything else for dinner. You cannot do anything without a conducive culture. Therefore the work of a leader is all about creating or changing a culture. That argument can be a tall order for a lot of brass-tacks factory managers to buy, but the quality of a workplace culture is a huge and often unappreciated determinant of success. Ignore it or belittle it at your peril.

Fifth, acknowledge the importance of all your stakeholders. In business, that means most especially your customers, employees, and the general public as well as your investors. Why the public? Because the public, through the proxy of government, grants you a license to do business, and it can just as easily revoke that license.

Finally, insist on dignity and respect for everyone as a default switch. If someone proves himself unworthy of respect, that’s another matter. But give everyone the benefit of a positive presumption. Talk frequently and openly about the importance of dignity and respect, and accord that dignity and respect to everyone.

Maybe some day there won’t be a need for panel discussions like the one I was on. We can hope, anyway. For now, we must begin to do the hard work of changing workplace cultures. That is what will make a real difference.