Could Your Culture be Caught in an Undertow?

Businessman in the ocean asking for helpOur business world is full of challenges. As CEO’s look out across this ecosystem’s horizon they see a talent shortage, disruption in business models, and consumers quick to publicly evaluate every experience. Inside our organizations, our employees feel this angst. There are mergers, acquisitions, layoffs, re-organizations, changes in leadership, changes in direction. Confusion comes into play. And with confusion comes fear.

The erosion of today’s culture

Despite your best efforts to promote a strong positive culture, in many cases there is an undercurrent, a subculture, of fear flowing within the organization. Like a riptide, it is invisible from the beautiful beach. When employees get caught up in the riptide their behaviors start to shift. They move closer and closer to survival mode. In this mode, it’s about survival of the fittest. Teamwork and collaboration shift into information hoarding and empire building. A focus on customer service and customer appreciation swings towards metric achievements at all costs. Managers spend less time on employee development and more time politically managing up. Gradually over time, like the work of crashing waves on the shore, your culture begins to erode.

A culture of “we” or “me”

Successful leaders aren’t taking any chances when it comes to their culture. They’ve read the research or experienced it themselves. They understand that a strong culture drives strong results. Managing their culture isn’t a one-time hit, they work on it all the time. And what they work on the most is keeping a culture of “we” instead of “me”. When employees feel supported and part of a larger group, fear has a smaller place to play. Look no further than the recent heroics at a Florida beach where a human chain saved a family caught in the undertow. The power of “we” in action!

Try taking a look at your to-do list for today. As you visualize your day unfolding, how will employees react to your actions? Are you setting the conditions for them to retreat into a “me” way of working? Yes, setting a common vision or goal might help your employees see a bright future but is it really attainable? Do they see themselves in that future state? Is it more aspirational than achievable?

A culture of caring

Being transparent with your communications is another common technique to try and keep employees calm and productive. Aren’t authenticity and transparency what employees are asking for? I believe the requests for authenticity and transparency are really a call for caring. Your employees want to know that you care about them. What are the things you do every day that provide them with a forum to share their thoughts, concerns and fears? How much time do you spend listening, observing or reading about how the work gets done around you?

Finding the undertow

There are stones being cast into the calm pond every day. For some it’s a beautiful ripple to share. Others are stepping back, fearful of more stones. A culture permeated with dread and anxiety is the last thing you need. Author Dale Carnegie observed “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.” What can you do to take action and prevent a subculture of fear from growing?

First, get the real picture of your culture and learn what might be causing the angst in your organization by conducting an audit or survey. After the audit, engage with your employees to develop a deep understanding of how they are feeling. Could your core value of employee empowerment be slipping and replaced by bureaucracy or micro-management? Are these values creeping in because employees are becoming fearful that a wrong decision will move them up the layoff list? Has the blame game started where once there was teamwork and collaboration? Has a particular leader, fearful of his own future, gradually shifted away from the behaviors most needed for success?

Everyone wants to work in a place that is challenging, collaborative, and fun. Many of you have worked hard to create this environment. During a time when there is unrest in almost all aspects of our lives, don’t let your culture be caught up in an undertow. Monitor your subcultures, keep fear at bay and share the much needed courage with your employees.

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