When it comes to a corporate culture, a simple “No” can be defining. Descriptors of a culture can range from “awesome” to “toxic” on the “what is it like?” continuum (public examples of the former would include the “culture of fear” reported at Toronto’s school board). From my experiences, I think you could make an argument for another continuum from “distinctive” to “yet to settle in.”
Like the famous “I know it when I see it” description of obscenity by US Supreme Court Justice Potter, a desired workplace culture can be difficult to describe. Cultures define how people act, and a more cohesive culture has people acting in similar ways, especially around the important issues. This can be a good thing, but can also be disastrous.
If you have not seen the movie Lars and the Real Girl, it is worth a watch. One memorable scene takes place in a church basement, where a community group wrestles with a complicated problem. (Note: going into more detail would risk spoiling your viewing experience, so I will stop there.) As the discussion reaches a point where some action is imminent, the priest starts to answer the unspoken question of “what do we do now?” He begins stating that “the question” is always the same. Pausing dramatically, he continues, predictably, to state that question: “What would Jesus do?
The moment of his pause is well worth considering. Many times, I have been in situations where someone tries to provide an overarching consideration for a complicated situation. In management speak, this is may be termed “framing the problem.” Such questions could include:
- what is our duty as… Board members? Executives? Managers? Corporate Citizens?
- what works best for… our customers? our suppliers? our employees? our investors? us?
- where do we stand to be… most competitive? most profitable? most innovative?
In a less charitable light, one might assume that the pause-breaking question be:
- What can we reasonably get away with?
- What is going to make this problem go away?
- How can we avoid short-term conflicts?
Such questions may be useful, but a shortcut to cultural insights comes through clarifying “what we can’t” or “what we won’t do.” Saying “No” seems to be more active than not saying “No,” which tends to imply that something is OK (e.g. silence is consent). These “Nos” and “Don’ts” are very telling in clarifying unstated criteria that drive action and inaction. Hiding things from leadership (or having leadership turn a blind eye) is a sure path toward the “toxic” work environment. Progression down this path will vary, but in the journey that lead to the TDSB’s current woes, we likely will find significant doses of both deception of leadership and willful ignorance by them.
So to set (or reset) a positive cultural path, consider saying “No” more publicly and maybe more often. Such “Nos” shine a special light on what is really important.
- A culture that pays attention to employee retention, will say “No” to a client who routinely bullies their account managers. (We don’t have to fire the client, but there will be action to stop the behaviour.)
- A culture that is serious about innovation and risk-taking, will say “No” to attempts to punish failure and mistakes. (This is not to say that we encourage recklessness, but we will take time to discuss and understand risks, as well as plan to mitigate the consequences of attempts that fail.)
- A culture that embraces work-life balance will say “No” to initiatives the needlessly restrict work-from-home initiatives. (This may mean that we look to different means of accountability than simply “hours worked” or time in the office.)
If you are a leader in your environment, your “No” will speak volumes. Others can bring items to leaderships attention, and ask them to make such calls, which are part of their role in leading, shaping and clarifying a positive culture.