Bucking the Culture

We had completed 40 miles of a bike trip yesterday when I came upon “yellow-shirt man”. Just as I was starting to get tired, I spied a bike up ahead going fairly slow. I yelled out to him that two people would be passing him on the left.  I yelled back a thank-you and sped up to pass him. Was it my imagination, or did he speed up when I began to pass him?  With my little burst of energy, I decided to keep pushing and leave a good amount of space between us.


There I was, pushing hard, and having difficulty lengthening the space between me and yellow shirt man. Why was he so close every time that I looked behind me? I pushed even harder and attempted to distance myself from him, once and for all.


However, it didn’t work. There he was, way too close for comfort. What was his deal? Why was he trying to annoy me?


And then it occurred to me. He wasn’t trying to annoy me. He was biking alone and couldn’t find his motivation to go faster and push out of his comfort zone. When we passed him, he felt our energy and wanted to try to stick with us. He wanted to push himself harder and see if he could compete. He had done a really good job at keeping up with us. I would have never guessed that he would have had the stamina to do that.


Now, what’s this have to do with anything? Well, I was thinking about how it has everything to do with you, as a leader, and how you lead your team.


Let’s say the majority of your team is riding along slowly like “yellow shirt man”. They don’t do exceptional work but they’re adequate employees. You hire in a new employee named Boris that is just exceptional. He’s driven, innovative and a real superstar. This just might motivate the rest of your team to rev up and try to compete with Boris. This could be exactly what they need to kick it into a new gear.


However, the problem is that you have established a culture on your team. Your group has learned that mediocrity is really all that is expected. They might not be able to articulate this, but subconsciously, they have an understanding of your expectations. Boris might heat things up for a while, but probably not for long. Chances are, the team will become antagonized by Boris’s zealous attitude because it threatens the status quo.


Boris is bucking the culture.


Eventually, Boris will leave, frustrated with the team’s behavior. You will be frustrated because you thought bringing in Boris would improve everyone’s performance.


Yes, challenge and competitiveness drives performance. It can light a fire under team members to perform. However, culture trumps everything.


The answer always goes back to you as a leader. Bringing in Boris won’t solve the problem. You need a whole team of Boris clones. And to acquire these clones, you need to have consistent expectations and hold people accountable when they don’t follow through.


You have to expect quality work from the whole team.


Then, the timing is right to bring Boris on board.

Creating a Culture

As I sat in the lobby waiting to speak with a potential client, I took a look around their massive space. I had never been there before, and I was impressed with the building. The lobby was new, clean and impeccably decorated. I sat waiting for my contact as I spied their mission and values on display. I read through the information and was impressed again by the mission and the values that represented this company. I was excited to talk to this organization and learn more about their people.


We were having a nice talk when I brought up the awesome mission and values on display in the lobby. I loved that they were on full display for everyone to see. My contact agreed and said that they had done a great job creating those values a while back. After some probing questions on my part, my contact began to get a little more transparent.


He told me the whole truth.


He wanted to address issues concerning each departments inability to come together and work as one unified team. The problem was that each department viewed their responsibilities as most important, most valued, and failed to see how they had a responsibility to work better with others. They couldn’t grasp that their organization only succeeded when all the departments worked together seamlessly to create the perfect product.  At this point, they were far from perfect. The product was suffering because of the inability for all the teams to see they were working toward the same goal.


After more probing, I discovered that leaders were struggling to be assertive and handle situations when they arose. They constantly shied away from conflict and swept it under the rug. And invariably, the truth came out in passive-aggressive behaviors between team members and leaders.


Even though it is obvious to you and me, that this company was in dire need of an intervention, this leader in charge was ambivalent about moving ahead in any way. It was apparent that the status quo was a much more comfortable place to hang out, than making these much-needed changes.


Now, remember the company’s mission and values prominently displayed on the wall?  They were really great values like respect, communication, transparency and teamwork.


I can’t tell you how many times that I have uncovered a huge disconnect between the organization’s spoken values and the daily behaviors that take place inside the organization. And that’s what we are talking about-the thousands of rituals that occur inside an organization, day to day. All these many behaviors add up to a culture that doesn’t quite meet the standards of their proposed values. Over time, these seemingly insignificant tiny reactions become your culture. And every day that you don’t face the truth about your culture, your organization suffers.


As uncomfortable as it might be, I’m asking you to take an honest look at your organization. Are you and your team living up to the values that represent the organization? What changes need to be put in place to meet this goal? It’s time to take action and develop a game plan to attack the issues.