First, the Midwest was besieged by snow, then frigid temperatures and then ice. I think most believe that ice is the worst of all the conditions – first, because you have no control when driving on it, and second because there are so many times when you can’t even tell it is there.
Ice is the invisible hazard; it seems like the road or sidewalk is clear, but a thin layer of danger lurks that makes forging ahead almost impossible.
In many organizations, there is a toxic employee that acts like ice. On the surface, things appear to be normal but what is underneath impedes progress. Others proceed as if conditions are fine – as if there are no objections to a change – but then slip and fall because of the unseen ice, or at best they are only able to move forward at a significantly reduced pace.
Those in the organization who act like rain or snow and make their presence (and opinions) visible are far easier to deal with than those who remain icy silent. It is often what is not seen or what is left unsaid that causes the real damage.
If you’re an organizational leader, you need to proactively apply the equivalent of sand or salt to mitigate the impact of ice on your efforts. Don’t let people skate by who create the invisible barrier to your progress.
There are probably some people within your organization who do not feel like they have a voice in larger issues or policies, yet some of those people have forfeited their voice by choice. In unhealthy cultures, it is easier to remain quiet, doing your work under the radar rather than paying the price that people who speak up often pay. If raising questions or pointing out issues only results in pushback or creating enemies, why is it worth it? It is often so much easier to just go with the flow.
The same is true about being informed; if you remain blissfully ignorant of the issues, you relinquish your obligation to address them or to engage in finding a solution. You can focus your efforts on the surface instead of tackling the hard stuff that lies underneath.
Cultures that don’t provide the psychological safety and overt encouragement to foster disagreements, challenges and risk-taking fall into a muted rhythm where things hum along without disruption – until they don’t. Avoiding issues does not solve them, rather it just prolongs their emergence and intensifies the reaction that occurs once the festering bubbles to the surface.
If you find yourself in a culture that operates like the old Whac-a-Mole game – where anyone who pops their head out of their hole is beaten down – you have two choices: find a critical mass of “moles” to pop up with you, thus avoiding the silencing of all or find yourself another culture where you can do your best work. It may be uncomfortable to stick your head out and use your voice, but it’s the only way change can really happen.
When you start a new job or move to a new city, one of your goals should be to fit into the environment. That doesn’t mean changing who you are, rather being conscious about the symbols and signals you send about making a new place your home.
In the workplace, some of the strategies you should employ from the beginning are to learn (and utilize) the jargon and acronyms. Nothing will highlight your newness faster than pronouncing something wrong, calling a department by the wrong name (eg: business office vs. finance department), or by using the full name instead of the commonly used shorthand. It’s also important to be intentional about appearance, lunch and break norms and communication culture (eg: do people use email, drop by in person or schedule an appointment) and work ethics.
If you moved to a new location for your job, it’s important to assimilate into the out-of-office environment as well. Even though I was very active and consciously immersed myself in the new city, my efforts were offset by other signals I unconsciously sent that trumpeted that I wasn’t from here. I kept my cell phone number so had a different area code than most. I drive a car brand that doesn’t have a dealership here. I live in a new subdivision so my address isn’t familiar to long-time residents. As a result, my involvement made it feel like home to me, but to others, I am still often seen as an outsider.
Fitting in is a two-way process, whether that be at your job, as a tourist or in a new city. You may overtly choose to forge your own path and do things in ways that are different from the others or you may try to replicate behaviors. You may opt to pass on acclimating yourself to the town and instead learn things as you go or you may deeply immerse yourself in its culture. The key is to make your choice with intentionality, knowing that you can always do more or less to both feel like home and to be seen as being at home.
The book I chose for class, The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, had me nodding my head the entire way through it. “YES!” I wanted to shout as he recounted story after story about how little actions add up to create significant enhancements to an organization’s culture and individual behavior.
Coyle outlines three skills that his research shows are necessary for an effective culture:
- Build Safety
- Share Vulnerability
- Establish Purpose
To create safety means that it must be safe for team members to speak up and to embrace candid feedback. He advocates going beyond “not shooting the messenger” who delivers negative news but to actually embrace that person and thank them for sharing the news that the leader needs to hear.
To create vulnerability, the leader must demonstrate this first by admitting challenges and continuously encouraging input from others. “I screwed up” and “I need your help” are two key phrases that are infrequently in the leader’s vocabulary but should be. Coyle writes that vulnerability creates trust and must come first, not the other way around as is commonly believed.
In order to establish purpose, leaders must take care of each other and cultivate the culture as the first order of business. By sharing frequent stories, inside phrases, reminders of the reason for existing and creating high-purpose environments leaders reinforce the connection to something bigger than the moment and create a safe and meaningful culture that allows groups to learn quickly and to become more successful.
It is not easy to admit vulnerability, to hear negative feedback or to prioritize taking care of colleagues as the primary mission but the initial discomfort is far outweighed by the benefits a safe culture provides. Coyle’s book provides a set of action steps to help develop the three skills, and all are small steps that are repeated with consistency over time even when they are uncomfortable at first. Start today by purposefully letting your guard down and saying: “I don’t know” or “I need your help” and help your whole team make it a habit to express those sentiments as well.
With the tight labor market, changing generations and the high cost of employee turnover you can’t afford not to pay attention to culture as your organization’s most valuable asset.
The Culture Code: Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle, 2018
The coach of a new football team was asked to donate an item for a fundraising auction. He contributed the team’s jersey with the Number 1 on it. “No one on my team wears #1,” Coach Regalado is reported to have said.
In that small action, the coach shared more about his values and team philosophy than could be captured in an entire playbook.
Are your behaviors consistent with the culture you are trying to create? Take a lesson from this coach and deploy small actions to create a big impact.
I have seen a lot of unusual team-building activities in my day, but this was a new one to me: axe-throwing seems to be an actual thing! In little areas reminiscent of batting cages, participants throw an honest-to-goodness real axe at the wall in hopes of hitting near a target (and not the person throwing next to them!).
When I saw the first facility, I thought it was a fluke, but there were at least two locations in downtown St. Louis that offer the experience. It is billed as a “corporate team-builder” although I can see many subliminal emotions that could be expressed by people’s inner Paul Bunyan.
When you are choosing a team builder for your organization, take into account the temperament and characteristics of those in your group. Some may love the physical challenge of axe throwing, while others may be more suited to the mental stimulation of an escape room or scavenger hunt. It’s one thing to take your team outside its comfort level and another push the boundaries so far that it does more harm than good. Assess whether you would want to ax this activity for your organization or determine that it could be ax-actly what your team needs!
While I shared many lessons at the supervisor workshop, I learned some things, too. One of my favorites was the concept by Andy Stanley that helps to frame a culture of trust, whether that be in a marriage or in an organization.
“Occasionally there are gaps between what we expect people to do and what they actually do,” teaches Stanley. How leaders respond to that gap serves to create the culture of your organization. Stanley outlines two choices: people can “assume the worst” or “believe the best”. He maintains that if a leader chooses to believe the best, that a culture of trust will develop.
Note the word “chooses.” Stanley acknowledges that leaders may not always feel that benevolent, but he maintains that they can still choose to act in a way that supersedes their emotion, believing that there is something unknown that caused the person to act as they did and that once it is discovered, it will lead to understanding.
His premise does not demand blind acceptance when performance creates a gap. When the leader initially believes the best but evidence is to the contrary, the leader must choose to confront the situation rather than continue with concealed suspicions.
If your organization or any relationship is looking to create or strengthen a culture of trust (and hopefully you are!), Stanley’s message provides strategies and rationale to help you on this journey. The residual benefits to the individuals and the overall health of the organization warrant the effort.
Watch the full 45-minute message here.