team coughing up culture hairballs

Recently, I reposted an article on cultural assumptions often being wrong because leaders don’t understand how their current culture is perceived. A reader posted a comment asking if it’s realistic to expect to change the culture of large organizations, especially “mature ones with profound legacies and cultural liabilities.” He then suggested, “it might be better to ‘orbit the hairball’ than try to untangle it.”

Expecting to change a culture of any size organization is quite realistic. We’ve seen major culture shifts of large organizations resulting in dramatic improvements in safety, quality, service, engagement, and profitability. It starts with strong and sustained leadership rippling out from the senior leadership team. Orbiting the hairball is a funny image. It’s also a cynically humorous expression of helplessness and victim-speak.

Many divisional, departmental, branch, or other sub-unit leadership teams add to the tangled culture hairball by following along with a weak or dysfunctional culture or — even worse — wallowing in helplessness. Like that pessimistic, doomster, Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame, weak leadership teams believe it’s futile to try changing the situation. These teams use excuses for inaction like “we tried that before,” “they (senior management, unions, head office, other departments, etc.) won’t let us,” “the systems/policies won’t let us,” “it’s just part of our culture,” and so on.

Weak leaders often flounder in blame storming sessions where they frame organizational problems with following or wallowing rather than leading. So the team adds more knots to the cultural hairball. They don’t step up to what Jack Zenger’s research shows; “taking responsibility is the highest mark of great leaders.”

Upward leadership is the hallmark of an effective mid or lower-level leadership team. We’ve seen municipal managers lead their councils, divisional teams lead head office, and regional teams pilot highly effective culture development efforts.

Any organizational unit’s culture reflects the dynamics and behavior of its local leadership team. Culture development starts with team development. Highly effective leadership teams avoid common traps such as too many priorities, overloading, reactionary focus on operations, conflicting messages, avoiding difficult issues, poor meetings, and the like. Click on Seven Leadership Team Failure Factors to assess your team.

These five steps have helped many leadership teams boost their effectiveness and get their culture shift together:

  1. Assess current systems, practices, culture, and readiness for change
  2. Leadership team planning strategy session
  3. Realign/integrate/prune current projects, processes, systems, and development initiatives
  4. Plan implementation strategies and timeliness
  5. Monitor, follow up, and adjust implementation plans

In his novel, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Tom Robbins writes, “Mediocrity: now there is ugliness for you. Mediocrity’s a hairball coughed up on the Persian carpet of Creation.”

Is your team following or wallowing in mediocrity? Are you orbiting — or even coughing up — a culture hairball?