Leadership, Culture And The Art Of Caring About The Little Things
Written by Alf Rehn
There are many ways to destroy a culture. It can be destroyed by arrogance, hypocrisy or hubris. It can be demolished through bad leadership, nepotism, unchecked misogyny or other unethical practices.
But, a pervasive lack of care might be the most effective way to destroy a culture. Whereas the list of sins above is obvious pathologies of an organization in decay, they are visible, and often manageable, vices. We tend to pay a lot of attention to these vices as they, by way of their visibility, draw our eye. And we tend to overestimate their importance as we underestimate the small things in our organizations.
When you know what the enemy is, it becomes possible to combat it. So the most self-evident problems in your company’s culture might not be the most problematic ones at all because you’ve already identified them.
How are organizations to understand factors that are not yet seen as problems, as they seem too small and minute to be worthy of attention? These can often be the most problematic and toxic factors of all, and lack of care is an excellent example.
Imagine a meeting with the intention of discussing the importance of diversity in the company — an area that has been identified as a key weakness. In the meeting room are people from top management, middle managers, an excited diversity officer and various others, some at least in attendance for the donuts.
The meeting goes the way many meetings often do: there are a few passionate people burning to open the discussion, and those failing to elicit much more than lukewarm responses using carefully coaxed language about how the issue is “Um… quite important. You know, strategically.” Some people become a bit more anxious. They start pressing the issue a little harder to get some type of response. The result? Pervasive silence as the other participants begin retreating into their shells.
Is there a lack of care in your organization?
If you recognize this scenario — or a variation thereof — you may work in an organization with care issues. Many cultures have built-in defense mechanisms against new ideas that don’t show as visible resistance, but as something far subtler. We’ve been trained, by culture and by the media, to pay attention to things such as overt resistance to change and negative and aggressive attitudes — but the real enemy might be something much subtler.
In my office meeting scenario, there is no overt resistance nor is there any aggression. No one is pounding the table saying, “I hate diversity”. No one is telling jokes that are racist, misogynistic, homophobic or any combination thereof. There is even broad agreement. And this might be the most dangerous scenario of all.
Work to live or live to work?
There is sometimes a profound lack of care in companies. People turn up, not out of interest, but rather a sense of duty. People do not disagree, but nor do they engage. In fact, it would be preferable if they were to disagree. At least disagreement signals some level of caring and engagement. This attitude zaps the energy from those who care about injecting diversity and change intoa company.
The other problem is that the passionate ones may not even themselves realize what it is that’s going wrong. Rather than having a clear enemy to combat, they come away with a vague sense of unease, an ennui brought on by an organization that doesn’t care.
Great leaders focus on building a caring culture
This is an area that leadership needs to focus on building great cultures. Organizations can battle the visible demons, the clear problems and the obvious flaws. Leadership is needed to deal with the more deeply rooted issues, the all but invisible ones. Granted, it is not easy to know where to start when dealing with a lack of caring. It doesn’t present itself as a singular issue, but as silent faces in meetings, as insufficient responses, as a lack of energy rather than as pathology. And, weak leaders often ignore this problem because there is nothing immediate and tangible to focus on.
Great leaders, however, see the situation for what it is. If an organization has stopped caring it can be both invisible and at the same time visible in all things. In the way people talk to each other, in the time it takes for things to happen and in the way customers are dealt with. The task for leaders is to start dealing with this toxic state on the same level as it has occurred — in the small, almost imperceptible areas of the business.
Way back when, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we talked of something called “management by walking around”. This sounded first like tragedy, then as farce, but was in fact far more important than we gave it credit for. As the manager walked around, he or she was able to see culture as it actually happened, not as it was portrayed in cheerful meetings and corporate brochures. The manager was on the lookout for the little things that signaled that employees had already mentally checked out, the things that were harbingers of greater problems.
Anyone can, and should, speak up when there are clear problems — arrogance, nepotism or harassment. But it takes a leader, or at least the soul of one, to address the way in which care dissipates out of an organization — the way in which the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of things can be the ones that slowly make an organization slump into a torpor.
We need organizations that care, so we need leaders who care about their culture. Leaders who will not allow important questions to be met with tepid platitudes. Leaders who will not let people remain unengaged. Leaders who care enough about the big picture that they engage with the little things they’re built from.
In any organization, there is a plethora of things about which it is said, “Who cares?” The answer, always, is, “A leader should and will.”
Alf Rehn is a writer, a professor of management, a ginthusiast, a keynote speaker, a fan of Ethel Merman and a strategic advisor, although not necessarily in that order. He can be stalked at www.alfrehn.com or on Twitter at @alfrehn