When culture goes bad

I have been reflecting on the research published yesterday into sexual harassment in the workplace. My co-author Tim Scott recently shared his thoughts on the same research here.

The report, entitled ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter?’, makes horrific reading.  In 2016.  At all. I’ve blogged previously about the word banter.  It is a dangerous word.  It reduces and minimises and trivialises what horrors some people have to go through just to earn a living.

If you put the word ‘banter’ into a Thesaurus this is what you will find…… Teasing. Joking.  Wit.  Repartee.

Try this example from the report and see if any of those words sound even vaguely representative.

‘On my last day at work, my colleague told me that his biggest regret was that he didn’t get chance to rape me’.

Or this one.

In front of all his friends he groped my breasts’.

Banter this ain’t.

After reading this report, the questions that are running through my mind are these…..

How does an organisational culture get to this place?

How does this behaviour become part of the day to day?

How does this stuff happen in 2016?

Why, when harassment and offensive language, behaviour and so-called ‘banter’ takes place, do people stand by and watch it happen?

Because whilst some harassment goes on behind closed doors and out of sight, not all of it does. The report says so, and I know it for myself as someone who has both experienced it early in my career, and from dealing with it as a HR professional.

There is no one single answer to those questions I’m reflecting on.

It’s about what is permissible in an organisation. What is acceptable and tolerated.  It is about the behaviour of leaders and the message that sends.  It is about the extent to which it is safe to disagree and to challenge.

Another unrelated article makes a similar point.  The writer reflects on an organisation in which the C word, that most offensive of swear words, is so common place it has become barely noticeable to those that work there.

When you work in an organisation, especially for a long time, it is all too easy to fail to see what might be out of place or downright wrong within its culture. To see beyond what just happens around here and fail to ask if that is actually ok. To go with the flow.

Ask most people what they would do if they witnesses an act of harassment in the workplace and you will no doubt get a reassuring answer. They would report it.  They would help the person being harassed.  They would say something to the perpetrator.  But the evidence from this report, and indeed what we know about how our brains work, is that they don’t or won’t or can’t.

How does a culture go bad? In lots of ways.

Slowly. Incrementally.  One tiny step at a time.  Through poor leadership.  Through lack of challenge.  Through inertia.  Through simply not seeing.  The Ostrich effect.  The bystander effect.

Through all of the biases.

Culture is a boiling frog.

You have two choices when it comes to culture. You are either part of it, condoning or accepting.  Or you stand against it, for something else entirely.

And if we truly want to end harassment at work, then each of us need to stand up and be counted when the time comes.

The persistence of (organisational) memory

Memories make us who we are. They give us our sense of self.  Through memories we make sense of the now.

But they can hinder us too. Take this conversation that I had recently.

Them                     If I do X, then Y will happen, for sure.

Me                         In three years, I have never known that to be the case.

Them                     Ah, well it used to happen.  About ten years ago……..

Just like the proverbial elephant, we never forget.

Organisational stuff hangs around. For longer than you might think. Especially the stuff we remember as negative.

Memories, hard wired, into both individual and culture.  Beyond the time that they are helpful.  Beyond the time that they are still true.  Memories that grow larger than themselves.  Become myths and legends. Buried in our subconscious, ready for recall.

Shadows of leaders long past but who still loom large. A piece of difficult feedback lingering in the back of our minds. The project that didn’t go at all well. Or on the other hand, the time that we succeeded or the time that we celebrated together. A piece of genuine appreciation.

Stories written in the walls.

We say that culture is the ‘way we do things around here’.  But it’s not just how we do things today but yesterday and the day and days before that.

As leaders and HR professionals, what we do today reverberates into tomorrow. We constantly create memories for people.  How we handle that redundancy programme. How we speak to people every day.  How that project gets managed, or doesn’t.  What people get rewarded for, or don’t.  The 121 that we cancel.  What information is shared and what is kept secret.  What the Employee Handbook said in 1978.

It all hangs around for the long term.

Just like the individual memory bank, the organisational one is persistent too.  And as well as long lasting, unreliable.  Memory shifts and changes as time goes by. Convenient recall, or otherwise.

In organisations we so often strive for new stuff. New cultures, new visions and missions.  A new set of values.  Re-launched policies.  Another change programme.  But you can’t force people to forget what is remembered and therefore real to them.  You can’t say ‘ah well that was yesterday, so forget all about it’.

How long does a memory last? Like Dali’s melting clocks, memories are elastic.  Our capacity to store them is immeasurable.  It is a cliché that people have the memory of an elephant.  What is writ large for us is stored for the long term. In contrast, trivia, stuff that doesn’t cast a shadow, is cast aside from the short term memory banks.

We can’t ask our people to forget the organisational history. But we can challenge the old and create the new.  Being careful, always, in the organisational memories that we create.

