Horrified by Something in Your Culture? Better Look in the Mirror

Horrified by Something in Your Culture? Better Look in the Mirror

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on TLNT and was used to populate CultureU for its launch.

We see media coverage nearly every day about horrific behavior, a rogue employee or deeper criticisms about the culture of an organization.  This week is no different as we prepare for college basketball’s Final Four.

Rutgers University fired their basketball coach Wednesday after a video of his incredible behavior shoving players, throwing basketballs at players and downright degrading his team was shown on ESPN’s Outside the Lines and later went viral.

It followed initial notification about this behavior to their management last summer and a suspension for three games in December that’s put their Athletic Director on the hot seat for not administering a more severe punishment — now that the video is public.

How to keep behavior from crushing your culture

The sporting world is an area where culture comes into question with incredible visibility like we saw with the entire Penn State football culture debacle surrounding Jerry Sandusky. But culture horror stories are not isolated to sports, and that was evident last week when a new head of the U.S. Secret Service was appointed to “change” the culture in the wake of a prostitution scandal during President Obama’s trip to Columbia last year.

Cultural change or alignment efforts fail, or leave the window open for serious scandals or behavior issues, due to three main reasons:

  1. Lack of a clear focus on performance on how culture plays a role. What’s the primary purpose, priorities or goals of the organization and how are you leveraging or shifting your culture to support that performance? Culture can’t be a separate entity relegated to HR to manage; it must be an integral part of effectively managing the strategies and priorities of the entire organization.
  2. Lack of defining and managing the behavior that’s expected to support the performance priorities.
  3. Lack of a clear approach for aligning everything in the organization around No. 1 and No. 2

All three may be an issue at Rutgers, but No. 2, lack of defining and managing the behavior that’s expected, stands out as the obvious area of negligence.

Unacceptable behavior stands out in organizations every day. I don’t want to debate the proper steps to follow to manage unacceptable employee behavior, but the key to keeping the behavior from crushing your culture is clear. Just look in the mirror.

Private action doesn’t work with public behavior

You have the choice at any level of the organization to tolerate it or to do something. Poor behavior is like a cancer that may spread uncontrollably if it’s not treated.

Managers need to take decisive action. Addressing behavior issues in private — very common advice — is not the answer if the behavior issues were in full view of others. Firm and constructive feedback is needed if you witness poor behavior. It doesn’t help for poor behavior to be in full view and then for the entire response to be in private.

It’s possible to constructively highlight the issue and to follow-up in private without degrading the individual or, even worse, allowing the behavior to be unofficially “endorsed” by management because there was no visible reaction. You ideally will be able to make reference back to your values, expected behaviors, code of conduct, or any other format of clarifying behavior that’s expected in your organization.

The values of the organization need to be alive on a daily basis, and not just in a frame on the wall or in a prominent section of your web site.

If you’re not a manager or in a position of authority, it doesn’t mean you are off the hook. I was speaking to a strategy class at a local university recently and there was a great question from one of the students. She was concerned about the culture and related behavior in her organization and wondered what she should do.

I told her she had one of two choices. She could either do something about it and directly take some action with her boss, peers or anyone else in the organization to help move things in the right direction in her sphere of influence, or, she should start looking for another job if she feels the culture of the organization is not aligned with her personal values and she can’t influence it.

Culture Wins at the University of Michigan

It doesn’t help to talk about it at the water cooler as co-workers share similar frustrations, or to complain or blame others.

It’s fortunate that CEO’s and many top leaders recognize that culture is important. An IBM CEO survey clearly highlighted the “importance of values in empowering employees,” and how 75 percent of CEO’s see developing an open and collaborative culture as critical to dealing with the complexity of business today.

But it’s not just CEO’s, and we can return to the world of sports for another great example. Dave Brandon is the athletic director for the University of Michigan, and their basketball team is part of this year’s men’s Final Four. He wrote a blog entry titled “Culture Wins” last November when his men’s and women’s basketball teams were taking the court for their first game. It started with the following explanation:

Championship teams find a way to transform themselves into winners. No doubt, there needs to be talent, but there also needs to be a winning culture. Cultures are created outside individual abilities. In sports, the creation of a culture starts by the way the team prepares in practice. It is impacted by the way the team interacts with one another. It is solidified by the way the team conducts itself whether in competition or in the community, as well as the positive attitude every member of the team carries with him at all times — during moments when things are going well and during those times when it would be easy to complain or blame.”

His comments were nearly prophetic since he referenced the attitude every member must have when things are going well or when it would be easy to complain or blame. Michigan’s star player, Sophomore Trey Burke, was asked about the team making it to the Final Four

“This team has faced a lot of adversity this year, and a lot of people doubted us to get to this point,” Burke said. “A lot of people said we were too young, we weren’t tough enough.”

I think it was interesting how Dave Brandon specifically referenced “the way the team prepares in practice” in his blog post. It’s also pretty obvious that John Beilein, the Michigan men’s coach, isn’t chucking basketballs at the heads or his players, shoving them or screaming obscenities to teach and motivate them.

Culture Wins! Go Blue!

About the Author

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Tim Kuppler

Faculty Tim Kuppler is the founder of Culture University and former Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field where he led collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society. Currently with the Compass culture division of the staffing powerhouse, Insight Global, Tim authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed, which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm and is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Inc.com. Tim's 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts.