- Debbie Dougherty
Destroy Your Organizational Culture in Three Easy Steps!
Updated: Feb 21
I have observed that if you want people to read your business advice, then provide three easy steps. Occasionally there are five steps, but these steps generally can be counted on one hand. This got me thinking, how can I help you achieve something in three easy steps?
The problems I address, like sexual harassment, tend to be pretty tricky and complicated. These problems are woven into the fabric of an organizational culture. There are no easy answers. I cannot help you solve culturally woven problems in three easy steps.
But, given the singular determination of many organizational leaders to ignore these problems, I can provide you with three easy steps to total organizational cultural annihilation. Or, at least to the simple destruction of your organizational culture.
Last week I answered the question, where do these wicked problems come from. This week, I address the question, how do organizational leaders exacerbate these wicked problems, destroying their organizational culture in the process?
This is an important question. When wicked problems are made worse through management behavior, everyone suffers. We tend to think of sexual harassment as a problem between harassers and targets. But the problem is far more widespread than this.
So what are three steps to destroying your organizational culture?
Head in Sand Syndrome
My first recommendation is that you go ahead and bury your head in the sand. Or rather, keep it buried. Guess what this is called in in finance and management? The Ostrich effect! Interestingly, ostriches do not actually bury their heads in the sand, but organizational managers do. In fact, one of the biggest reasons why CEOs are fired is because they were “in denial and wouldn’t recognize bad news.”
When people cannot or will not handle bad news, they get very inventive at not seeing that news. The original research in this area involved finances. Some more recent research focuses on the environment. The head in sand syndrome is not a passive process. In fact, it can be shockingly clever. For example, there is a certain determination to managerial behaviors such as enforced positivity, circular speak (never directly say what you mean!), hearing but not listening, and ignoring destructive organizational patterns. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard organizational leaders deny having a serious problem, even when the evidence of the problem is clear.
Shiny New Toy Syndrome
My second recommendation is that you distract yourself and your team by flitting from problem to problem. Parents, raise your hand if you have ever given your child a new toy. The child then plays intensely with that toy for a short bit, and then they move on to the next new toy.
I am not the first person to observe that entrepreneurs tend to shift their attention to new ideas and products without fully considering if it is a good idea. We should not be surprised by this tendency because the primary job of entrepreneurs is to serve as the organizational dreamer. They need a team that knows when to redirect them, or even to put on the breaks.
However, when it comes to culturally woven problems, leaders tend to follow the shiny new toy, with unfortunate results. Let me give you an example. I was called in to do some work with one large organization because the media had published an expose on their ongoing sexual harassment problem. They needed to fix the problem. Now. We developed a plan and began to implement it. In the middle of executing the plan, the media started publishing stories about injustices toward black people, and the Black Lives Matter movement was born. This organization immediately shifted their attention to racial equity—which is also important. Except, they took all the funding they had for solving their sexual harassment problem and transferred it to racial equity. Last I heard, they had shifted away from racial equity and were focused on some other problem.
So here it is. The tendency to flit from problem to problem makes organizational leaders and managers feel like they are accomplishing important work. In reality, they are allowing problems to fester and to grow.
If you want to destroy your organizational culture, treat organizational problems like you are a child with a shiny new toy. Think about it. Play with it. Talk about it. And then discard it at the bottom of the toy box while you address the next shiny new toy.
Lone Ranger Solutions
Finally, to destroy your organizational culture, I recommend that you hand the problem over to one overwhelmed individual and then walk away. It is no secret that organizations are looking for the simplest path to solving problems. I mean, don’t we all want to dispense with problems quickly and easily so that we can get back to the fun stuff? Like, building products and breaking into markets and saving the world? Of course we do.
Unfortunately, business leaders will often pawn off problems on a single person who I dub, the lone ranger—the person who is supposed to swoop in on their flashy horse, guns blazing, solving the problem so others don’t have to deal with it.
Sometimes the lone ranger persona is carefully selected. They are brought in with enough experience to be qualified, but then are not given the team and resources necessary to fix the problem.
Sometimes the lone ranger persona is simply the loudest person in the room. They complained, they harried, they demanded that the organization fix the problem. So the leader hands the problem to this person and says, “here you go squeaky wheel, you fix it.” This unqualified, but highly motivated person, tries to solve the problem, but of course they can’t. They have neither the experience nor the resources to solve a culturally entrenched problem on their own.
Sometimes the Leader takes on the Lone Ranger persona, micromanaging, and making bizarre declarations (no tolerance for sexual harassment statements in an organization that clearly tolerates sexual harassment!). Because we expect our leaders to be all knowing and heroic, they often have unrealistic expectations placed on them.
No single person can solve a culturally woven problem. So, if you want to destroy your organizational culture, the Lone Ranger solution is an excellent choice.
How can we ever solve complex problems if we are so focused on easy answers? Look at all the complicated things organizations do every day. They manage difficult relationships, blast rockets into space, feed large groups of people, and govern entire nations. But hey, we need three easy steps to address problems that are woven into the fabric of your organizational culture? We can do better.
Cultural problems are easier to create than to solve, so stay mindful. Have a learning orientation toward your organization. Practice constant surveillance. And finally, you will need a long-term orientation to solving culturally woven problems. Unless you really are intent on annihilating your organizational culture. Then, proceed with the three easy steps I outline in this post!
Debbie S. Dougherty is a professor, author, consultant, farmer.
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