Is your organization united, or does it feel like a bunch of departments thrown together?

A number of people, who didn’t know each other, were randomly assigned a green or a red badge. They were asked to sit together with people wearing the same colored badge. Then they were asked to describe their own group, as well as the other group. An impossible task, as they didn’t know each other at all. However, that didn’t stop them from describing the group they belonged too in much more favorable terms than the other group.

In another study, people were asked to describe the people living in their street as well as people living in a parallel street. Also for the people in their city as well as people living in another city, and then people in their country as well as in another country. In all three cases, people described distinct differences between ‘their’ group of people, and ‘the other’ group, describing their own group in a more positive way.

Many similar experiments have been conducted. All showing our strong bias to view our own group in a more positive light than other groups. Even when we don’t know anyone, we are strongly inclined to rate people in our group more favorably than those outside the group.

Why does this happen? Well, for one, it is a basic human need to want to belong somewhere. Another important cause: we like to view ourselves in a positive light. Therefore, unconsciously, we imagine we are part of the superior group, in order to raise our self-esteem.

Although this has a social function, there are also negative outcomes. Obvious examples are racism and discrimination. But there are many more less obvious effects, still with big impact. Look around in the workplace. Many people feel their department has its own distinct identity, which they consider to be superior to other departments. They favor colleagues in their own department. They believe the other departments are not doing as well as they do. And soon these small beliefs hinder the cooperation between departments. Confirming the already slightly negative opinion they have about each other.

For an organization to work well together, we need to address this group effect in the workplace. There are several strategies to reduce tension between departments, and let them work more effectively together. To name a few:

  • Ensure people are in contact with each other frequently. People who know each other better, realize the differences are not that big and they build sympathy for each other. Put people from different departments together, stimulate interdepartmental job moves, communicate about the different departments, create an open office space for several departments together.
  • Make people feel part of a bigger group than just their department. Develop an organization identity, to which people can relate. This reduces their identification with their own department.
  • Emphasize and stimulate interdependence, ensure departments can’t do their job without relying on others. When people need each other, they reduce their negative view of another group.

Realize that human nature prevents departments from working well together. There’s no easy solution. It needs attention. But the benefits of a smooth cooperation between all parts of an organization are worth it.

How organizations are damaged by personal vendettas

A particular purchasing order was not processed by procurement, because information was missing. Every time the person submitting the order corrected it, and every time procurement claimed the necessary information was still missing. The problem continued for weeks, and still the order wasn’t processed. HR got involved, and found out the person from procurement had applied for a role in the other department six months ago, but had been rejected. Nothing could be proven, but it looked like the person from procurement deliberately sabotaged the purchasing order by deleted information from it.

After working with a client for over a decade, a supplier was kicked out of the door. The suppliers’ director learned his account manager had broken off a relationship with a person at the receiving department at the client. This person made sure the supplier was replaced, even though it meant his organization had to go through a series of acceptance tests to be able to change to a new supplier.

An assistant felt her superior treated her too arrogantly. Subsequently, she didn’t pass important information on to him. It made him look stupid and disinterested towards others. Several similar incidents followed, in the end leading to a discontinuation of the manager’s contract.

There are several lessons to be learned. One could say, always treat someone with respect, to ensure this won’t happen. And although that is really good advice anyway, it’s not the main problem in the cases above.

Sometimes, people go after a colleague, or sometimes a whole organization, with a vengeance. They feel wronged, and want to get even. They misuse their power to play out their revenge. Instead of using normal strategies to solve a painful situation, their desire to hurt someone makes them lose sight of the bigger picture. Or worse, they just don’t care about hurting a lot of other people (or a whole organization) in the process.

Such people are poison for any organization. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you shouldn’t meddle in their personal disputes. People who don’t care how much they hurt the organization, and just focus on soothing their own hurt ego, will eventually stop your organization in its tracks. They cause hiccups in processes, radiate negative energy, and cause others to spend a lot of time on repairing or working around the damage they cause. Take your role, protect your organization and people, and show everyone such behavior is not acceptable.

How to save money (and avoid implementing expensive, useless solutions)

In a multinational, the CEO found it hard to make different country organizations share resources with each other. If one country had a shortage, the country manager would rather buy additional equipment, or hire new employees, instead of asking others to pitch in. And even if the country manager would ask another, he would get evasive answers and end up with nothing. The CEO felt the downtime for equipment, and indirect hours for employees, could be optimized, if they would just share more with each other.

The CEO decided to buy a fancy planning system. The selection of a system, customizing it, filling it with data, and training people, took two years (instead of the foreseen one year). But then the CEO happily leaned back, looking forward to the increase in profitability due to lower downtime for equipment and personnel.

After half a year, the numbers had not improved. The CEO questioned his country managers. Why were they still not sharing?

Some of them complained: “We have loaned equipment to another country, but we didn’t get it back on the promised date, and had to disappoint one of our own clients. So now we don’t share our precious resources anymore”. Others said: “Well, we want to share, but you see, customs and other legal hurdles are just making it impossible to exchange resources”. A third group lamented: “We love the idea, but still, when we ask for resources, no one is willing to share” (and they had perfectly plausible excuses why they hadn’t been able to loan their own resources to others).