More signs that you have a culture problem

I recently wrote a blog post about the signs that might suggest an organisation has a culture problem.  Here are just a few more.

High employee turnover

This one is kind of obvious perhaps. There are many reasons behind turnover, and sweeping generalisations should be avoided.  Even that one about people leaving managers and not jobs.  But if people are exiting at a rapid rate, especially when they have short tenure, then something, somewhere, isn’t quite right. Note – a bog standard exit interview won’t answer the question.

Meetings and more meetings

You have to have one for every bloody thing. They run over time, there’s no agenda and if there is no one sticks to it.  They are stuffed full of PowerPoint, and they are all about updates and not decisions.  I recently came across a HBR article, in which it said that the sign of a great meeting isn’t the meeting itself, but what happens after it.  Never a truer word was blogged

The answer to every challenge, is to write a policy……

Which no one will ever read. People are taking too long on their breaks, lets write a policy about that.  Someone turns up at the office with blue hair, lets write a policy about that.  You end up with a load of stupid rules that most people won’t even realise exist, rather than sensible conversations from one adult to another.

There is a lack of concern about people stuff.

Whether we are talking about how the candidate is treated during their application process through to whether anyone ever gets a feedback conversation. Often, people stuff is the easiest stuff to let slide.   Here’s a question for you.  At your place, would a manager get the same angst about not getting their 121s in the diary as they would for going over budget?

The Disciplinary Stick is wielded often.

I once worked at a place where so many disciplinary hearings were held, they became a focus of fun. At the start of a shift, the manager would hand out all the little white envelopes with invitations to investigations, invitations to hearings.  An almost perverse badge of honour.  Is it your turn today?  There are times that discipline is appropriate.  Repeated issues, gross misconduct.  But all too often it is a sign that adult dialogue has failed.

There are unhelpful colloquialisms

Many years ago, I worked somewhere that had developed its own slang. A whole internal language.  The place was so rife with people getting blamed, getting pulled up and being shouted down, it had its own special phrase: getting a pineapple.  Which was short for, I have just had a pineapple placed robustly in a delicate part of my anatomy by a more senior member of staff.  Including the spikey bit. Humour can be useful. It can also be destructive and perpetuate problems.

Culture, is contextual. There are few generalisations that can be made, apart from to say simply, that if any of these signs or symptoms exist at your place, it is important to listen, to understand, to ask why.

It is often said that culture is hard to change. That if takes a very long time if you try.  There is some truth in both of these statements. But it is possible to take small steps and address the symptoms as well as the causes.  Challenge the language, change the approach, role model a different path.  And these are spaces that HR can absolutely lead the way.

Signs you have a culture problem

Organisational culture. It’s a funny old thing.

Described in many ways. Quotes abound. Said said to be ‘the way things get done around here’.   Allegedly, it eats strategy for breakfast.   A potential source of significant value creation, a potential threat to everything you are trying to achieve.

Hard to define, to pin down. Easy to talk about, less easy to truly understand.

Said to be hard to change. Shaped by leaders, by stories, by history, by people, by social conformity, by behaviours.  Organisational culture is fundamentally, your identity.

For me, organisational culture is what happens outside the structures. Not what is said to be done, or written down  or agreed, but what happens in the spaces in between.

So just how do you know if you have a culture problem, at your place? There are many signs and signals that something just isn’t quite right.  It is, as is often the case, the little things that are telling you a story, if you listen hard enough.  Here are just a few from my own observations.

People are constantly working excessive hours.

Busy periods or one-off problems aside, unless there is something very wrong with the job design, employees should be able to do their job within their contracted hours. When they actively chose to sit at their desk long past home time, work through lunch every day or getting in consistently early, then something else is going on.  Perhaps somehow, it has become part of your culture that this is how you get on, or even worse, this is how you get well thought of. Time over actual contribution.

People constantly talk about the past.

Quite possibly indicating that they are not totally with you today. It is all too easy to look at the past through rose-tinted bifocals.   Stories can be useful; they are after all, part of this thing overall thing called culture.  There is nothing wrong with a little reminiscing.  But when this reaches an unhelpful level, there’s usually a reason why.

There is no chance of flexible working, even when the roles permit it.

Employees are either not trusted to do their jobs, or they are being judged on the wrong things – again, valuing time spent at the desks over contribution or value added.

Social media is blocked on the network.

If a company is blocking social media, it is also preventing its people from learning, from collaborating, from bringing the outside perspective in. Maybe it also stops that one person in the finance team from doing a bit of extracurricular Facebook surfing, but nothing says we don’t trust you to behave like adults than not letting people make their own choices about what is and is not acceptable.  This is also all about trust. And if people do abuse access where it is provided, that is sending you a cultural message, too.

