Can We Prevent Organizational Culture Failures?

crack in foundation

Unfortunately, it is not difficult to find examples of a failed organizational culture.  In this day and age,  stories of devastation are far too common. From the insidious downfall of Penn State University — the arrogant demise of News of the World (fast forward to the recent woes of General Motors), failures of culture often leave us with more questions than answers. Above all, if we are to prevent more failures, we need to search for possible explanations as to what really begins to go awry, when an organizational culture begins to weaken and deteriorate.

In recent years, we have not only seen individual organizations falter and fail — we have witnessed entire industries spontaneously self-combust. The list has seemed to grow quickly, which begs us to consider if we have broached some kind of “cultural crossroads” where organizations are concerned. The hardships within the auto industry, the collapse of staid financial houses — all could be considered culture disasters. We might begin to ask the question:  How can larger organizations maintain standards of cultural integrity and live a long and healthy life?

Taking the “temperature” of culture
There have been discussions in the media concerning the need within organizations for a C-level role to monitor “all things cultural”.  Aptly named a Chief Culture Officer, this individual would have the responsibility of taking the temperature of the cultural zeitgeist within an organization. I share the opinion that culture is indeed the “heart” of the organization, and a focal role within the organization to promote culture is a worthy option. But, I remain concerned that the potential dark side of culture may still loom. Is there a need for a role that watches the underbelly of culture as well? Because frankly, it seems that when company culture begins to go bad, there is often no one left minding the store.

Do organizations really require a “Chief Officer of Cultural Integrity” to guard against cultural disease? Would that individual protect the mission of the organization, its employees and those in the external environment? Can a system of cultural well-being “checks” be devised? Is there a litmus test that might indicate a failure is imminent — an alarm that might be pulled? These are all questions to ponder.

Lessons from the past
Interestingly, possible explanations for the recent set of cultural breakdowns are quite familiar to us. We might keep these in mind, as we consider the contributions of authority, leader behavior and decision-making to a healthy culture going forward:

  • Diffusion of responsibility.  Well researched in social psychology, this concept examines how groups of people act to resolve a perceived problem or injustice. What we have seen in many cases, is that even when the situation is obviously wrong — people may not act. As a result, they become bystanders to the wrong doing,  sure in their minds that others will act. In theory, the larger the organization, the greater the likelihood that there is the belief that someone else will step in and right a wrong. How do we encourage more individuals to step up, and how do we protect those who choose to fight the tide?
  • Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton makes a very good point. An early exploration into this concept, the Milgram Experiments, showed that prodding by an authority figure was enough for subjects to deliver what they thought to be a powerful electrical shock to another person. (I should add that most did show signs of stress while doing so.)  How often does fear of authority stop employees from speaking up?
  • Groupthink. We all learned about this decision-making plague in Psychology 101. Could this principle explain recent leadership gaffes? Did executives in the auto industry really have no idea that flying on separate, private jets to ask for government assistance was wrong? Was the culture so insular that not even internal PR viewed the behavior as inappropriate? It seems, that from the sinking of the Titanic, to Pearl Harbor, to the Bay of Pigs, groupthink can rear its ugly head in any organizational venue.
  • Leaders without consequences. When an organization fails, so should its leaders. I often think this should be part of every leader’s employment contract. Why is there not a clause in every last top executive’s compensation package concerning negligence, scandal or illegal behaviors? Why was Rebekah Brooks at News of the World entitled to a large severance when wrong doing occurred under her watch? Why were many executives in the financial industry allowed to keep their compensation packages? The most recent debate of this premise, concerning Citigroup will hopefully serve as a game-changer going forward.

We can learn from the failings of organizations. Keeping culture in clear focus is one of the first keys to organizational health — but we’ll have to ensure we have our eyes on all of the right things.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is the Director of Thought Leadership at Kilberry Leadership Advisors, Toronto. She is also serves as an Influencer at LinkedIn.

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5 thoughts on “Can We Prevent Organizational Culture Failures?

  1. Great piece Marla! Especially love the idea of leadership accountability. I have kind of fallen into the role of culture consultant in my work (OD, Accelerated Development, Knowledge Transfer) because it is impossible to be effective without looking at culture. One of the things I’ve learned is that making cultural explicit is important. Most companies think they have a good culture and when I present examples (behaviors, artifacts, etc.) they are often surprised. I have groups do an exercise to express cultural beliefs, values, behaviors, etc. Then I look at artifacts (communications, reward systems, rules and regs etc.) to see if they are in sync with the items expressed. Most of the time there is a big disconnect. The exercise is not a panacea, but it seems to open eyes.

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  2. Burke, thanks for reading. Growth is a very challenging time for many companies. Many aspects of the culture can begin to change because, as you are describing, the vision of the organization becomes lost. Soon the organization is lost as well. I can only advise that senior leadership collaborate to determine vision going forward, and model behaviors to support that vision. At that point you can determine which members of the supporting organization are aligned. Good luck and I hope that things resolve for the better.

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  3. Rally great article and as our nation and our companies become ever larger the dilution of the original values and culture is a serious concern. I am all for the integration of different cultures, and absolutely for the tolerance of different cultures, but our values should never be compromised in the process, otherwise they are not really values at all.

    My company works with one of the past decades most signing example of a company with an incredible culture underpinned by a families values that have held steadfast until the recent explosion in growth has caused them to hire at a pace greater than they can control the influence of their leaders values into the newcomers of their organization.

    This company is starting to be plagued by a PAIN that I’d diluting their culture which is straining their core values. Their PAIN is Panic, Arrogance, Ignorance and Narcissism.

    I Is becoming more important for their employes to be political than to be productive, to bully than to be thankful, to appear knowledgeable, rather than to seek guidance.

    We have been working with several of their leaders who recognize this problem and we are making progress to regain the ability to make the distance between those who live the values vs those who have read about the values. Wish us luck, as the world is a better place with this company in it.

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  4. Miriam, thanks so much for reading. I agree with you – we will have see how the CCO position develops. Furthermore, It will be crucial to see if organizations can learn to recognize major leadership and decision-making issues before it is too late. We certainly have a body of collected information concerning issues that could arise, however weaving that knowledge into organizational life has proven difficult for some.

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  5. Marla, you bring up some good points here. I don’t think that by adding another C-level officer, problems will be solved. This looks like system one thinking instead of getting to the root of the issue.

    All of the lessons from the past you mentioned have to do with why we allow businesses to carry on without any real oversight. If we continue ignoring the past and bury our heads from the present, where will our future take us? Thanks for a great post.

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