The CEO hired an additional person to oversee the planning system, and force country managers to share. After another six months, figures had slightly improved. But the person left exhausted and frustrated, as she had to fight everyone, every day, for little benefits. Soon, the numbers went back to what they were before.

Several organizations struggle with the same problem. Rationally, the idea of sharing makes sense. But if you face such a problem, you need to investigate the real problem first. In this case, it wasn’t the lack of a system that was holding people back. The real causes were:

  • The lack in willingness to share one’s own valuable resources with others. Fears such as: what if my important client suddenly asks me for this equipment? What if my people don’t want to go to another country? Or when I’d rather keep them to myself?
  • The lack of trust that their colleagues would give them their best. What if I ask for someone else’s people, and I get the bad ones, that endanger my relation with my client? Or when I get equipment that is broken down? Who is going to pay for the additional cost of letting the employees travel, or for repairing broken equipment?
  • The CEO not pushing for what he really wanted: lower costs for the same amount of profit. This was a fairly entrepreneurial organization. Once the country managers understood the CEO wanted a higher usage of the equipment and personnel to increase profit, they worked harder to get extra projects, especially in otherwise quiet periods, to show they really needed their equipment and people themselves. And when pushed for lower costs, they did start to share the expensive, rarely used resources, as they didn’t want to defend those high costs on their balance sheet anyway.

There are numerous similar examples. Systems, or procedures, or models are implemented, meant to solve problems that have to do with behavior of people. Before you implement a solution, make sure you have a good understanding of the real underlying problems. Then come up with solutions that address the behavior you want to change, instead of allowing such evasive behaviors.

How to know when to leave your organization for its culture

Organizational cultures are fascinating social structures. Even if no one pays attention to building a culture, it is still there. There are famous examples of organizations with someone at the top strongly influencing the culture, like Apple. But many other organizations have cultures just as strong. It keeps evolving organically, influenced by situations, profitability, specific individuals, geographical area, and many other factors.

Feeling at home in an organization highly depends on the organizational culture. Sometimes you know about the culture before you join. But more often you will find out after you started to work there. And sometimes, it can be a reason to leave. It is extremely hard to know if, and when, you should quit. You like (at least several of) your colleagues, you like the job you do, you like the clients you work with, or the projects or product you work on. Should you leave, just because you don’t like certain elements of your organization’s culture? I’m definitely not advocating you should leave after the first incident you don’t like. Just as you don’t leave a relationship after the first fight. But you’re too late when you are fired for not fitting in, or sitting at home with a burnout…

It is often difficult to recognize whether you and the organization are not a good fit. At first, you are excited about the new job, and see things you usually don’t like in a positive light. When people start in an organization, they undergo a process called socialization: they internalize the norms and values of the people around them. Socialization is a process we all go through from birth, when we learn the ways of the society we grow up in. It happens in organizations just the same. New employees pick up the behavior, norms, values, knowledge, social skills and particular language of the organization they just entered. They also learn how to navigate situations where they are confronted with behavior or norms they previously might not have found acceptable. Or they even slowly start to accept those behavior or norms. The need to fit in is stronger than the awareness that your personal boundaries are crossed. You become an adapted version of yourself, to ensure you can do your job, and make progress in the organization.

When the organization requires an adapted version of you, which deep down doesn’t resonate with who you really are, the two most common results are:

  • your socialization process is not quite successful. You have difficulty adjusting, getting along with key people, and you get criticized for it. The group feels you don’t fit in. A process of rejection and alienation starts, ultimately resulting in you getting fired.
  • you manage to socialize, at least in your external behavior (so others feel you’re fitting in fine), but you’re feeling more miserable by the day. Adaptation and pretending to be someone you’re not will exhaust you after a while, ultimately resulting in a burn-out.

In both cases you go through a process where your self-confidence goes downhill, your performance on the job suffers, diminishing your chances on promotions, salary raises, or getting the projects or tasks you like. I’ve seen people who keep plodding away because they think this particular job is worth the experience on their CV, or leaving an organization so soon might look bad. But in most cases those consequences are still better than being fired, or burnt out, and branded as a failure (for something which isn’t your fault). That’s why it is so important to leave an organization once you realize it just is not a good fit.

So how to know when to leave? If you can tick most of the below, it is time to consider a change!

  1. You notice regularly the organization’s values do not align with your personal core values.
  2. You’ve tried several times to address and change the parts of the culture you don’t like, at least in your own department, but met mostly with uncomprehending stares of people who think it is fine the way it is.
  3. You know you’re not delivering the best you can, and have run out of ideas of how to become more effective in this organization.
  4. You have a growing feeling of failing, exasperation or anger at work, although you might not quite grasp why.
  5. Your family or friends say you’ve changed for the worse, or that they haven’t seen you smile in a while.

If you recognize these symptoms, consider carefully whether it is really worth staying. When you won’t be able to shine in your organization, choose another place where you can.

