Bad corporate culture arises naturally from human nature, lack of management savvy, and bad or clueless management behavior. Corporate culture is built from the combined experiences of the members of the organization, the quality of their interactions with each other and outsiders, the results of the organization’s efforts, and the psychological tone set by top management and every level of management beneath it. All of these factors are expressed in, and some are caused by, management behavior, and poor management behavior will always affect the culture negatively. The good news is that you can work to correct and improve the culture at your own level.
Understanding the fundamentals of human nature and the psychological origins of poor management behavior is key to being a truly “savvy” manager. One key factor working against being a good manager is the natural difficulty of keeping one’s perspective in a sustained group. While the classical groupthink phenomenon is one possible outcome, another is loss of personal perspective, often acquired through bad experiences. This problem comes from bad experiences with others, especially those we perceive to have power over us (managers).
Pain can make a person lose their perspective. Once one has been abused or injured, psychologically or otherwise, by another person, the remembered pain makes the incident loom large in one’s memory, and restoring proper perspective takes understanding and introspection. The perspective that is lost that most negatively affects managers is the knowledge that, at the most basic levels of motivation, everyone wants to feel good about themselves and wants to feel they are making a positive difference in their job. Keeping this fact foremost in our thinking is key to being an effective manager and getting the most from one’s subordinates. It also helps one delegate more effectively and manage one’s time more efficiently.
Psychological pain can come from common sources. All it takes, for example, is one boss treating you like you don’t know anything, making you do meaningless work, responding to their own insecurities by giving you punitive assignments because they feel threatened by something you said, or actually taking out their own past bad experiences and psychological issues on you, and the pain (frustration, feeling of being devalued, etc.) you experience will amplify the memory of the experience in your mind. It is human nature to recall much more vividly our painful past experiences, as it is a natural survival trait that helps us avoid recurrences, but it can also cause us to lose the perspective that the good experiences outweigh the bad by a huge proportion.
Painful experiences make people wary long after the original incidents. Once abused, most people will tend to be overly watchful for similar circumstances, even after the original incident is forgotten. They can become conditioned to expect similar treatment from other bosses even though they only experienced the abuse from one of many, and, worse yet, they may wind up emulating the bad behavior (forcing, for example) because it is their most memorable reference to how bosses act. In essence, they lose perspective and begin overgeneralizing (another aspect of human nature) and thinking that most or all bosses act badly, or that this is the way to manage others. It can happen to almost anyone, but the knowledge that it doesn’t have to is the starting point for being a better manager.
Common bad management behaviors reveal the prevalence of loss of perspective and an all-too-common poor understanding of human nature. The forceful, “Do it because I said so” management style is a good example. While management research has repeatedly shown that “forcing” and “command-and-control” style management are only appropriate in relatively rare circumstances, many people retain the mistaken opinion that it makes up a large part of the management function. Even the U.S. Army has found that command-style management is only of value in certain circumstances, as when one is leading a squad of inexperienced 18-year-olds into enemy fire, and is much less effective in other circumstances. The savvy commander knows a squad is far more effective with every member contributing their knowledge, perception, and creativity, among other assets, to accomplishing the mission. They also know that they need to engage their subordinates in a positive way to get the benefit of those assets. They often achieve this by maintaining a culture of teamwork, collaboration, and mutual respect in their organization.
A savvy manager understands that conditioning, a form of unconscious learning, can happen to anyone including them, and can be countered. It is easy to become conditioned to expect abuse or just poor quality management behavior from one’s superiors, and, in the absence of better knowledge and understanding, it is easy to model such behaviors in one’s management of others. I believe this accounts for the seemingly large number of bad experiences most of us acquire working in large bureaucracies. We can, however, counter our conditioning once we understand what is happening to us, and consciously replace it with real knowledge.
Changing or countering one’s conditioning is possible. Some of the best managers have undoubtedly taken the time and exercised the introspection to think through their beliefs about management, trace them back to past experiences and learning, and establish better ways of thinking, in effect reconditioning themselves to be better managers. A person may do this once in their life, or many times, but it is always an extremely productive (though not necessarily easy) undertaking.
Culture originates in the behavior of individuals. Organizational culture is built on the behaviors of the members of the culture, and poor management behavior at any level naturally affects the levels subordinate to it – “crap rolls down hill”, as they say. An abusive or clueless top or middle manager can create a culture of negativism and poor performance that extends beneath them all the way to the bottom of the organizational pyramid, and even to supplier organizations. Anyone who has worked in more than a couple of bureaucracies has most likely experienced or witnessed this syndrome.
Culture can be changed for the better. A savvy, positive thinking manager can create a constructive culture of productivity, creativity, and even fun among their subordinates, and achieve superior results, even amidst an otherwise negative culture. It is far easier, however, if the overall culture is at least tolerant, if not actually supportive, or if the manager setting the cultural tone and making the change is isolated from the rest of the organization in significant ways.
Changing culture in a positive direction is rarely easy. As W. Edwards Deming said, however, “quality can be no better than the intent at the top.” A good manager can move the culture of the organization beneath her or him in positive and more productive directions, but if a negative cultural tone is persistently coming from above, he or she will have to fight constantly to maintain that more positive cultural beneath them, and may be criticized and even undermined by their less savvy peers, who may feel threatened by their improved results. For this reason, an organizational culture will rarely be better overall than is determined by the behavior of the topmost management. Middle managers who buck a strongly negative culture often eventually burn out and leave the organization, are unrecognized and fail to be promoted, or give up their management role. While they “stick to their guns”, however, their results will tend to be superior, their employees happier and more productive, and their jobs more satisfying.
Bad corporate culture happens, but it can be corrected. In summary, while it is natural for bad organizational culture to develop, this tendency can be countered and a more positive and productive organizational culture can be produced, though it requires savvy and introspective management. It is within the power of each of us to do the introspective work and be more savvy, as managers or rank and file employees, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend, as you do this important work, to record your thoughts and experiences in a journal for later review. In doing so you will improve yourself, and give yourself increased capacity to influence your organizational culture in in more positive directions.
Personal note – My wife wanted me to include more of the personal anecdotes that have led me to these conclusions (which are by no means comprehensive), but I don’t want to write an entire book here. (perhaps at a later time – I’ve many times considered pursuing a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior …)
As always, I welcome your comments and questions, as I always learn from them.