Are emotions contagious in the workplace?

Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day?  Maybe your stomach was always in knots.  Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night.  Or maybe your body physically hurt.  You just hurt, every day.  Simply put, you didn’t feel good.  Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy.  Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?

You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now.  For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?”  The bottom line is “yes” they are.  But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.”  Some workplaces are more contagious than others.  Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others.  And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?).  The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.

Curious?  I hope so.  I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end.  Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.

At the end of the day, work should not have to suck.  Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!

 

 

Prescription – Finding the “right” culture for you

This month we’ve been tackling an all-too-common dysfunction: “This is NOT the right corporate culture for me.” We’ve all been there. We accept a job that looks great on paper, only to find out that the culture is not right for us. So, are you in the wrong culture and if so, how do you find the right culture for you? All good questions. Here’s your prescription to a long-life of healthy corporate culture fit.

SELF – DIAGNOSIS

Are you wondering if you are in the wrong corporate culture? There are some significant “tell tale” signs – and they aren’t pretty. Being in the wrong corporate culture for an extended period of time can cost us our health, sanity and in some cases our very soul. Here are four questions you can use to diagnose if you are indeed in the wrong corporate culture:

• How are you sleeping? So, how is your sleep these days? Is your sleep not what it used to be? Look closely, this could be a sign that you are in the wrong culture. Whether it’s the inability to sleep soundly or troubled dreams, sleep is a great clue to something bigger at play.

• How is your physical health? Has your health taken a turn for the worse recently? Are you suffering from chronic or mysterious symptoms? These could be a result of your work environment and not just your poor exercise regimen.

• How would others describe your recent mood? Are the people close to you commenting that you just aren’t acting like yourself these days? Are you snapping at the ones you care about on a more regular basis? Are your personal relationships on the rocks? Any of these could be a product of a bad corporate culture fit.

• Are you losing who you are? Are you becoming a different person? If we are in the wrong corporate culture for too long, this is the heaviest cost we can pay – our very soul. Have you noticed that you are two different people – one person at work and one person at home? How much longer can you keep that up?

Listen closely to your mind, body, heart and soul. They could be giving you an important message. And in my experience, they don’t stop complaining until one of two things happens: either you listen and leave or you are forcibly removed. I like the first option the best, don’t you?

IDENTIFYING THE “CURE”

Those are some of the big questions to answer as you are looking for the “right” culture for you. If you want to try to gauge if a culture values what you value before you “marry,” follow these steps:

Step 1: Find out what they “say” their values are. What are the values the organization says it’s all about and do those fit with you? Check out the website for a good easy start, but don’t stop there. Just like dating, others can tell you what you want to hear. Actions speak louder than words.

Step 2: Figure out what REALLY goes on. Get coffee with current or former employees and ask what it’s like to work there. And find out how much voluntary turnover is going on in the organization. An organization with low-turnover is more likely to be living out its values with everyone on the same page. An organization with high turnover is a warning sign for instability. The culture is either unhealthy or in the middle of culture change. Like Forest Gump, a high turnover organization will be more like a box of chocolates… you’ll never know what you’ll get.

Step 3: Check out the background of the senior leader. A culture always represents what the senior leader values so take good notes. Research everything, from where they grew up and their major in college to their career path. That will tell you a lot about what he or she values and what’s really getting rewarded and reinforced at the organization.

DETERMINING YOUR TREATMENT PLAN

There are several good “treatment plan” options available to you depending on the severity of the mismatch and the overall level of dysfunction present in the culture. Note: if you believe your culture is amongst the top 4 worst corporate cultures: cut-throat, political, abusive and unethical, read the prior posts for more specific treatment plan strategies. These cultures are cancerous and require more aggressive approaches.

1. Try to change the culture – This is not a viable treatment plan – IT DOES NOT WORK. Don’t kid yourself into believing you can change the culture if you just stick it out. Those beliefs are dysfunctional in themselves. Imagine the abused spouse that says, “I know he/she loves me. If I just do things different/better next time, it will be different. He or she will change.” You can’t change another person – only they can do that. The same goes for cultures. Unless you are the senior leader, culture change at best is a decade long process. At worst, it never happens. Do you really want to give up that much of your life with such a slim probability? Are they really worth it? We both know that answer to that question.