There is little value placed on learning.

Whether this is people dropping out of formal learning courses at the last minute because of some super important just dropped in the diary meeting (because learning isn’t important, is it?) or just a total lack of engagement with any kind of learning from the formal to informal, if people aren’t learning they aren’t growing. Over time, their contribution may diminish. They are not exposed to new ideas or fresh thinking.  Staleness results.

Everyday language is filled with ‘the management’ and ‘the business’ and them and they.

Telling you that people, for whatever reason, don’t see themselves as being part of the business, the team, the solution.

Issues go on and on without resolution.

Just like the point above, this can mean that no one sees themselves as part of the solution. Or people don’t feel sufficiently empowered to get on and make the necessary changes or take overdue action.

The place is a tip.

Maybe no one cares enough to do anything about it, or feels that they have the permission to begin.

Excessive use of the cc field on email.

People are covering their backs. There is fear going on, somewhere, somehow.  Or too many people like to play a big fat game of ‘I told you so’.  Deeply annoying, ever so slightly poisonous.

Senior leaders have to sign everything off.

More trust issues. Not enough empowerment.

Each and every one of these signs has a multitude of possible causes.  Reasons underneath. They are symptoms, not causes. It is impossible to generalise the reasons why, and what it means at your place.

Theses are only the signs. Doing something about it starts with understanding the why.  What is going on in your spaces in between?


All Tied Up.


Earlier this week I sat in a meeting room with some potential suppliers.  I was the only woman in a room full of men, and every one of them was wearing a tie.  I became distracted by all of the ties.  They were very nice ties, as ties go.  But I got distracted by the fact that I just didn’t know why they were wearing them at all.

So I tweeted it.

And as usual, we can rely on Twitter to rise to the occasion.

I had a variety of replies from the serious to the not so serious (I hope).

Simon Jones pointed me in the direction of France, where he tells me that it was used to hold the top of shirts together in the days before buttons.

There is a paragraph from a book that my mind comes back to, again and again.  It is from A Year Without Pants, and it goes like this.

Every tradition that we hold dear was once a new idea that someone proposed, tried and found valuable, often inspired by a previous tradition that had been outgrown.  Continuing tradition simply because it is a tradition works against reason.  The responsibility of people in power is to continually eliminate useless traditions and introduce valuable ones. 

There are plenty of traditions in every workplace that once served a useful purpose, fulfilled a particular need, solved a problem along the way, but have since slipped into tradition.  Custom and practice through to observed obsolescence.

The tie serves no actual purpose.  Just once upon a time someone’s definition of smartness.  A tradition that was once found valuable.

There are some companies that probably still require the wearing of a tie, a rule hard wired into the dress code.  There are even companies that have disputed it all the way to the employment tribunal.  I have an intense dislike of dress policies.  If someone gets to the age that they can legally work and earn money and pay tax but doesn’t know how to dress themselves appropriately, then we have a big problem that cannot be solved by yet another HR policy.

As often happens, the frequency illusion served me another example of tie disapproval via social media.  In my timeline came Richard Branson, cutting off ties.  I hadn’t come across it before, but he is known for his active dislike of ties and even uses the hashtag #nomoreties.  He thinks that ties encourage conformity and restrict new ideas.

My tie pondering took me to further thoughts.  What other traditions surround us at work that we don’t even question?  That are so embedded in our consciousness that the automatic neural pathways take over and run the routine?  Traditions that we could simply do without and nothing bad would happen or no one would even notice?  It says something about humans beings, that we hold so tightly onto traditions when their purpose is not only outdated, but their origins unknown, and their value unarticulated.

Someone once asked me on a development programme ‘how routine orientated are you?’  My answer?  Very.  For we are creatures of organisational habit.  Unless we actively seek to eliminate useless stuff, and invent something more valuable instead.


The curse of the early adopter

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you and then you win’.  Gandhi.

I love this quote.  I have it on the wall above my desk.  It reminds me that sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in, even if you are the lone voice.  And during my career in HR, this is a place I have often found myself.  Many years ago, I fought so hard for a disabled employee that I felt the company were discriminating against that I nearly lost my own job, and my relationship with a senior manager never recovered.  I left soon after.  Being a lone voice, being an early adopter, can be a lonely, difficult place.

I am guessing you are familiar with Roger’s Innovation Adoption Curve.  The rate at which new innovations and ideas spread throughout cultures.

Innovators and early adopters.  These are the folk, or organisations, who get to new stuff fast.  They are right at the beginning of the adoption curve. First to the new thinking, the new piece of tech.  Quick to try something out, spot some potential, shout about this new stuff and adopt it into their everyday.  There is other terminology we can use for these people.  Disrupters.  Boat rockers.  Game changers.

But there’s the thing.  Boat rockers are not always popular.

