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?


The Unreasonable Man

The concept of the reasonable man runs through English law. He is the ordinary, average guy within the system.

The concept of the reasonable man grounds us. It focuses our thinking. Provides us a standard. He is not a real person, he is an idea. Of how we should behave, the standards we should follow, the care we should take. The hypothetical person beyond the case law and the statutes and the judgements. A good citizen.

The reasonable man has many roles.

He stands by our side when we enter into a contract. He listens in to our conversation, and if we forget to agree a term, if he thinks it’s so obvious that we really meant to include it, then the term is implied all the same.

He sits next to us on the bus. In negligence cases, the reasonable man is considered to be of reasonable education and intelligence, but a nondescript man, just sitting at the back of the bus, representing your everyday sort of chap on his way to work.

Within the law, we ask ourself what the reasonable man would do, think, understand. We even have the concept of a reasonable employer too.

The reasonable man is average. The reasonable man thinks what most people think. The reasonable man stands for consensus. He is realistic, sensible, practical. Doing the done thing, the expected, accepted thing.

In organisations, we are often reasonable. Terribly so. We follow the rules, both written and unwritten. We quickly learn the standards, and how to behave, fit in. What is reasonable, at our place.

We like reasonable people. Reasonable people are safe. You know what you are going to get. If you were described as reasonable, you would probably be just fine with that.

Unreasonable on the other hand, is different. Not quite so appealing. Most people would not wish to be called unreasonable.

Exceeding reasonable limits.
Refusing to listen to reason.
Not in accordance with practical realities.
Inappropriate attitudes or behaviours.

All of these are dictionary definitions of unreasonable.

In organisations, we have our own version of this reasonable man on the Clapham Omnibus. He sits beside us every day, invisible but powerful. From him we learn the way that we do thing around here. Silently he conducts the orchestra of reasonableness.

I recently came across this quote from George Bernard Shaw. ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’

Look again at those definitions of unreasonable, and ask just one simple question.

Who decides?

Exceeding someone’s idea of reasonable limits.
Refusing to listen to someone’s idea of reason.
Ignoring someone’s idea of practicality, the way to behave.

It is unreasonable, or is it nonconformist?
Unreasonable, or simply refusing to stick to the party line?
Unreasonable, or entrepreneur, leader, change agent?
Unreasonable, or progressive?

One person’s unreasonableness is another’s visionary.

Sometimes, reasonable is good.

But not always.

Reasonable can be safe.
Reasonable can be limiting.
Reasonable can be cautious.
Reasonable can be accepting what we have always done.
Reasonable can be the same as everyone else.

The reasonable man can sometimes be a pain in the arse.

Today, I’m feeling unreasonable. Are you?

If you tolerate this…

If you’ve read your Gladwell, you may well remember Broken Window theory. It goes a little something like this. If an empty building has a few broken windows and no one comes along to repair them, then you may well find that along come the vandals to break some more of the windows. And if still no one comes along to repair them, the damage will spiral quickly. More broken windows. Maybe a break in, maybe theft from what remains, maybe squatters will turn up and move in. The answer, according to the theory, is to fix problems when they are small. Before they escalate, become too big and unmanageable.

I’ve seen broken windows theory take place in reality.

One of my early HR roles included doing the people stuff at a tired, dark, miserable warehouse. The site was scheduled for future closure, and no one wanted to invest any time or money for its upkeep in the meantime.

And the more the building decayed, the more the building decayed.

Graffiti on the walls.
Badly lit corridors, with peeling paintwork.
Holes in the sagging, ancient carpet.
Dirty crockery piled in the kitchen sink, growing green.
Aged, yellowing posters on the noticeboard, telling tales of canteen menus long past.
Casual, deliberate damage.
A broken furniture graveyard.
Rubbish indifferently dumped, wherever, whatever.
Literally, broken windows, grimed with ancient dirt.

And because nobody cared, nobody cared.

A slow, determined, deterioration.

But broken window theory is not just a building thing, but a cultural thing. A people thing. It applies to organisations too.

How the leaders behave.
The way that people talk to each other.
The exercise of power.
What gets valued.
What gets done.
What gets rewarded, or punished.
The rules that are enforced, or ignored.
The language that is used.
The little organisational (bad) habits.

Windows of, to, within your culture. And sometimes, corporate vandalism occurs.

Tolerating, accepting, or failing to tackle even small problems in these spaces will lead to the rot setting in within your culture, as quickly as it will within the walls of your building. What is allowed, flourishes. Broken can become normal.

Back to the theory again, just for a moment. When you maintain a good environment, keep it clean, fix that which is broken, take good care of the place, physically and culturally, it sends a clear signal. This is our normal. Take your disorder, your window breaking rocks, some place else.

