Is the end really nigh?
Understand and evaluate cultural doomsday warnings from employees
A member of your senior team informs you of a serious problem: Your company’s culture is eroding. Employees are suspicious of management, finger-pointing and scapegoating have become the norm, people are breaking up into competing factions, key staff are talking about heading for the exit — and you, the CEO, have been oblivious!
The dire diagnosis may or may not come with suggestions and solutions, but the first thing you need to do before reacting is decide whether or not it’s even a credible assessment of the situation. Rather than running out and hiring a change consultant or throwing an expensive morale-building event, it pays to verify what, if anything is the problem.
Understand two things: First, you will naturally be skeptical that such change happened without your knowledge, and you may gather information that incorrectly confirms that all is well. Second, your doomsday advisor may have a conscious or unconscious agenda for telling you that the sky is falling.
Let’s talk about why a trusted employee may misread the situation.
Motivations of the alarmists
On the other hand, they may be right – and you don’t want to ignore a valid warning.
On the other hand
In all these cases, unless the informing employee is a habitual liar or prone to drama, it is crucial to validate his warnings, because the person who comes to you may have none of these blind spots or ulterior motives. He may actually be providing an accurate report that something has derailed your company’s culture.
Your first inclination will be to call in other employees and confront them with what you heard. Are things really that bad here? If the original employee made your lack of awareness part of the problem (such as lack of communication, lack of trust, or distance between leadership and the rank and file), you may be especially sensitive to the accusations. What better way to dispel the claims than by having an open talk with your people and proving you are open to hearing the truth, no matter how bad it is?
The problem is that if you really are out of touch, even if only in certain areas, they will tell you what you want to hear or what they think you can tolerate. You are better off bringing in someone impartial who can maintain your employees’ confidentiality and get them to be open about if and where the culture may need improvement. Surveys, focus groups and/or interviews can uncover a wealth of information. That will give you a better assessment of whether there really is a problem or whether it is being overblown by individuals with various agendas. If the former is true, you will be well on your way to responding from a place of clarity.
Not so in the workplace. Many are “no emotion” zones. As my colleague Blake Ashforth has written, it is “a convenient fiction that organizations are cool arenas for dispassionate thought and action.” Anne Kreamer, in an April 2011 Time magazine essay, elaborates on this idea. “We’re still largely clueless about how to display and react to more commonplace emotions such as anger, fear and anxiety, so we handicap ourselves, trying to check our human side at the office door”.
Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the May-June 2015 issues of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.