The Culture Crocodile

When I provide training to organizations, particularly large organizations, I make note of aspects of the organization’s culture. While some elements of an organization’s culture take time to understand, there are many elements of culture that don’t require a lot of time to pick up. I take cues from employees’ demeanor, what’s said and what isn’t said, and I usually design my ice breaker to help me get a temperature read on the people in the room and how they feel about both training and the organization as a whole. What I am actually trying to do is to gauge how much resistance is in the room, how to get people to engage, and what type of feedback I can gather for the leaders that might help them build a better culture.

No matter the nature of the organization, there are some shared realities about culture:
1) If an organization’s culture is an asset, it is intentionally engineered and curated;
2) Organization culture sets the rules that tell us how to behave in a particular setting;
3) Organization culture reigns us in by making us fear the consequences of going against the tide of what everybody else does; and
4) Organization culture doesn’t necessarily reflect an organization’s written policies and people become confused and stuck when they are put in a position to choose one over the other.

While I believe most of us already know these things and frequently discuss them when we talk about deeply entrenched workplace problems, here’s what we don’t talk about as much: organization culture is a two-way street. Compare it to the jaws of a crocodile. You have the pressure from authority-based leadership at the top and you have the behavior of employees at the bottom. Together, they crush and swallow whole whatever is in the mouth!

Most of the time, we focus on the people at the top because they make the rules and choose which ones to enforce. We also focus on them because they are ultimately responsible for figuring out how to manage the organization in a manner that makes the organization an employer of choice. Moreover, we focus on them because we know inconsistent application of both formal and informal rewards and punishments weakens organization culture. However, focusing only on the upper jaw puts forth a narrative that suggests that employees are always hapless victims. Beware naivety: the lower jaw is powerful!

The bottom jaw chooses whether to meet the upper jaw; they have to work together. When they do not, conscious and unconscious resistance emerges rather than a mass exodus. Resistance can take the form of malicious compliance (i.e., following a directive that one knows will result in problems), taking no initiative (doing exactly and only what one is specifically told to do), rejecting responsibility (failure to report significant policy breaches), withholding information (refusal to contribute to solutions when one knows she has valuable information), and more. Resistance from the lower jaw is daunting and exhausting. There is nothing more defeated than a manager who has given up on performance management because there are so many problems and inconsistencies above and below him.

When the bottom and top jaw don’t work well together, the things that get swallowed whole are the mission of the organization, efficiency, innovation, ability to compete in the market, and the ability to attract talent who will add value (or at least not without a hefty price tag and fear of quick turnover). The “swallow up” actually makes the culture worse because employees are likely to perceive themselves as being part of a troubled organization: employees, regardless of position, reduce their work effort when they perceive themselves to be part of a failing team or enterprise.

The threat at this point is inertia. Entrenched culture problems do not arise overnight; thus, a key challenge is getting people to notice when they are approaching the tipping point before they actually tip over. In fact, dysfunction can appear to be normal. So, who is supposed to take the first step toward addressing the situation? If employees go first, they may contemplate collective bargaining (unions), there may be an increase in workplace harassment claims, obvious decreases in productivity, increased costs due to carelessness, and more. Whether leaders recognize such actions as a cry for change, they are. On the other hand, leaders are better served by regularly taking inventory of how their day-to-day choices align with the organization’s values and goals instead of trying to determine how great of a threat the culture is. There is no way around it. Check-ins among leaders (beyond perfunctory and dreaded staff meetings) as well as downline communication strategies make it clear to everybody what the upper jaw values and how it wants its people to support those values. This check-ins are just as important for the upper jaw as it is for the lower jaw. Individual leaders are reminded of the stance they are to take and the consequences associated with going rogue. In turn, the folks making up the lower jaw get a clear message which enables them to make important personal choices about their relationship with the organization rather than being constantly engaged in a game of chicken to learn what comprises the organization’s true values and culture.