When small problems arise, with the way people lead, talk, behave, do, then we need to address them. Fix the broken window and fix it fast. Because if you don’t, before you know it the problem has escalated beyond your control.

Over at your place, are any of your windows broken?
And what are you doing to repair them?

Do what you’ve always done

Performance reviews don’t work.
Engagement survey’s don’t either.
Money doesn’t motivate.
Lots of training doesn’t deliver lasting change, because half of it is forgotten as people walk out of the room.
Corporate values are rarely lived and breathed but instead stuck on walls and websites.
[Add your own known known here].

I saw yet another article recently, about the perils of the performance review. It repeated plenty of similar articles I’ve read before, and even written myself. And what started to rattle around my head was this question. How come we know the theory, but don’t or can’t make the change we want to see?

We talk about it, blog about it, even joke about it. The problems with a lot of the people stuff that we usually do are well defined and understood. Often, we even know the solution too.

But instead of actually making change, we just do what we have always done and get what we have always got. And sometimes when it doesn’t work we just do more of it only harder. And repeat.

What is it exactly, about people and organisations, that keeps us stuck in old patterns of thinking and behaviour? What keeps us doing the same old same old even when we have the choice and the power? What is really stopping us? For every Zappos and Netflix that is ignoring or down right stomping on all people things traditional, there is a whole bunch of us sitting in our offices, doing stuff that we don’t really believe in and know doesn’t work. Even when we secretly know how to do it differently. Better.

It might be the definition of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. But I’d say it is the standard default setting for many organisations, and a fair few HR departments too.

So what stops us taking action? There are plenty of possible reasons.

Someone said that we should so we did.
We don’t know what else to do.
It’s too hard.
We don’t have the ability to influence the decision to change.
If it ain’t all that broke, why fix it?
Everyone else is doing it.
It is still accepted best practice.
We are the lone voice, at our place.

Cognitive inertia explains much. Beliefs are sticky. They endure. We rely on the familiar assumptions, the familiar ways of doing things, even when the evidence to support them no longer exists. We find it hard to update our thinking, to do something new, even when the situation or the context changes.

Sometimes, in HR, we have fought so hard for this people stuff, fought to get them on the agenda or taken seriously, we just can’t give them up. The emotion, the effort, has all been invested. We have sunk the cost so we might as well carry on regardless.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely talks about loss aversion. He argues that we naturally focus more on what we lose than what we gain in any bargain. We would rather avoid a loss than make a gain, because losses are painful. He calls it the pain of paying; it arises when you must give up anything you own, no matter what the value. He ran experiments that showed how people sometimes took an illogical decision to avoid the hurt of a loss. According to Ariely, this is why we finish a book that we’ve paid for even if we are not enjoying it, or rarely get up and leave a film in the middle even if it we are finding it boring.

Whether we are big fans of any particular process or policy or people stuff, we own it. So maybe this is part of why we can’t or don’t give it up, even when we know that we should.

Or maybe we just don’t know what to do instead of the thing that we’ve always done.

I know that some people are working hard to make changes at their place, and are trying really hard to break patterns. This post is not intended to be a criticism of anyone, just a reflection of how hard it can be to break through, to change the accepted so called best practice. How strong the ties are that bind us to the accepted ways of doing things.

When a company does throw away the rule book, we all get a little excited. We read about them, debate about them, listen to them speak at conferences. Sometimes we jump on their bandwagon, use them to get a different conversation started.

Doing something different demands much of us. To be brave. To take a small step. To break a rule, challenge a convention. To give something up. To be prepared to fail. To move beyond acknowledging the problem to taking action. Or, as I read recently, someone to put on their big girl (or boy) pants and lead.

Could that be you?

Culture Misfit

We like people that are like us. And we like to recruit people that are like us. People that will ‘fit in’.

The recruiters will have heard it a hundred times.

It’s all about the cultural fit.
It’s really important that they can fit in here.
The culture fit is as important as the experience

I’ve heard this said and I have said it myself.

But let’s just revisit this notion, for a moment. When we take this approach we are often really saying is that we want people that are all the same. That we want someone like the last person. That we want someone like the rest of the team. Because that is how they will fit in, get on, around here.

The theory on culture fit says that it is a good thing. That it means the individual and the organisation are aligned, that their values correspond. Then people are more productive, engaged, motivated, satisfied. I get that.

But when we use the term ‘culture fit’ we aren’t always thinking about values. We are not thinking about the long term, the strategic angle. Instead we think of personality, we think of people. We think about whether the person has worked in a similar environment with similar challenges. We think about whether we will get on with them, day to day. Whether they will slot into the existing team just fine.

