Cultural Myopia–Yesterday a “Family,” Today an Employee and Employer

myopia_2.jpgI don’t like to think of myself as cynical. Furthermore, I am a huge proponent of creating workplaces that allow people to be creative, empowered and engaged. Nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly listening to high-aspiration employers who describe their cultures in glowing terms, but are confused, bewildered and betrayed when unhappy or departing “team members” suddenly transform into plain old angry employees. Having built brilliant and progressive cultures focused on the talents and skills of their “family,” they have been blindsided by the stark reality that when things are good, we are a family, but when things go wrong, they are the employer.

Take, for example, a company I worked with a few years ago; although most of their work was unskilled, repetitive labor, they had embraced a lot of upscale thinking about workplace culture. They had bought the videos, trained the team leaders and done the cosmetic things that shout “we are a great company!” Some of the giveaways of this kind of thinking tends to be “creative” workspaces, generally very colorful, open and egalitarian; casual attire, goofy ‘stuff,’ in this cases lots of bicycles, razor scooters and in-line skates hanging by the doors for employees to whip around the warehouse, and video games in the break room. Monday morning huddles and open door policies were matched with generous fringe benefits and killer company events. Jan and Dave,The owners were positive, visionary, energetic people who were rightly proud of the dynamic, exciting workplace they ran, and their record of retaining people for nearly thrice the industry average.

The problems began when Roger, a long time team member, began to slack off. Roger had been hired as a line worker, had steadily progressed through promotions and was now a team leader. He was a big man, colorful and funny, and viewed as a key player in sustaining a positive culture. His marriage was on the rocks, his eldest child was in trouble with the law, and his attendance and performance were slipping. Ever supportive, everyone pitched in to help Roger through his rocky time, but after 6 months of declining reliability, the support was wearing thin. Jan had taken Roger out for lunch and told him things needed to shape up, but also averred that she herself had gone through a rough patch with Dave some years ago, and was extremely sympathetic. She granted Roger a one month leave of absence with pay so he could work things out. Upon his return, however, things were no better and Roger had begun to speak negatively of his employer. Dave and Jan expressed their disappointment in him, and hired a powerful leadership coach to work with Roger. The coach told them that Roger needed “time and patience.” Every loyal to their long-term team members, Jan and Dave waited.

One year after problems with Roger began, a highly recruited new employee came to Dave and indicated that he was resigning. He told Dave how disappointed he was with the “real” workings of the company and its failure to live up to its cultural promise; he described demoralized coworkers, sarcasm and cynicism over cultural symbols and rituals, and serious problems with product quality and reliability. While Dave first dismissed the departing employee’s feedback as inaccurate, he and Jan decided to “take the temperature” of their workforce. After talking informally with some workers, and following up with tight scrutiny of their operations, it became clear that many of the problems in their production area (and there were VERY many) could be tracked to Roger’s performance. Reluctantly, they decided it was time to let Roger go. With what they considered to be great respect for Roger, they terminated him, offering him outplacement counseling, a month’s severance and a positive recommendation.

When, one month later, Jan and Dave received a thick envelope from Roger’s lawyer, they were devastated. They had done everything to protect and help Roger, and now they were being repaid with a lawsuit to defend? This was particularly hurtful given the fact that Roger’s own poor performance and negligence had resulted in the loss of several key accounts, and money was very tight. Jan called Roger at home in an attempt to remind him of all the company had done for him, and Dave, furious at Roger’s betrayal, gave him a scathing reference when a prospective employer called him that very day.

So, what happened to the happy culture? In reality, it was gradually restored, albeit with some new “cultural themes,” including accountability, transparency and candor.

In the dizzying and genuine excitement of building teams, creating energy, building relationships and flattening org charts, it is easy to lose sight of the underlying, heavily regulated reality that is the workplace. From the leaders who fret that discussing harassment prevention will “undo spontaneity” to those who view the voluntary commitment of dedicated employees as an exemption from wage and hour laws, “cultural myopia” can put employers on a collision course with the disenchanted or disenfranchised. Employers who think of their work environment as “a family” need to recognize that not all families are healthy, but they stay together because you generally only get one of them. Employment situations, no matter how self-actualizing, are simply not the same as birth and marriage.

So, what to do? Remember some of these key truisms about employment:

1. The role of SUPERVISOR and the role of FRIEND are not compatible. Repeat. Often. This is the most common boundary issue in informal organizations and is non-negotiable in competent ones.

2. Read your policies, mission statements and other documents with a critical eye to see if your prospective or current employees can see in them something “promised” that is either an aspiration or just plain words. “We will be the world’s best employer” may be exciting, but your employee may have some very concrete and costly expectations based on that promise.

3. If you are aiming to be “world class” or “top notch,” in the work you do as a business, set the same standards for your HR practices; use world class performance management techniques.

4. Study and practice conflict management and negotiation skills. Build them into your culture. If managing conflict well, having difficult conversations and negotiating effectively are part of what makes your company great, you will save yourself a good deal of heartache down the road.

5. Use an independent eye. Have an attorney or HR professional on your board or on your consultant list with the goal of looking over your business periodically to identify areas of “cultural myopia” or “culture blindness.” That’s the thing about culture — when you are in it, you can’t see it. It just “is.”

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