How to avoid (a culture of) fraud in your organization

A friend of mine, working for a multinational company, was traveling in South-East Asia together with a very high-ranking colleague. In a local coffee-shop, my friend bought them both coffee, for just two dollars. When they finished and got up, my friend left the receipt on the table. He thought it ridiculous to claim two dollars in his expense report, even if they were on a business trip. His extremely well-paid companion (we’re talking $300k+ base salary here, plus sizable benefits) asked: “You won’t be using that receipt?” My friend shook his head. “Mind if I take it?” And the well-paid high-ranking manager folded the receipt carefully in his wallet…

This makes my alarm bells go off immediately. Why on earth does an overpaid just-below-board-level hot-shot claim a receipt he didn’t pay himself? More or less openly? If I had been HR manager in that company, I’d have given this guy a serious warning.

Some managers I’ve had such discussions with would say: “We’re only talking about two dollars. The company makes enough money. Why make a fuss? It isn’t worth the time to sit someone down, just for two dollars.”

Wrong.

It is crucially important to correct this immediately and spend fifteen minutes grilling this guy on his unethical behavior. Yes, who cares about the two dollars. But no organization should tolerate people in a company with these morals. If a manager feels he can cheat the company out of two dollars, he will cheat the company out of much more.

Even worse, if a manager does so in front of a high-potential who looks up to him, he has no clue about leading by example and developing the leaders of the future. He just doesn’t deserve his high-ranking well-paid job.

Sure enough, a couple of months later it turned out this guy had done several things not quite kosher. Unfortunately, the only consequence he faced was being sidetracked and never making the final career step to board level. He just sat out the last couple of years until retirement in his cushioned job. And that is exactly the reason the company had this problem in the first place. When you avoid confronting people with small dishonesties, it inevitably leads to bigger dishonesties down the road.

Also small-time fraudulent activities need to be nipped in the bud. Ruthlessly. Most people who become a manager, don’t realize they sign up for this frustrating task. But if you follow the tips below, you will spend less time in the future on frustrating fraud cases.

  • Check your employee’s expense reports. Never sign them unseen. If you have the luxury of an assistant: ask them to do the first check. I’ve found that secretaries and assistants go over them in scrupulous detail and will invariably spot liberties taken or violations committed.
  • In case of irregularities, address the employee. Ask questions if you don’t understand a certain expense. In grey area cases, or cases where there is a good explanation, use common sense to decide whether you let it go. You don’t have to apply policies always strictly and rigidly. But discuss the grey areas, so they know you’re on top of it. You need to reiterate what you expect of them, and let them know you will be less inclined to tolerate liberties next time.
  • Address the behavior you are disappointed with. Emphasize the morals. It isn’t the two bucks, it’s the personality trait or behavior you want to address.

Yes, it can be time-consuming and dispiriting to do this. But imagine the frustration and fuss around a serious fraud case. The irritation you were apparently wrong in your hiring decision. The personal insult, that a promising protégé thought he could get away with it on your watch. The broken trust, that will hang as a shadow for quite a while over all your personnel decisions.

Be the manager who actively shapes the company culture you want to see. You’ll best reward will be to see you’ve developed good, mature employees who you can fully trust.

The sound of a blame game culture

“Why haven’t you finished this report yet? Don’t you get the importance of this report??”

“I’m almost ready, but I had difficulty understanding the definitions and asked for a clarification. Just so I know for sure I will fill the report with the right data.”

“Really? No one else seems to have had problems understanding the definitions!”

“Actually, several of them asked how I did it because they didn’t dare ask themselves…”

“You are being defensive! Now I will have to tell my manager that you are the only one who didn’t deliver!”

It doesn’t matter whether the poor employee at the receiving end of this conversation is really not good at her job, or whether she has raised legitimate concerns. But what is clear, is that the one demanding the report, is also imprinting the following loud-and-clear messages:

  • I am not at all interested in the problems you encounter. Please stop bothering me and muddle on. On your own, because I am not willing to help or assist.
  • If you say something is not possible, my interpretation will be that you are incapable, unwilling or just plain stupid.
  • If you keep doing this, your next appraisal won’t be so positive which will have a negative impact on your career.
  • I don’t have the guts to take your issues a level upwards myself. But if you do, and make me look bad towards my bosses, I will make sure you pay.

Many companies want an open and diverse culture. We all know from the extensive research that these are necessary elements for a thriving company. But with the increasing need for control, organizations want people to deliver what the (corporate) manager wants, when he wants it and in the way he wants it. The pressure is often high, and people don’t take time to truly listen to their employees anymore. Just meeting one’s own deadlines, even when they don’t make sense, prevails over mutual understanding and cooperatively working towards common goals. Which inevitably results in a paternalistic blame game culture.

Be aware! When fostering this ‘deliver-now-or-die’ behavior in managers or corporate staff, you create a zombie work force.

Next time you walk around on the work floor, listen closely. It is not the air-conditioning you hear humming softly in the background. It’s the employees, murmuring “Must comply… Must comply… Should not object, or ask, or bring up problems. Must… Only… Comply…”