The devastation caused by taking your eye off the ball when it comes to your company’s culture

Nik Moore - Success This Way

Home » The devastation caused by taking your eye off the ball when it comes to your company’s culture

Published: 11th June 2021

This Article was Written by: Nik Moore - Success This Way

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Former staff at Brewdog have alleged a “culture of fear” at the beer firm with a “toxic attitude” to junior employees – Read the full article on the BBC News website

I find this article fascinating because of the 2 sides to the story.

  1. That of the workforce
  2. and that of the owners

Taking the article at face value, it seems that, on the one hand, we have a toxic culture that has been allowed to fester, plus on the other we have an owner who has implied that the future will be different / better.

My role here is not to pass judgement nor to go into fine detail about what has happened at Brewdog. After all, I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t know the culture, I. don’t know the owners… all I have is a news article and so therefore just fragments of information.

What I’d like to do is to dissect the article into 4 component parts and take a “35,000 feet big picture view” of what happens to many companies around the world because I’ve seen this happen in other organisations throughout my career:

  1. What can happen if Senior Management don’t fully focus on how the company’s culture is evolving
  2. What happens if people aren’t encouraged to speak their mind
  3. How to approach such a crisis
  4. How the masses are changing their levels of what is acceptable nowadays

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What happens if Senior Management don’t fully focus on how a company’s culture is evolving

Here’s a fantastic phrase. If memory serves me correctly, it was Ken Blanchard who said “Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast”.

Companies are made up of human beings after all and, much like a family, if relationships are strained and toxic between family members, individual members feel isolated, outcast, angry, stressed, hacked off, unloved, not heard and, at a behavioural level, family members can actively turn into the worst version of themselves – putting further strain on the bonds between each other. Essentially trust goes and hostility increases.

The parallels are equally there within a company. I’ve seen, experienced and worked with Senior Leaders who focussed too much on the numbers, on driving growth, on battling and annihilating the competition whilst not (fully) realising that it’s people, human beings, individuals who are required to make it all happen.

Ultimately, if you treat someone like “$@*!” then, in return, you’ll get “$@*!” performance back in the long term.

The irony is that Senior Management are also real people. People with feelings, fears, stresses, ambitions and purpose. The issue, I find, is that this can get lost in translation at times. Especially with companies that are either going through massive change or massive growth because that’s when Senior Leaders are most “strained”.

What happens if people aren’t encouraged to speak their mind

Some companies grow so fast that it’s easy for the Senior Management to take their eye off the ball regarding how the people who work for them are feeling. It also happens when companies are under serious pressure from changes in the market situation/environment which puts threat and fear into the minds of the senior leadership.

The irony is that if it’s the human beings in the company’s workforce who are needed to make the company thrive, there’s no better time than to turn to these human beings in question to help get the company through the challenging times.

But if those very same human beings (i.e. the workforce) feel that they aren’t encouraged to speak up, then that is when the problems start.

Much like a spurned family member, so many of us can turn into either a hedgehog or a bull.

Avoiding becoming a Hedgehog or Bull

The hedgehog curls into a ball, internalises its feelings, gets fearful of further conflict and puts its armour up (in this case the spikes of a hedgehog) to keep more hurt at bay. Whilst other family members can turn aggressive, like a bull. Demanding that the issue is dealt with. Insisting that it gets resolved ASAP. The problem is both the hedgehog and the bull strategies don’t work because both sides can’t empathise with each other.

What’s ironic is that both parties involved just want to end the “pain”. Hedgehogs run away from it. Bulls want to sort it ASAP – again, just to put an end to the pain.

Once more let’s compare the two. Companies are just like families.

The concept of the hedgehog can happen so easily with workforces. They curl up and don’t vocalise their fears, anxieties, frustrations and true feelings about what it’s like to be a part of the workforce. And management can so easily turn into bulls. When they don’t see progress being made, they can start to demand performance improvements from all the curled-up hedgehogs in the workplace.

But both are doing the same thing. Just like the family members. Both parties are simply trying to avoid any future pain.

The antidote is to uncurl the hedgehog and to calm the bull down. And we do this by creating an environment where people, human beings, their thoughts, feelings, fears, opinions, ideas, emotions are encouraged to be aired.

