Why T May be the Most Important Letter in Culture
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Why T May be the Most Important Letter in Culture

Why T May be the Most Important Letter in Culture

“I can’t wait to see what HR is going to do with this.”

The other day, I overheard someone wonder aloud what HR was going to do in response to particularly troublesome behavior by a group of managers.

As an anthropologist of company cultures, I see this question the same way a field anthropologist might see a shard of pottery: it’s an artifact that can give me insights into the culture, values, and unquestioned assumptions of that culture.

So, what does this artifact tell us?

It tells us there’s a very real possibility that the CEO, CHRO, and the rest of the senior leadership team are not fully aligned around what the culture should be.

Why? The comment indicates that HR is responsible for ensuring that managers consistently behave in ways that create and maintain the culture, and reflect the company’s values. However, culture emerges from the day-to-day behavioral choices of the CEO in particular, and the entire senior leadership team, not just the CHRO. It’s their responsibility to make it happen throughout the organization.

Why can’t we just let HR handle it?

It doesn’t matter what HR does to build the culture if the CEO serves as a role model for a culture built on a different set of values. Employees will follow the CEO’s lead every time, and they don’t just take their cues from what you reward. They also take their cues from what you tolerate, put up with, and don’t address.

In fact, these cues are much more powerful, because the human brain is hard-wired to notice and respond more powerfully to misalignment than alignment.

For example, if innovation is a core value, what’s the worst innovation-quashing behavior you tolerate today? For example, do mediocre “innovations” never get killed off so their resources can be reassigned to more promising projects, those with break-through potential? If so, might it be because you don’t reward managers who have the courage to get honest and stop advocating for resources for the mediocre projects they’ve been leading?

What if you want to emulate the most financially successful companies by developing a highly inclusive culture? What exclusionary behaviors do you tolerate? In average and poor-performing companies, people who don’t fit into the dominant group are constantly on the receiving end of “micro-inequities” and “micro-insults,” so over time they speak up less and less.

Here’s a common example. How many times have you heard a man call other men “ladies” in a gently mocking manner? That’s using the very definition of what I am (a woman) to make fun of men. Think about it. Would you ever say, “O.k. Hispanic people (or old people, or black people). Meeting’s over!”

If you’re having trouble recruiting women – or any other demographic group — while your competitor is not having any trouble at all, ask yourself what you are tolerating that they are not.

Here’s a truth serum that cuts straight to the heart of the issue.

Ask yourself, “What is the worst behavior I tolerate in others with regard to this value? What about the entire leadership team? What is the worst behavior we collectively tolerate with regard to this value?”

This will be an extremely uncomfortable conversation, to say the least, but it cuts to the chase and helps you begin exploring any gaps between the culture you have created and the one you want to create. There may not be precise right and wrong answers, but you’ll begin the journey to ensure cultural alignment and authenticity.

It helps to have professional facilitation, but even if you don’t want to invest the money in an outside expert, have the conversation anyway.

Do we make culture building too hard?

I would say yes, we do. It’s simple. Don’t make it complicated.

There’s an adage that your leadership will be established by the first person you hire and the first person you fire. The same applies to the culture you establish. It comes down to the senior leaders’ behaviors, particularly the CEO.

Bottom line — four things define culture:

  1. the behaviors you exhibit
  2. the behaviors you encourage in others
  3. the behaviors you discourage in others
  4. what you do when they do the wrong thing anyway

That’s it.

As long as the CEO, CHRO, and other leadership team members are consistent in these four essential leadership choices, then a strong, strategic, and forward-thinking HR team can ensure that the recruiting, leadership development, organizational development, compensation, and all other processes and systems support the culture you are working hard to create.

What do you think? Drop me a line in the comments below. I love hearing your perspectives.