During a retreat with the leadership team of a large healthcare organization, we were running a little behind schedule so I said we’d move fairly quickly through the Responsibility for Choices principle in our leadership discussion. Fortunately, an astute participant piped up with, “Jim, I think we need to talk about our ‘blaming and disclaiming’ culture. We routinely blame everyone else for our problems and give up trying to solve them. We blame the unions, the physicians, our board, those paying the bills, the patients and their families, other agencies, the government, and so on. We’re disempowering ourselves and failing to provide leadership to our organization.”
He was absolutely right. We then had a very productive discussion about how leaders need to shift from wallowing and following to leading. The team agreed to stop groaning and start growing their leadership.
This example came to mind as I read Annie McKee’s Harvard Business Review article Keep Your Company’s Toxic Culture from Infecting Your Team. She describes three signs of unhealthy cultures as: 1. Pressure to cover by downplaying aspects of yourself to fit in, 2. hyper-competitiveness with “masculinity contests,” and harassment, and 3. pressure to overwork and make constant connections.
Annie suggests leaders “create a resonant micro culture where you have the most chances of succeeding on your team.” This starts with taking care of yourself and “figure out what you need in order to be most effective — and happy — at work.” She advises repairing relationships “because dysfunctional cultures drive us to behave in ways that harm relationships.” Building on this foundation, Annie recommends forming a coalition with a few others (possibly including your boss) where you “take deliberate steps to articulate shared values as well as shared rules of engagement to guide everyone’s behavior.”
Annie’s article brings two key points to mind: 1. Culture is multi-layered. An organization has a macro-culture with many micro-cultures. Leaders can significantly shift their local team or organization’s culture by applying leverage in the right places. 2. Like an annual physical checkup, leaders need to periodically do career checkups.
Here are six key questions to test your career health:
- Can I be real at work?
- Am I growing with change?
- Have I become a victim?
- Is there a moose-on-the-table?
- Is work a four-letter word?
- Do I have a job, career, or calling?
As Annie concludes, “it’s all too easy to blame a dysfunctional company culture for our misbehavior. But you don’t have to be subject to the toxicity that characterizes your organization. You can do something about it by using your emotional intelligence skills and choosing to act in ways that you can be proud of.”