You know that quote ‘you do what you have always done and you will get what you have always got’? Well this applies here too.

If you recruit what you have always recruited, then you will organisationally probably get what you have always got. Recruiting for culture fit may make it nice and harmonious in the team. Recruiting for culture fit might mean that the new starter slots straight in. It might mean that retention levels are good. But there are less positive aspects too. Homogeneity. Monotony. Groupthink. A lack of diversity.

And do we even know what we mean by cultural fit anyway? It is all a little bit fuzzy, fluffy, vague. We think we will know it when we see it. But maybe that just isn’t good enough.

Maybe what we really need is to recruit someone else, someone different, someone who won’t just fit into the way we do things around here. Hire for culture misfit. Because what we need is some new thinking. Some diversity. Some challenge. Someone to mix it up.

We don’t need some more of the same old.

This suggestion isn’t easy. I’ve blogged before about applying for a role somewhere outside of your cultural comfort zone. And I’ve worked somewhere too that I didn’t really fit. Somewhere that I was out of step. It was like wearing a badly fitting pair of shoes every single day. Hiring someone without any consideration of how they will fit in, settle in, get on, feel okay, won’t work. But if you want change, innovation, a little disruption, maybe try hiring for cultural misfit.

Rules Rush In

At work, they are everywhere.

Rules. Instructions. Regulations.
Lists of stuff you must do, stuff you can’t do. We write them up in policies and documents and guidelines and procedures and codes of practice.
Instructions. Directives. Rules.

The problem with rules within organisations is that if you are not very careful, they germinate, breed, develop arms and legs, take on a life of their own. They get tweaked, added to, topped up, supplemented.

A rule is invented and suddenly it is part of the organisational fabric, the culture, never to be challenged of changed. It matters not that the person who made the rule is long gone, or no one remembers the reason it was introduced in the first place. The rule, just is. The rule is alive.

Many organisational rules defy common sense. They have the power to amuse, annoy, demotivate, but most damaging, they have the power to get in the way of productive, useful work.

I recently read about a great example in a book called Peopleware, about an organisation that had a clear desk policy. The only thing that employees were allowed to leave on the desk when they went home at night was a 5 X 7 family photo. Who decided this? And more interestingly, how did they determine the size? Was there a meeting, a vote? Was it included in a handbook?

Rules are made when conversations and common sense fails. And when management fails. Consider the organisations that rushed to ban social media, lest there be just one rogue tweet. The company that stops the Christmas celebrations because of one drunken employee. I am sure you have seen examples in your own organisations.

It is time to throw away unnecessary, silly rules. Some rules are of course needed; the organisational will not function without them. But almost every company I have ever seen has too many. Rules that are too complex, too long, too patronising. They reduce employees to children.

Treat your employees like the adults they are. And if they don’t, then just have a conversation. Deal with the individual issue at hand, don’t make a rule that applies to everyone, for ever.

My new law of rules. If you can’t give me a good reason for the rule, I’m not following it.

My challenge to you: if you don’t know why the rule exists, don’t know who made it, can’t articulate the reason for it, then break it. Ask why. Challenge the rule and the rule maker.

Let HR lead the way.

The Culture Tree


‘Culture is a slow growing tree. In the beginning it needs protection. But after a couple of decades the culture will be stronger than you are. You need to work with it, not against it. Culture is a powerful but fragile thing. If you burn down the culture tree, it takes a long time to grown another one’.
Wally Bock

This might be less a blog than an extension of someone else’s metaphor; but a metaphor that creates for me the most vivid image.

Organisational culture is made of up many things. It includes our beliefs, values, behaviour, norms. The history, the narrative, the past and the present. How we do things around here. That which is shared. The way we collectively are.

Just like a tree, culture is strong, deep rooted, slow growing, but always changing. Trees bend, shed leaves, can be healthy or diseased. They may thrive, but even the strongest can be felled by the wind. Or someone can just take an axe to it and chop it down.

Whatever the organisation, most trees will outlast the individual leader.

We talk of the wisdom of the crowd. For me, the culture is the crowd, and the crowd is the culture. Culture is owned and created by everyone in the organisation: each individual leaf on the tree makes up the whole; who the organisation really is.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to tend our culture tree. Fail to look after it, fail to act, and the damage will be long lasting. We must never forget it isn’t about us, the short term decision, the immediate operational priority. Employees have long memories. They will not forget is you cut down your tree, ignore your espoused values, ignore who you say you are. In the challenging business environments that many of us face every day, we may forget that as leaders at the top of own trees we have the power to influence all the way down, through, around. Trees cast long shadows.