Why? Simply because when one human connects with another… the magic starts to happen.

Or, let’s re-write that last sentence:
Why? Simply because when one human (the workforce) connects with another (senior management)… the magic starts to happen.

How to approach such a crisis

We call this “creating a container of psychological safety” but sadly I don’t see it being the norm into today’s corporate world. (I do get it, the moment a company goes over roughly 150 people in the workforce, there is a different human dynamic that kicks in between the individuals working for the organisation – it’s all to do with the proximity to your neighbouring colleagues and how well you get to know them)

The thing is, if you haven’t created such a container for Psychological Safety in the first place, what can you do when it all goes awry?

The answer – be human.

Now I don’t know this guy in the article who founded the company and I won’t say a single thing about him because I would be basing my judgement of mere fragments of information all thanks to a news article. However, there is one thing that the article mentions which does make me curious about whether the future will be better for the workforce at Brewdog.

The fact that the Senior Management have said they will “listen, learn and act”

And this introduces the concept of feedback.

Feedback

As I see it, there really is only one form of bad feedback. And that’s NO FEEDBACK. At least with negative feedback it still gives you a choice. What to do about it.

And, if the company’s owners in this article do indeed listen, learn and act then this is surely better than telling the workforce that their opinion is untrue, unjust and downright rubbish.

And we all know that some senior leaders can be guilty of doing just this. Think about all those Historical Narcissist Leaders and Ego-Centric Public Figures that simply ignored the opinions of the masses and how, in the long-term, it nearly always lead to their downfall.

So, if a culture does turn into a toxic one over time, the best approach is to elicit feedback from the workforce – proper feedback that is, not just “tick box” feedback – and then do something with it to better the situation……. by being a human being, just like the workforce.

How the masses are changing their levels of what is acceptable nowadays

Having touched upon Narcissism for a moment in the last paragraph, let’s end the article on a positive.

There seems to be a slow but general trend emerging. And for this the Millennials apparently have to be thanked (as a general rule-of-thumb). Millennials were the generation who started to say, en-masse, to their bosses and large corporations “No, this way of behaving is not acceptable” (whether the boss / corporation was damaging the planet / mental health of people etc.)

So, we have a lot to thank the Millennials for.

The point is that there is a global movement starting:

  • Take the Arab Spring many years ago – all started because people had had enough
  • Or the G7 agreement that large digital tech companies should pay more tax – again because people had had enough
  • #MeToo – same principle – women had had enough

And isn’t this precisely what has happened in this BBC News article? The workforce had had enough.

But, as I see it, could it have also been that the workforce in this article took inspiration from the workforce of the investment bank (I can’t recall which one it was) a few weeks ago that hit the news headlines. The one where the workforce wrote an open letter saying “enough is enough – we’re working too many hours and are having a rubbish quality of life”. More and more of these articles are emerging as more and more workforces pluck up the courage to speak up after having seen others do the same.

So, what’s the answer? Should we encourage workforces therefore to speak up?

Well, you might be surprised that my answer to this is “No”?

The reason is simple. If Senior Managers allow the culture to get so toxic that the workforce finds themselves compelled to speak up, then so, so much of the trust has already been lost and it’s going to be a hard battle uphill to regain their acceptance once again.

So yes, in reality, workforces should be encouraged to speak up but let’s not get there in the first place.

The solution…… set out with intention, with commitment, with passion, with single-mindedness to create a culture where Psychological Safety exists in the workforce. One where your human beings; those special people who work for you….who you NEED…. are listened to, made to feel safe and secure… are made to feel validated.

Because, once again (turning back to the family comparison), the moment the other family member with whom you’ve had the relationship issue comes to you and shows you that they want to listen to your side of the story…. what happens? Your love and trust in that person comes back. You engage once again with them. You show them that you care for them. You bring back your “best side” and you share that with them. And you both benefit.

…isn’t that just what should happen also between Senior Management and their Workforce?

Here’s to the future. And here’s to hoping that we see less and less of these open letters having to be written. Because… here’s hoping, that Senior Management in those “offending companies” around the world realise that their workforces are just like them… Human Beings.


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