Sunday, March 15, 2015

Diagnosing the Various Strains Of Business Flu

Watch out when a company talks about its "fast-paced business environment." That's often code for: "We're really toxic!" 

Corrosive corporate cultures have always existed, in big companies and small.  But they seem to have proliferated in the universal belt-tightening that started in 2008.  Add in the cynicism, hyper-competitiveness, and abandonment of traditional personal restraints that are hallmarks of today's society, and you've got the perfect Petri dish for producing sick companies. 

In response to this trend, another trend has surfaced: Corporate Values.  These are idealistic collections of terms such as Respect, Communication, and Initiative that are "adopted" by companies in their quest to stop the madness.  Yeah, how's that working for us?

Abstract concepts, however well presented,  do little to inoculate an organization against the rudeness, bullying and mayhem that occur all too naturally when companies plan poorly, train haphazardly, promote people who aren't ready, allow accountability gaps, and condone abusive management tactics.  

The result: I'm having more and more conversations with colleagues from all spheres of business about the toxicity they encounter at their jobs.  These are people from academia, big corporations, small businesses, and non-profits.  They all have seen the following  viruses take their toxic toll among their colleagues.

Are any of these five strains of Business Flu running rampant in your company?
  • Flash Mob Decision Making.  In this general malaise, the most noticeable symptom is lack of clarity.  Agenda-less meetings, hard-to-follow conference calls, and random hallway conversations are the primary communications platforms for reaching wobbly consensus and assigning next steps.  Everyone walks away just a little lost and confused, but too scared to admit it.  Time and brainpower are wasted as people try to puzzle things out on their own, often making wrong assumptions that could have been avoided with clearer communication. 
  • A Culture of Blame.  Forget root cause analysis. When things go wrong in this sick culture, people don't ask "What happened?" Instead, they demand, "Who let that happen?"  Feverish energy seems to be directed more toward accusing a person, not identifying and addressing the problem.  Ownership gets tossed around like a hot potato.  Since no one wants to be the fall guy, everyone becomes self-defense-oriented, not solution-oriented.  As a result, no foundation exists for collaborative teamwork -- which is often the key ingredient to resolving a systemic issue.  
  • Getting It Done (as opposed to Doing It Right).  "Aggressive" project deadlines (read: unrealistic) are usually at the heart of this toxic strain.  A so-called Required Date Of Completion is assigned before the scope of work involved in a project is truly determined. To meet the demands of the time crunch, quality is sacrificed, shortcuts are taken, and superficial solutions are implemented.   Once it's implemented, the people who actually have to carry out the project need to invent emergency workarounds to make it look like the project has succeeded. Deeper problems are carried over to the next generation of the business model again and again, until they simply become part of the landscape.
  • Silos and Turf Wars.  In this chronic strain of business flu, the company continually breaks out in a rash of angry, suspicious infighting.   Employees are not perceived as being all on one team.  Rather, they see themselves as divided into many teams. Players take sides depending on who they report to. In the phantom rule book of turf warfare, it's understood that departments will withhold information from each other and compete for resources instead of working together. Though never acknowledged openly, the whole organization's mission -- its foundation for being --  is infected by this polarizing process until it's eaten away by endless intrigue. Eventually, no one actually sees the big picture any more. The path back to restoring functional unity becomes lost in a labyrinth of secret info stashes and disconnected tunnels of mistrust.
  • Big Kahuna Worship. Sickness in this type of toxic culture wears a mask of loyalty -- and loyalty is always being questioned.  A narcissistic leader calls the shots.  As a result, everyone who wants to stay on her good side must routinely throw themselves, or each other, under the bus.  The focus becomes getting into, and staying within, the leader's inner circle of safety. Running the business changes from a constructive pursuit to a cosmetic pursuit. Instead of "you're rewarded if you figure out good ways to make progress," the standard becomes "you're rewarded if you figure out how to make the Chief's flawed vision of progress look good."  If any innovations have a different goal than that, they are met with ridicule, and/or viewed as challenges to authority.  The leader's blind spots and dogmatic style are passed down through the layers of management, resulting in deep, debilitating detachment in the lower ranks.
Any of these sound familiar?  The truth is, all of these trends went viral long ago.  They have infected virtually every human project since the Pyramids. They bubble up whenever there's a clash of ego, resources, or territory.  

The history of mankind is, to put it simply, good ideas thwarted by bad management.  And your workplace is just as prone as any other place of business to catch the latest mutation of our age-old bug. 

Your Purell Against the Plague

If your workplace suffers from one or more of these strains of viral vindictiveness, you can either drink the corporate Kool-Aid and become a carrier, or develop intentional strategies to protect yourself from all the toxicity. Like the use of hand sanitizer in a hospital ward, it takes continuous vigilance and constant application to keep healthy in the midst of all the germs.  But it is possible.

Your defense, however you craft it for your particular needs,  must work on three fronts:  

  • Keeping the vision  -- Defining your own identity apart from the madness, and consciously setting your own standards and boundaries to avoid infection.
  • Processing the emotion -- Developing ways to deflect personal offenses, short circuit the feelings of victimization, and remain objective.
  • Employing a practical action plan --  Going on the warpath with strategies that enable you to deliver impeccable performance, while you build bonds of trust within your toxic workplace.   

Personally, I have an approach to conquering corporate toxicity that works great for me. It incorporates all three of the above components. I call it Compassion-Based Communication.  I plan to write more about it in my next blog post, The Three Emails That Can Save Your Sanity, so watch for it!  In the meantime, leave a comment if you have another name for your own workplace's strain of the Business Flu -- or if you have a strategy that has helped you avoid getting infected.

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