Look after your culture tree. Do not water it with fears, distrust, disconnection, poor communication, poor leadership, lest it bear a toxic fruit.

Camera April 13 114

From A Poison Tree by William Blake

And I watered it with fears
Night and morning with my tears
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles

And it grew by day and night
Till it bore an apple bright
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

I sit at my desk, therefore I am.

Why do we persist on judging people on the amount of time they sit at their desk, rather than the contribution that they make? Presenteeism is alive and well in 2013.

You may have seen the recent research showing that a quarter of women feel that they have suffered discrimination or disadvantage at work when they have a child. Am I surprised by this? Sadly, no. Over the course of my HR career I have heard expressed many negative opinions of women, and men, taking time off for family reasons, that it would be hard to be so. I heard recently of an example where someone with a young child applied for, and was granted, a flexible working request. The employer said yes, but the person was subject to a wave of snarky comments from colleagues of the ‘it’s all right for some variety’. Why? Why do people assume that flexible working means taking it easy, sloping off, not pulling your weight, or working from home equates to watching the Jeremy Kyle show?

Technology now allows us to work anywhere, and any when. I am no longer defined by my desk, the 9-5.

Holding out for a hero

The presenteeism attitude is of course not just about flexible working or respecting people’s rights to find a life work balance. It’s about organisational culture; for so many organisations work must be seen to be done. A hero culture is created around those people that work long hours. They are committed, a good egg, a hard worker, the right stuff. A perception arises that long hours equals superhero, equals the right sort of performance.
The problem is compounded with it is the leaders of a business that are burning the midnight oil. The shadow casts long and wide, leading to the feeling that doing the same is expected.

In HR we talk about engagement, discretionary effort, getting our employees to go above and beyond. But we must not confuse this with working excessive hours. Being passionate about your job does not mean working until midnight.

Working excessive hours is not good for you. This isn’t my opinion; there is plenty of evidence to support it. Working excessive hours also isn’t good for productivity, good decision making…. I could go on. So here is my message to you. If you don’t take a break, take your holidays, but work till midnight, every weekend, never put down the Blackberry, you are quite simply not going to be performing at your best.

Reserve Judgement

If you feel you need to judge me, then do so based upon the results that I achieve. Not the hours I work to achieve them, the time that I sit behind my desk.

If you raise your eyebrows at me, think less of me, because one day I arrive at work at 9.15, then shall I expect you to chase me off home tomorrow at 5pm prompt? Will you pop over to my office to make sure I take my full lunch hour? I guess not.

If you email me at midnight, I won’t think you committed, a good corporate citizen, a hard working hero. I will think you have an issue that we should discuss.

Let us finally make the break the perceived link between performance and the hours people work.

It is 2013, after all.



People don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed – Nietzche.

I am interested in the concept of denial, partly because I have experienced it myself. The extent to which we can deny things, to others, to own self, fascinates me.

Denial is a defence mechanism. We use it to avoid facing uncomfortable truths. Even if there is evidence literally staring you in the face, we are expert at ignoring it, disregarding it, minimising it. And if we do spot the problem, we tell ourselves that it’s no big deal, nothing to worry about, it’s someone else’s problem but not ours.

We all do it. We tell ourselves that we don’t eat too much junk food, that the extra glass of wine won’t hurt, that we are doing plenty of exercise, that we don’t really work too many hours.

What we believe as truth, what we think we know and understand, is not necessarily real. We see what we want to see; our mind protects us from the uncomfortable truth. Reality distorts.

Denial is powerful.

Take organisations. Have you ever seen one with a terrible culture, but no one really seems to notice? We think things are okay but they are not. We accept something substandard at work because we don’t see that it is so. We humans favour information that confirms our beliefs, that isn’t too much of a challenge. Better to think that things are okay than to face what a different type of reality might really mean for ourselves, the company.

We can’t attract talent because of the location. People leave because they get made an offer they can’t refuse. Of course everyone gets a performance review. People work long hours because they want to. We are a flexible company. We manage change well. Our mind hunts for the evidence to prove that these things are so; the confirmation bias.

Culture is a boiling frog. Problems in organisations can happen so slowly you simply don’t notice. It is easy to deny it is happening. We pretend, rationalise, justify, excuse. Everyone colludes in putting their collective heads in the sand. Denial.

In every organisation there are stories, anecdotes, beliefs. Things that are generally accepted to be true. So step back. And really look. Look hard at yourself, your company, your culture. It’s uncomfortable I know.

Then ask yourself. Which is it?

Reality, or belief?

Image by @AATImage