You find separation and divisiveness in every organization.  For example, it shows up between Operations and Sales, Manufacturing and Engineering, or Finance and Human Resources.  It is an unintended consequence of your people working really hard to do a great job with their own responsibilities.  The faster the pace, the more vulnerable you are to experiencing the waste incurred from everyone’s failure to communicate effectively.  Left unattended, the negativity in your culture will gain momentum.
The communication dynamics are straightforward.  Something unforeseen or undesirable occurs.  People describe the event in disparaging terms.  Others feel disrespected or belittled.  The company purpose and values are forgotten in the moment, as the challenging situation heats up.  Finger pointing escalates.  Stories are told in private about the “other side.”  People line up to talk to the boss about their challenging co-workers.  Leaders invest excessive time and energy in reaction mode.  Walls go up as we work harder to get things done.  All of this has a substantial opportunity cost, as well as an adverse impact on your overall “joy at work” quotient.
The good news is that you can do better than this.  If you understand that a positive, collaborative culture is the foundation for your company’s contribution and profitability, you already feel compelled to address these concerns.  The “how” is where you sometimes stop.  How do you address divisiveness, and not let the fear of making things worse hold you back?
No formula will work precisely for every organization   However, here are some tried and true principles and action steps that will guide you to create a more inspiring, fully engaged culture:
  1.  Your Purpose and Values must be alive in your culture.  If they are not, then it is time to dust them off and make it known that they are a non-negotiable cornerstone of “the way things need to get done around here.”  It is important to acknowledge that these tools are more than wall and website décor; and that they are aspirational.   You are asking for conscious intention and consistent improvement, as opposed to perfection.  As a leader, you communicate the importance of how well your people live up to your values in the same manner you do with regards to your financial performance.  You also walk your talk as a great role model with the rest of these principles and action steps.
  2.  Everyone on your team is capable of cooperation and caring about others.  Even though people truly want to do the right thing with others, they often need skills they haven’t yet learned or forget to use when under duress.  To be among the best organizations you will need to proactively provide people with the knowledge to bring the best out of themselves so they can bring the best out of others.  Your executive team needs to make the resources for this type of training a high enough priority to have the non-negotiable accountability described above become a reasonable expectation.  Your senior leaders must also become excellent coaches and mentors who love working with people as much as they love their technical craft.  Teambuilding sessions where time is invested in understanding one another’s needs and challenges must occur often enough that people identify with the Big Us, as opposed to the siloed team identity that comes from the narrow view of who they are really working with.
  3.  Whatever toxic behavior you tolerate you live with.  Whenever a long term, high performing team member acts out in ways that are contrary to your Purpose and Values, you have a defining moment as the overall leader.  Regardless of what you say and how well you promote your Purpose and Values, your people watch to see if you hold yourself accountable to dealing with abusive or distracting team members.  The actual culture you end up with is the unwritten, yet widely discussed, code of conduct that people seem to get away with.  After your formal orientation with new employees is a distant memory, the real training occurs in small circles of dissatisfaction around the water cooler or off campus.  People refer to culture offenders as untouchable, meaning they cannot be challenged for their toxic behavior.  Everyone works around this dysfunction hoping you or someone will eventually make things right.  Your job as a leader is to assess the challenging person’s willingness to responsibly acknowledge their strengths and weaknesses and accept a coaching program that will address your concerns.  If there is not steady noticeable progress your role is to take the long view of the type of person you need in this role, and find a replacement that matches your desired culture.
  4.  Whatever you focus on and talk about grows.  Successful business leaders are all well trained problem solvers and we derive much satisfaction from resolving one gnarly scenario after the other.  If you focus on problems excessively, however, you lose sight of what’s going well.  You inadvertently start operating as if your organization is a constant set of problems to be solved, as opposed to the emerging set of solutions you consistently embraced when you began.  The highest performing teams ask more questions pushing the envelope of creativity and discussing what is working well, than lower performing teams.  Since positive energy and negative energy are both contagious, your role is to minimize the negativity by addressing concerns as described above, while filling the conversational air with the good news that is often overlooked to the dismay of your best performers.  Genuine, sincere appreciation grows the value of your most important assets: your people.  You will find them working harder for your Purpose and Values when their work environment is positive and appreciative.
  5.  Engaging your people in building the culture you all desire is a never-ending process.  Just as you course-correct with a balanced scorecard and P&L every month, you need a forum where people can pose and address culture-building questions.  Your role is to create a safe environment that rewards open, honest, respectful communication that effectively addresses people’s concerns and maintains the positive creativity that drives your success.  This is a powerful way to prevent the water cooler complaints and keep the real conversations from happening out in the parking lot.  Your role as a leader is to equip your team of execs or “culture caretakers” with the time, skills, and discipline to gather, resolve and communicate the solutions for whatever your people are needing to excel in their jobs.  This allows your people to love their work so much they’d never consider leaving for a better work environment.
  6.  You have what it takes to do this Perhaps you will need some help, but this journey is no different from any of your prior learning adventures.  You acknowledge where you are and define where you want to be.  It’s about telling yourself the truth about what is and is not working, and what is truly meaningful to you.  It involves letting others truthfully tell you what is on their minds.  You engage a circle of trusted and resected colleagues to take this journey with you.  Then you develop a clear roadmap that will need adjustments as you learn from taking action.  You celebrate your success and learn from your mistakes.  You build confidence in yourself and others.  You build a legacy of service and caring about people that exceeds and supports your actual business success.  Finally, you discover that this work is really what it was all about all along.

Every January we begin a new year with boundless opportunities buried within our more obvious clutter of challenges and difficulties.  Look at this year with new eyes.  Look at it through your heart and you will become more conscious of your Purpose and your Values.  That’s the beginning of step 1.  Happy New year!

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