Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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Bad management kills culture

Organisations with poor engagement scores, high attrition and absenteeism rates, who consistently miss deadlines and targets don’t have people at the top who behave consistently well and create an environment in which employees are proud to work and can do their very best work.

I say this a lot at conferences and corporate events around the world and am usually met with nodding heads and ‘you’re soooo right’ looks. At least, I think that’s what they are.

But it’s true.

Think of every organisation that you’ve enjoyed working in and it was the result of senior people ‘walking the talk’. They create a team of people that set an example for others, make themselves available for those that need help and consistently push each other to deliver against their targets. These organisations are a joy to work in and when you eventually move on, it’s with a heavy heart and a toolkit full of ideas to take to your next place of work. You wistfully talk about the culture you co-created and bore other people stupid with your stories.

Every single organisation in the world can have a great culture – but they don’t, because bad management kills culture.

I’ve deliberately avoided using the word ‘leader’ or ‘leadership’ because in poor working cultures there’s a distinct lack of it. Along with fear, a lack of honesty, integrity, empowerment and trust. Indeed, the latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows that as a global population we continue to distrust our institutions; another survey found that a third of the global workforce is disengaged costing organisations billions of dollars every year.

But none of this is news. I’m continually amazed at how many senior managers talk about the importance of culture yet spend next to no money or time developing the important aspects of it.

It tends to be easier to sign-off on the superficial things like furniture, methods, branding, new systems (digital transformation anyone?) and to a lesser extent restructures, but the truly meaningful stuff – that’s a lot harder. Things like self-awareness, communication, making time for innovation, making ourselves accessible and addressing poor performance and poor working practices such as meetings, decision-making, quantity of email, diversity and feedback.

Engagement surveys are a good way to find out what staff think about those in senior management positions, yet they are often treated as an annual exercise, required to ‘give staff a say’.

In Australia a Royal Commission is currently underway to investigate the behaviour of the major banks. The scale of unethical behaviour is shocking, but it’s not a surprise given past behaviour and, of course, it starts with those at the top.

An investigation undertaken by APRA (Australian Prudential Regulation Authority) into the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), found ‘a widespread sense of complacency’, ‘reactive stance in dealing with risks’ and that its culture and accountability had not learned from the mistakes of the past.

The current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said a similar thing to a collection of staff at Westpac in 2016, calling on banks to “stand up and show real leadership over the cultural issues damaging their [collective] reputations”.

This poor behaviour is by no means limited to the established institutions. 

Uber is often held up as the paragon of disruption so it’s easy to forget that former CEO Travis Kalanick presided over a toxic culture across the organisation that new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is finding extremely difficult to unpick. The same was true of Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn and the diesel pollution scandal that engulfed the car manufacturer a couple of years ago.

When I talk to organisations about creating an environment for cultural evolution, the immediate assumption from senior managers is that they can do the work themselves.

If that were true, then they would have already done it and prioritised it above all else. 

Off-sites would have had a different focus and involved people from outside the ‘top-tier’. Managers would be taking all of the blame and none of the credit for financial or project performance. They’d be listening more and providing regular feedback. They’d have stopped walking past poor behaviour and performance, instead dealing with it empathetically and honestly. They’d be concentrating on doing fewer things really well and ensuring that staff have time to look for smarter ways of doing things. But they don’t.

Senior managers need to ensure that they get help with the things that they don’t have time for. They need to utilise people who can help them see the things that they can’t. They need to spend time and money on the things that matter and create a new ‘normal’ that has a different feel, a different energy and provides all employees with a sense of purpose and a renewed motivation.

Adding the word ‘Culture’ to someone’s job title is a pointless exercise unless that person is provided with the opportunity to change what happens at the top, as well as below.

Every organisation can have a great culture – don’t let bad management stand in the way. 


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