2. Stick it out – You may look around and say to yourself “it’s not that bad.” Only you can be the judge. I will say this, no culture is perfect. All cultures are going to have some level of dysfunction. But if your culture is truly a dysfunctional sight to behold, you run the risk that the longer you stay, the more likely the culture changes you for the worse. Look around and ask yourself if that is the treatment plan that will yield the best results for you.

3. Form a coalition and wait for regime change – One treatment plan option available to you is to go underground and form a sub-culture of like-minded colleagues. Think of this as your own personal rebellion. Meet regularly and plan how you can support and help each other both with information as well as results. This could be a temporary strategy or one you use when you hope to either wait out leadership change or overthrow the current regime. Overthrowing a current regime is a particularly dangerous gamble, but believe it or not, I’ve seen it work.

4. Pack up and leave – If you are in a poor culture fit, this is your best treatment plan strategy. But it’s not as simple as that. Many dysfunctional cultures will try to punish you for leaving. So what can you do? Get a “safe house.” Have another job lined up, move to another city, or spend time with friends / family. Just get away. I would also recommend changing industries. If an abuser thinks you’ve gone to a competitor, they will make it a personal goal to hurt you even after you have left. If the culture is particularly cancerous, don’t just leave – disappear.

5. Look at yourself – Finally, if you have found yourself in an extremely dysfunctional workplace, be gut-level honest with yourself. Are you drawn to these situations in your life? Do you have a history of this type of dysfunction with your past employer and / or personal relationships? If so, you need to seek professional counseling to break this unhealthy and destructive pattern. It is not something that is to be taken lightly.

There you have it. The quick-and-dirty approach for diagnosing your culture fit assessing your treatment plan options. Life’s too short. Finding the right fit for you, could make all the difference in the world.

Stay tuned for June’s Dysfunction of the Month: “Is this it? Finding fulfillment at work.” Good stuff.

 

 

Prescription for Leaders – Creating the “right” culture

Who can’t relate to this month’s dysfunction: “This is NOT the right corporate culture for me.” The good news is that as a leader, you can do something about it. Whether you are the manager of a department or sit atop an organization, you have the power to change a culture by your words and actions. What’s frightening is that you’ve already been doing that – whether you realized it or not. So, how can you more intentionally shape the culture the way you want to? Here’s a prescription for you. Take these doses in order and then repeat:

1. What do you preach? Write it down. I can guarantee that there are words, phrases and conversations you are using in your everyday interactions more than others. What you choose to talk about influences your culture. So, write it down. That way you can be more intentional about what you are saying and why. Here are some good ways to figure out what it is that you are actually emphasizing through your words:

• When you talk to your team members, how do you start the conversation? Do you talk about family first, results first, check-in on how they are doing, etc…

• What do you insist on talking about at every meeting? Is there any common topic you bring up or agenda you use?

• What is the one thing that you think needs to change “around here?” What gets you frustrated in your group and organization that you routinely share with others?

2. What are the “real” messages you are sending to your employees? Make sure you are consistent. Are you operating in a way that is different… or worse, counter to the values you espouse? This could be utterly catastrophic. If your employees see you as a hypocrite, they will write you off and take everything you say with a grain of salt. Consider this story from Ben, a consultant with a firm that espouses the importance of work/life balance and family to its employees:

This past December, our firm went after a high-profile project that our primary competitor had virtually locked up. The client eventually put it out for bid the day before Christmas Eve. Because this was a project that would be fantastic for our firm and directly align with our strategy, we pursued it full on, committing a team of people to work 72 hours straight over the Christmas holiday. In the end, we won the work above many of the most well known names in our industry and our key competitor is now a sub-contractor to us.

While this is a great story for our firm, all I heard was that multiple people sacrificed their entire Christmas holiday, setting aside their loved ones for work. This really made me wonder if my values were truly aligned with my employer’s and what my future at the company could be.

Your actions speak louder than words. What are you “really” saying? Here are ways to find out:

• What values do you do look for when you hire people?

• What do you fire people for? Is that aligned with what you espouse? Note: If you’ve never fired anyone, look closely. If you had been congruent with your values, would you have made tougher decisions by now?

• What do you reward people for?

