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Are You Creating Your Own Culture Traps?

by Dr. Linda Henman

When people talk about the inner contradictions of an organization, they frequently refer to “culture,” that omnipresent word that describes all pleasant and unpleasant by-products of decisions. But they seldom identify the real problem—the decisions that create the traps. Here are ten examples of how that happens:

  1. People don’t realize that their decisions create the traps. Unconscious of reality, they imagine some external force defines the problem, and they get defensive when confronted with evidence that contradicts this conclusion.
  2. When they must face reality, decision-makers take on a victim mentality: “That’s the way it is around here.” “You can’t fight City Hall in this organization.” “Mention that, and you’ll get yourself fired.”
  3. Employees don’t trust senior leaders, so they too develop a victim’s point of view.
  4. Exaltation of the status quo causes people to fear the consequences of needed change, so they don’t kill their sacred cows or any other animal that represents the probable.
  5. Companies reward predictability and punish risk taking, which creates an environment where good ideas go to die.
  6. People don’t have clear areas of accountability, so they personally escape both reward and punishment.
  7. If people fear punishment for daring ideas, they resist situations that would allow them to learn. Instead, they prefer analysis paralysis to diagnosis and change.
  8. The quest for popularity, buy-in, and collegiality has overpowered the pursuit of effectiveness and success.
  9. People show an unwillingness to ask for or to give feedback. When this happens, fear can flourish. People don’t know whether their bosses value them or rue hiring them.
  10. Anti-learning, anti-change, and anti-risk companies put all the focus on internal processes and take their eyes off the customer. When this happens, they quickly turn into a company that’s out of business.

“Culture” has offered a too-simple, too-subtle, too-convenient defense for just about everything but has clarified almost nothing important. To escape decision traps, we have to speak in less philosophical, more pragmatic terms—and to make the tough calls that will ensure success.

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