The Elephant Delusion of Organizational Culture

Click on the image of the elephant to the left…..How many legs do you see at first glance at this elephant?  Four? Six? Eight? Now many would your boss see?

Let me guess…..your company is family friendly.  Flexible.  Innovative. Engaged. Forward thinking and strategic.  You’re ranked #1 in this and #1 in that.  You’re one of the Top 100 Places to Work (even if Fortune magazine doesn’t recognize it quite yet).  Quite simply, your organization is “the bomb.”  Why wouldn’t anyone want to work for you?!?!?!

I love talking with executives who wax poetic about their organizational culture, their pride erupting like Mt. Vesuvius.  After all, we want leaders who believe in what they’re building, and who are dedicated to making stronger, better organizations.  That’s inspiring and remarkable, a truly noble approach!

Unfortunately, the emotions of the cubicle city often fail to support these notions.  The workforce is stressed, unenthused, and doing just enough to ensure their continued employment and just little enough to avoid their head poking above the crowd.  Meetings are stale.  Rework has become the norm.  And your Human Resource staff are scrambling to find quality candidates for open positions……

Hmmmm…..there seems to be a disconnect here somewhere….

In my consulting, one of the toughest tasks I have is differentiating “fact from fiction,” figuring out if the picture being painted by the leaders of the organization aligns accurately with that of the workers.  If so, strengthening an already strong company is easy. Time to celebrate, for success isn’t far off!  But if not, the path to success may resemble the road in and out of a war-torn country, pock-marked with treacherous craters and littered with the bodies of the innocent.  Beware as you proceed!

We’ve discussed it before…authenticity.  But this time, it’s a bit different.  We’re talking about organizational authenticity, not just authenticity of specific leaders.  Because, most times when executives praise the culture of the organization, but the organization itself does not reflect back the same feelings, it’s not that the executive is lying per se.  Rather, the executive may simply be unknowingly insulated or shielded from what’s truly going on layers below her level (that’s the positive angle, as we all know execs who do know that their descriptions of the organization do not match the reality).

The solution, as I mentioned, is sometimes difficult to ascertain.  Usually, it falls somewhere in the middle of the perspectives of executives and their workers. But the only way to determine that is to gather data on the culture from all levels of the organization.  It’s sometimes time-consuming.  It can be mind-numbing at times.  In the end, the results are worth it.  But there is a shortcut to telling if the sponsoring executives know that their version of the “story” differs from that of the employees….

In cases where you encounter resistance (from active refusal to let you talk with employees to furtive and anxious glances from the executives at the very suggestion), the executive’s version is probably a far cry from the truth.  Either way, however, proceed with caution.  Because underlying every organizational culture are egos, insecurities, and perceived threats to many within any company.  The search for the truth can be dangerous….but it can also set your organization free.

In the end, we should all see eight legs on the elephant in the room……

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