Culture Breakers and Culture Makers


Look no further than your daily paper to be reminded of leadership missteps, especially in the form of an offhand comment or email. Recently in The Seattle Times Boeing CEO James McNerney said he won’t retire because “the heart will still be beating, the employees will still be cowering, “and the damage was done. This is what I call a “Culture Breaker.” If you want a productive culture, comments like this will never get you there, and in fact, will take you so far off track that it feels like climbing Mt. Everest to get back. On the other hand, you could actually call it a Culture Maker in Boeing’s case because it is reflective of how the CEO really feels and is just the latest in a long series of “misspoken” words, phrases or outright misdirects the company has had. It’s simply reinforcing the culture the leadership subscribes to.

Recently, I also learned of a small manufacturer that pulled a real business Culture Breaker moment with an email that the CEO sent out to a group of managers. The CEO had been in talks with a couple of key employees about a possible buy out and an offer was made. Rather than meet in private with the key employees, the CEO chose to respond in an email and copy all senior management and some other employees of the firm. The email was a resounding “hell no” to the offer and a slap down to those employees who had made it, although previously signals had been pointing to an agreement. The reason stated by the CEO to include the rest of the staff was to provide some sort of instructive moment. Well it was certainly instructive of a Culture Breaker moment.

People/Employees will only tolerate so much disconnect between their own values, the stated values of the company, and the lived values of the leadership. At some point, they will say, enough is enough and I’m going to go where I’m appreciated and feel as though what I do matters. Being called “cowering” or publicly embarrassed in an email does not make employees feel valued and therefore they will be less productive. However, these moments certainly scream the real values of the company and the leadership.

Unfortunately, it only takes a short second to undo positive, productive momentum, as both of these incidents show. As a leader, the moment you speak or act before you think through the consequences, you are often disclosing your real thoughts or intentions. It happens, we’re all human. However, if it’s not what you really meant to convey, apologize and see what you can do to return to “Culture Making” moments. They are harder to create, however, they lead your team and your company toward productivity and a healthy, happy work place. Next time you think about leadership moves, be sure they are Culture Makers building toward the culture you intend to have.

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