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The culture at your workplace or in your community is the way it is only because a collective agreement has been made affirming that that’s the way it should be. The members of your team or community have made the decision, sometimes explicitly as a group but often implicitly as individuals, to tolerate and perpetuate the present culture exactly as it is, through either their actions or lack thereof. You as an individual may not like certain aspects of the culture, and you may have even personally made attempts at influencing a change. In the end, however, the language, the behaviors, the attitudes that formed the current culture are there because a significant number of people have encouraged, permitted, or tolerated them, and they have often done so because their leaders have done the same. When leaders tolerate a culture of tolerating dysfunction, and when they signal that they condone a dysfunctional culture by refusing to speak out or act against it, they give license to do the same to every person who looks to them for guidance.
To transform those aspects of your culture that are counter to the values of the organization and not supportive of its mission, it is important to understand why they exist in the first place and why these negative characteristics of the culture tend to flourish sometimes despite their obvious conflict with what it takes for the organization to flourish. I’d like you to consider that in most cases, the reason for this is not necessarily because the boss happens to be a dictator, benevolent or otherwise, and is nudging the organization in the wrong direction. In most cases, it’s also not that the organization is completely void of members who are actively working to right the ship. The fact is, no dictator or activist has ever been able to accomplish anything of substance in the right or wrong direction without the consent of a significant number of people who were freely willing to follow their lead.
So, while leadership certainly has a role to play in shaping the culture, the most important question to ask first is, “Why do we—not they—tolerate behaviors that are clearly wrong?”
My answer is that most of us don’t think what we do matters in the grand scheme, and, heck, some of us behave as if our actions don’t even exist unless they directly impact hundreds or thousands of people. While it is true that, with the exception of the few people in the inner circle of top decision makers, none of us can unilaterally affect sweeping change in our organizations or communities, what we are wholly responsible for is unconsciously permitting, and therefore promoting, the culture where wrongs are allowed to take place.
One reason that we are often oblivious to this happening is that it is a gradual process that creeps up on us, and another reason is that we naturally tend to be focused only on consequences that are immediate and personal. This is what is referred to as “death from a thousand cuts,” or “boiling the frog;” the story goes that if you put a frog into comfortably warm water and increase the temperature slowly enough, it won’t notice anything is wrong or try to escape until it is already frog soup. The same goes for people, figuratively speaking. Unless we are on the lookout for little things that we let slip by, we don’t end up waking up to our own contribution to the bigger problem until we encounter the gross and intolerable consequences of allowing a certain culture to come about or continue to exist. These consequential moments then magnify, in retrospect, the effects of behaviors that we didn’t consider to be counter-productive at the time, and may have even considered to have been “right” before.
Of course, by the time this realization comes, it is too late and the damage has been done. After this realization, since we can’t change the past, we all have a choice to make: Do I take responsibility for my actions and where they led and strive to prevent the same thing from happening in the future, or do I go out and look for excuses and scapegoats to absolve me of my responsibility to change myself so that I don’t contribute to similar situations in the future? Unfortunately, because it isn’t always easy to take responsibility for our past mistakes, many of us end up choosing the latter option of attempting to justify ourselves to ourselves, which is roughly equivalent to the frog arguing that he always intended to be boiled alive anyway thank you very much. In the extreme cases, this process continues until we reach a point where everything is someone else’s fault and no act is too horrible or deplorable to defend so long as it allows us to avoid responsibility for our own shortcomings.
Let me demonstrate my point by using an extreme example from the era of the Civil Rights movement. (If anyone has misgivings about exposing themselves to instances of exceptional violence or cruelty, I would advise them to skip the next paragraph. The following paragraph contains a concise description of an event that readers may rightly find disturbing).
Just the other day, I saw a post about the story of a 16 year old boy who had been lynched by a mob and burned alive in the 60’s. The pictures showed the charred body of the young man and a few bystanders who were clearly amused and perhaps even proud, smiling and pointing as if this was great entertainment. I’m sure that I don’t have to specify that the victim in question was black, and his assailants were white, but in any case, that isn’t the important part. What is important is that a group of people, who were most likely not otherwise inclined to kill, felt it was justified or even commendable to take someone else’s life in such a horrifically painful way because they came from a culture where such behavior was permitted or even lauded.
