Collaborative Leadership Blog

Avoiding Cultural Meltdowns

The senior leadership of a major department of a very well-known company found itself in a quandary: half of the group, who had been at the company for at least 15 years, felt the culture was just fine. The newbies of 3 years or less, including the new leader, felt that the culture needed to change given negative feedback. Customers were unhappy and considering outsourcing their service. An engagement survey found wide discontent. Response times were down, priorities were not being met, and internal differences were turned into grudges.

So the leader implemented a well-respected cultural assessment. The results were not good. They found they had a predominately passive/aggressive culture that pitted people against each other and where problems were avoided, denied, or deflected. On the other hand, there was “violent agreement” on the collaborative culture they wanted. The newbies wanted change; the tenured members did not. They were, in effect, “independent contractors” rather than team players. Their motto about change was “Not in my back yard“.

The schism between the two groups erupted when the assessment results were presented. There was a virtual cultural melt-down as the more tenured members blamed the C Suite and accused their leader of “threatening” them by talking about outsourcing. Some challenged the validity of the assessment. There was full-on avoidance, denial, and deflection behavior. This group will not succeed long term. Millennials will leave. Customers will outsource their services. Confidence will be lost. The new leader will move on.

This kind of behavior is common, though often hidden behind the façade of “nice and kind, but not honest”. Studies show most companies have passive or aggressive/defensive cultures where fear prevails, you don’t speak truth to power, and hierarchy and politics are how things get done.

Toxic cultural meltdowns can be avoided by building on these critical success factors:

  • Progressive Leadership: Leaders who understand millennials and know that work gets done through people, not in spite of them
  • A Trusting & Safe Space: Freedom to speak truth to power and solve problems
  • A Team That Cares: They act as a “We”, and have shared agreements for how they will work together
  • A Willingness to Look & Engage: There is eagerness to find out how the culture is doing, wrestle with the data, and look for nuances and root causes
  • A Commitment to Act: There is collective will to act to evolve the culture

To succeed in today’s markets, companies must be agile, transparent, adaptable, self-aware, and in the constant state of internal transformation. Central to their success is a culture that is based on trust and collaboration—it’s what the market requires, and what the workforce expects.