I strongly believe that culture must be a driving thought for any leader, not an afterthought. A workplace’s culture firmly shapes the way employees show up every day and can boost or drain the baseline energy level. It sets norms of behavior that influences results. Research shows a positive company culture can even foster a sustainable competitive advantage. And whether you want to or not, as a leader, you set the tone every day for the culture present.
So, self-awareness on this front is key. And that includes self-awareness of the common, little toxic behaviors that even the most well-intended leaders can exhibit, behaviors that can unknowingly damage a culture. Here are six of the most culture-corroding mistakes you can commit, as I discuss in my soon to be released book, Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, and Across the Organization. Avoid them all.
1. You’re not resourcing the racehorses.
By this I mean you’re not paying enough attention to how you allocate resources. Specifically, you’re not fighting to secure proper resources for your biggest priorities, your biggest bets (your racehorses). Instead, you might be making “more with less” the default mantra for everything. While that’s a good efficiency war cry to adhere to in general, sometimes employees need to do more with more. Employees who consistently feel they aren’t set up to win, especially without the resources they need on big priorities, will eventually become so frustrated they’ll actually do less with what they currently have.
2. You’re promoting only those who are like you.
Step back and look at those you’ve promoted. Is there a common style to the promotees, absent of diversity? Are they people a lot like you? It’s understandable, if so, as we’re subconsciously drawn to those who are most like us. Be intentional and clear about what the criteria really are for getting promoted (ensuring that employees know too) and ask yourself if you’re adhering to them without bias.
3. You’re unevenly giving recognition.
This is about ensuring you’re not just feeding the tallest sunflowers but are nurturing the entire garden. This is easily solved by starting from a place of caring about the entire organization and showing it, often, in big ways and small. I’m not talking about feeding the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality; recognition should always be warranted. I’m simply pointing out that giving recognition unevenly is just as toxic as not giving it at all.
4. You’re passively enabling.
You do this when you’re not taking the initiative to address chronic underperformers in your organization. Few things irk a star performer, or any employee, more than a corrosive, barely productive employee who continues their undesirable ways unchecked and unaddressed by management. It creates a sense of unfairness and the sentiment that either the leaders don’t care enough to fix the problem employee or aren’t in-tune enough with their organization to see the impact the underperforming employee is having. You address the problem when you determine why those underperformers are underperforming, and then, by well, addressing it accordingly. Here are the most common reasons the underperformer may be missing the mark:
• They think they’re already doing it.
• They don’t know why they should do it.
• They don’t know what they’re supposed to do.
• They don’t know how to do it.
• They don’t know when to do it.
• They think something else is more important.
• There’s no positive outcome for their doing it.
• They’re rewarded for not doing it.
• They’re “turned off” by the type of work.
• There are circumstances beyond their control.
5. You underestimate the importance of information flow.
You might think, “I don’t want to flood them with too much” or “They don’t really need to know this, they just need to stay focused on what they’re doing.” Reasonable thoughts. Slippery slopes. The key with any information you hold is to ask yourself, “Would this materially help the employees do their job better or understand something important?” And while it can take a lot of work to properly share information, it’s worth it to avoid the cultural negatives. You don’t want employees feeling out of the loop, unable to do their best work, undervalued, or untrusted.
6. You’re not balancing reality with hope.
There are two traps here. The first is bravely sharing a realistic, even if tough, picture of the current state of the business, but then failing to give employees hope that there’s a way forward. The other trap is just as bad: painting a rosy, motivating picture of the future without having any of the aspirations grounded in reality. It’s important to mindfully get the balance right.
So, be mindful to contribute to culture in the right ways, while avoiding the most common unintended mis-steps.
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