Now, I’m sure even during that era when black people didn’t enjoy many liberties, by far most of the people who engaged in subtle or even overt forms of racism would find this scene to be quite grotesque. I’m sure many of them would not want to personally have anything to do with committing such an atrocious act as taking someone’s life in such a cruel way; I’m also sure that many of the same people that would recoil at and vehemently denounce such behavior were perfectly fine with committing and tolerating and perhaps encouraging behaviors that clearly degraded and humiliated others on a daily basis as a matter of course. Many, if not all, of these folks, including the ones that committed the horrific act, were “good” people. They loved their wives or husbands, supported their friends, and wanted the best for their children, just like we all aspire to do. They probably didn’t think it mattered whether they tolerated the negative aspects of their culture, and figured that because they personally would never do something so heinous, they had absolutely no responsibility for what came out of the culture that they co-created through their implicit consent. They were just following what seemed to be an acceptable norm, as we all do, without ever thinking deeper about whether those norms could contribute to or even directly cause injustice at a level that would be unacceptable to them.
I believe the same is true in any community or workplace that has either overtly or unconsciously belittled any of its members. Let’s face it: most of us in organizations or in our communities, judge whether rules or policies or behaviors are “good” based on the impact they have on us, not necessarily on the community as a whole and certainly not on other groups within the community. We don’t do this because we’re “bad people,” not least because there is no such thing as a “bad person” to begin with. Rather, we do it because being self-centered is our default and automatic mode of being; caring about other people takes work while caring only about oneself is easy and comes as natural to us as it does to a dog or a snake. Again, nothing wrong with that, and it isn’t good or bad, it is just a natural tendency like the tendency for water to flow downhill. However, one consequence of this tendency is that often we’re not aware of the grave implications of our tolerance for unacceptable behaviors simply because we see them as harmless to us, even while they may be harmful to others.
To give you an example, I was recently talking to a good friend for whom I have a great deal of respect despite our diametrically opposed political views. We were talking about affinity groups in the workplace, such as women’s group or African American groups or LGBT, etc. and to my surprise, he stated that he didn’t think these groups were really needed and they caused more trouble and division than they were worth. If you ever meet this person, you know immediately that he is a compassionate person who cares deeply about people regardless of their race or gender, etc. So, the only thing that I could attribute his opinion to was that he was completely and utterly unaware of any reason for such groups to exist simply because, being neither female nor a person of color nor LGBT, he has never experienced the need for them. To put it another way, it is similar to someone who is perfectly capable of walking on two legs saying they don’t really see the need for all the wheelchair ramps everywhere and complaining of just how much of an inconvenience they are for people who want to just walk up normal stairs. Here again, I’m certain that if this person were to think for a minute about the kind of discrimination that some minority groups have had to deal with over the decades and the implications of them continuing to be discriminated against on them and their families and their communities, they would not be making these kinds of statements. But the fact is, the mindset that these advocacy groups are making a big deal out of nothing is the very reason those affinity groups are needed and exist in the first place.
Many organizations suffer from incredibly low levels of engagement–30% on average–simply because many of their members feel disenfranchised and alienated and as if their contributions are not welcome. It is everyone’s responsibility to constantly ensure that the diversity in the workplace is not only encouraged but indeed, celebrated. Those of us who consider ourselves leaders must be on the lookout for unacceptable behaviors while they are still subtle, and pro-actively work to eradicate them before they mature into full-blown organizational or community dysfunction.
If you are truly interested in transforming your workplace culture, look for the subtle signs of disengagement and get to the root cause of why it is happening. Waiting until overt consequences show up means it is too late. Waiting to act until the majority deems a certain behavior unacceptable means you are a follower, not a leader. Those of us who call ourselves leaders don’t have the luxury of judging what’s going on as acceptable or unacceptable based on its implications on us personally, because a true leader knows it isn't about them. We must practice empathy—that is, attempt to understand every point of view involved—in our judgments and determine the course of action based on what is in the best interest of ALL people, who count on us for leadership, rather than only specific groups. We must lower the threshold of what we consider too much dysfunction or injustice and not wait until it reaches the level where it is clear to the naked eye before we are willing to speak out or act against it.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
What behaviors are you tolerating in your workplace or community that could lead to consequences that you consider unacceptable if they continue to be carried out? What language and actions are your promoting simply by permitting them? Make a small course correction in your own behavior in the direction of upholding the standards that you would want yourself, your team, or your community to be known for. Don’t wait for someone else because, in many cases, they are waiting for you. If you are dissatisfied with a certain aspect of the culture of your workplace or society for that matter, don’t wait to be appalled by the extreme consequences of it. If you don’t think what you do makes a difference, think again. No matter where you are on the organizational chart or community hierarchy, you define the culture based on what you choose to tolerate and accept or what you choose to reject and change. You shape the culture in accordance with how much or how little responsibility you demand from your leaders. There is always someone out there looking to you for leadership, even if sometimes that someone just happens to be you.
Be willing to declare yourself “the One” and commit to creating an extraordinary future that you will one day be proud to say you were a part of.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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