However you phrase it, however sound your argument for something new or different, especially within organisations, for some people it is always going to sound more like this:

  • What you did in the past wasn’t very good
  • What you are doing now isn’t either
  • Abandon everything and do this instead
  • It’s all crap here, isn’t it?

For some there are other reactions, and many different underlying reasons.  Fear of change. A lack of understanding and a lack of desire to understand better.  Protecting vested interests.  Sometimes, those on the receiving end of the early adopter are just not ready or prepared for the message, the change required.  Sometimes, it is arrogance – think of the HMV response to digital, downloadable music. And the early adopter can be the one that takes the blame, or gets laughed out the door.

There is a an often quoted phase, attributed to a variety of different folks, that goes something like this:   If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always got. The problem is that it isn’t really true.  Not in many cases, not any more.  Because for many organisations, doing what you have always done is the road to obsolescence.

Social media is a great example. I could wax lyrical about the benefits of social media.  I already have done so in plenty of blog posts and presentations.  But although we are heading towards the laggard stage, for some it is still something they don’t want to know about.  Aren’t ready to adopt or learn about, let alone recognise its importance to any organisation.  It is also something that people bitterly complain about or joke about. I’m still hearing ‘isn’t twitter just about telling people what you had for breakfast?’.

First they ridicule you……

There are those organisations out there who, when faced with a game changer and a challenger, rather than ask why people feel that they need to change the game at all, just try and close it down, hard if they have too.  Just look what is happening to our HR friends in New Zealand who have challenged their professional body.

Then they fight you…..

So to every early adopter, game changer, challenger or innovator.  To everyone trying to do new stuff or improve old stuff, hold your nerve.

Because when all of the ignoring and the ridiculing and the fighting is done, just maybe you will win.

And if you are the person who rolls their eyes when someone at your place comes up with an off the wall idea, make sure they are not an early adopter. And that the one doing the ignoring, the ridiculing, the fighting, isn’t you.

Lead from the bottom

I was recently delivering a coaching programme. We got to talking about how to really embed coaching within an organisation.  What makes it really become effective, how to get the best from the style.  The conversation turned to the role of senior leaders, and the extent to which their involvement is needed, or otherwise, in order to make a step change in approach.

Whether it is embedding something like coaching, managing organisational change, introducing social culture – take your pick of the people stuff – the role of leaders is often talked about. Take social media.  The CIPD research ‘Putting Social Media to Work’ confirmed its importance in legitimising the use of enterprise social networks within organisations.

When it comes to embedding new stuff the role of senior leaders is important, and fulfils several roles.  It gives permission that something is acceptable at your place, or a good use of work time.  It sets an example, acts as a role model for behaviour.  It can help move things forward more quickly than they otherwise might.  It can provide heightened visibility or perceived value.

But for all the benefits of senior leader involvement, it is just as important that its absence does not become an excuse not to do something. The role of senior leaders is embedding new stuff is important.  But it is not essential.

Take another example. The much maligned performance review.  Whilst it is often criticised in its traditional format, we can’t deny that employees need feedback.  They need development discussions, they need conversations, they need to talk about what is expected of them.  It does work well when objectives are fully aligned across an organisation or to shared goals and visions.  It works very well when objectives and plans flow down through an organisation. Senior leaders absolutely should lead by example by holding reviews with their own team, and holding them to account to make sure that they do the same.  And onwards.  But I have heard too many managers in too many organisations tell me that the reason that they haven’t taken the time to sit down with their team to review and discuss and feedback and set objectives is because they haven’t had their own review.  That their manager hasn’t set them any objectives.  Like this is some sort of acceptable justification.

Just the same, I’ve heard plenty of people trot out the ‘it won’t work unless the senior managers do it’ line too many times. And here’s the thing.  Senior leaders are busy folks.  And sometimes they might just not do that thing that you hope that they might.

Back to the coaching example for the moment. Coaching as a style is optimal when it is fully embedded within an organisation. When it becomes part of the everyday interaction between individuals.  Part of the culture, top to bottom.  That is the ideal state, but like with much people stuff, much organisational stuff, the ideal isn’t often the everyday reality.  Or even close to achievable.  But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done.

During the discussion I said this. If you knew your manager was never going to adopt a coaching style, if you knew you were never going to be coached yourself, would that stop you?  Should that stop you?

If you knew that your team would benefit from coaching. If you knew that by coaching rather than telling you could help a person develop.  Think well.  Learn.  Why wouldn’t you just do it anyway?  Why would you wait for permission from someone higher up in the chain?

Whatever it is you are trying to change. Whatever the people stuff you are trying to introduce.  You can choose.

Lead from the top.

Lead from the bottom.

Lead by example.

Lead from anywhere. As long as you just lead.