How to Avoid Creating a Toxic Culture

I was talking with a business manager a few months ago who said to me, “We don’t really have a culture in our workplace.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.

That’s like saying, “My family has no traditions.”

Every family has traditions! Likewise, every organization has a culture. The real question is, do you recognize it?

Culture is simply the pattern of values, assumptions and norms that shape a group of people.

We don’t have to label our culture because, whether we do or not, we have one anyway. What ends up happening is that the culture gets reflected in the attitudes and approaches the staff use as they carry out their everyday job tasks.

Some time ago, a group of scientists conducted a study known as the Monkey Culture Experiment. There’s some debate about whether the study actually happened or not, but it’s a great analogy nonetheless.

A group of scientists placed a group of monkeys in a cage with a small ladder leading to a banana. What are the monkeys going to do?

Get the banana!

When the first monkey, Sam, went up the ladder and tried to get the banana, the other 4 monkeys were sprayed with cold water. This was repeated over and over again, and the monkeys understood that when Sam went up the ladder, they got punished.

The monkeys who didn’t try to climb the ladder started to restrict Sam from climbing. Eventually, the scientists started replacing each monkey to the point that they created a group of 5 new monkeys. Each time they replaced a monkey, they stopped the cold water spray. But the new monkeys observed that whenever a monkey tried to climb the ladder, he got beaten up.

None of the 5 new monkeys tried climbing the ladder. The scientists didn’t know why.

It turns out it was just “the way it’s always been done.”

Whether the study is fact or fiction, the reality is this: that is how culture happens.

That story clearly illustrates that if we’re not deliberate in how we shape our culture, we’re going to end up with a culture we don’t want—or worse yet, a destructive culture like the one we see at Uber and other companies in the news today.

In any organization, we typically see only the tip of the iceberg: the language people use, the operating methods used to get things done and the different symbols in the office, like dress code and office layout.

But all the non-observable stuff is what we really have to pay attention to. That’s the danger zone.

That’s where “normal” behaviors lie. These are the values and assumptions people make day after day.

We can’t see them, but what happens below the water is what brings the Titanic down.

That’s why we have to be very careful about setting a clear value proposition and definitions of right and wrong within our organizations. Ask yourself these questions:

• What are your company’s customs and established practices?
• What norms do you have that govern your employees?
• Where does your company’s moral compass point?

But how do people learn the acceptable values, norms and behaviors in the company? Just like we saw in the monkey experiment, they learn from other people experiencing it.

If we don’t have leaders that are setting the right tone and sending the right messages, people are going to create their own message.

We’ve seen in the media lately how culture impacts an organization’s performance.

When it comes down to it, culture is a control mechanism that channels behaviors in a desired way. If we have a dysfunctional culture, the control mechanism is broken. This means that we aren’t getting the desired behaviors from employees. When we don’t get the desired behaviors, we don’t get the level of organizational performance we want. It truly becomes a domino effect.

There are 4 steps to building a good, strong culture. Remember that a strong culture doesn’t necessarily imply a good one—just a strong one. As we’ve seen with Uber, if you create a culture with undesirable behaviors, you’re going to get a strong culture. But it’s still not going to be what you want it to be.

1. Have a common set of behaviors between managers and employees. A “do as I say, not as I do” environment never works. When I worked in a warehouse in college, it wasn’t uncommon for supervisors to walk on the conveyor belt to get from one end of the building to the other while shouting instructions. But if an employee did that, they would be disciplined. You have to have a set of rules to govern everybody.

2. Create very similar basic approaches to solving problems. Think about what processes you use to get work done. Are they standardized throughout the organization? Is there a set of criteria by which you measure your decision-making to ensure that decisions are made similarly across departments and facilities?

3. Create common norms that guide how you provide rewards and punishment. How can you standardize everything from your merit increases to how discipline is meted out? On the discipline side, does the punishment fit the crime? On the reward side, does the reward equal the contribution?

What we know about reinforcement is that if we don’t reinforce behavior, it becomes extinct. If we’ve set up basic approaches to doing things but don’t have a reinforcement system that keeps people using those systems, they’ll die off.

4. Build a stable organization. This is the final step because it can’t happen until we’ve established a strong culture in the first three steps. Have you ever heard someone say, “The only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that we’re always changing things”?

The only way to truly achieve strategic goals is to have a stable organization. When your organization is unstable, it creates chaos for employees. Organizations have to change over time in order to stay relevant, but constant change in a “flavor of the month” style is what creates instability.

The outcome of a successful culture is high job satisfaction, employees who know their role in the organization and recognize their contributions to it, high work performance, a strong set of internal values within the organization and a commitment to the company and its goals.

That should tell you a lot about where the companies that have been in the media recently, including Uber, have gone wrong from a cultural standpoint.

What are the internal values present in that organization? If we want to create a strong culture, we can—but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the people or the company. Uber clearly has a strong organizational culture, but is it the right one for any company?

If your organizational culture isn’t what you want it to be, TurboExecs can help. Contact us here to learn more.