3. What do your customers want to talk about? What’s important to them? Align your culture with their values. What do your customers value? This is a critical and massively overlooked category when leaders think about culture. Your cultural values should be aligned with those of your customers if you want your culture to help you, rather than hurt you. Consider Bob Nardelli at The Home Depot. When Bob left GE to join The Home Depot, he brought his values with him. Bob, valued efficiency and low cost above everything else. To that end, Bob got rid of many of the most seasoned store employees that delivered some of the best service in the industry, opting to staff the stores with inexperienced, low cost employees. Unfortunately, Bob’s customers did not share the same set of values, traditionally valuing service and convenience over everything else. The result: The Home Depot lost market share to Lowe’s as customers were turned off by Bob and his culture. Frank Blake, Bob’s successor has been working diligently to repair the damage, but once customers leave, it is a long haul to bring them back. Align your culture with your customers for success.

4. Practice the “No Assholes” Rule. Bob Sutton, Faculty at Stanford and author of “The No Asshole Rule” impresses the importance of eliminating those individuals in the organization that are caustic, abusive and cause trouble. Trust me, left unchecked “assholes” will ruin all of your plans. Bob notes that research indicates that one caustic / negative interaction delivers “5 times the punch” of a positive interaction. If you have those kinds of individuals in your organization, despite your best efforts, you run the risk of your culture defaulting to cut-throat behaviors, heavy politics, abuse, unethical behaviors, fear and lowered commitment – all the things we’ve talked about this month. But watch out. Bob also notes that “assholes will breed like rabbits.” Make sure you aren’t putting the wrong person in charge of hiring. And make sure you personally don’t qualify.

 

Follow these steps and you’ll be on the way to developing the “right” culture. And whether you are a manager or a CEO, these steps can all be put in place today. One word of caution, if you are a manager inside a larger organization, the task of changing culture is a bit trickier because you have several “customers” – your external customers and your internal customers. It can be a challenge to create a healthy “subculture” if you find yourself stuck in an unhealthy one. That being said, life’s too short. Create the culture you’ve always wanted, and who knows, you might be surprised at how many people decide to join you.

 

How to determine the “right” culture for you

We’ve all been there. We accept a job that looks great on paper, only to find out that the culture is not right for us. The question for all of us is “how do I find the right culture for me?” Finding the right culture fit is just like dating. We often don’t learn what really matters to us until we’ve been in a relationship that rubbed us the wrong way – rubbed up against our values. You learn that you like a partner with a sense of humor after dating someone with the personality of a cardboard box. You learn that you like a partner who listens after going on a few dates with an incessant talker. What have you learned in your experiences with different cultures? What’s really important to you – what are your values? Here are some helpful questions to answer as you search for your cultural version of “Mr. / Ms. Right”:

• How fast do you like to go? Do you like a workplace culture that is moving at light speed, with lots of change around every corner, or do you prefer a slow and steady approach to work? As I mentioned in an earlier post, every organization has an unspoken speed limit. The trick is to figure out what kind of car you are and if that coincides with the speed posted on the wall. Ferraris don’t like school zones so think back to times when you were frustrated at the pace of work.

• What’s your size? Do you prefer a big organization with lots of opportunity to move, lots of resources to support you, nice amenities, and tons and tons of corporate politics and bureaucracy? Or do you prefer small entrepreneurial organizations where there is innovation, the feeling of creativity and “building something,” where everyone knows everyone intimately… whether you like it or not? Size matters. Be honest with yourself and decide what size brings out your best.

• Do you like shiny “name brands?” Does it matter to you that when you are meeting someone for the first time and you tell him or her where you work, they immediately know… and are impressed? “I work for Google… Apple… McKinsey… Disney… etc…” No judgment here. Just be honest with yourself. If you want to be part of something well known, that’s important in picking the right culture.

• Do you want to feel like you are “up to something” bigger than you? How important is the mission / vision / purpose of an organization to you? Do you want to be working for a place that is committed to something bigger than the bottom line? As one client of mine shared with me, “I was a partner in a law firm for years. It bothered me that I might do good work but the end result was a guilty party was found innocent. I wanted to be one of the ‘good guys’ so I shifted career paths and went into the ministry.” What matters more to you – the “how” and “what” of your work or the “why?”

• Do you like “intimacy” at work? Do you like environments where people talk about and share their personal lives at work – everything from what they did that weekend to the big events happening in their lives? Or do you believe that work is work and personal is personal. There should be a clear boundary and the less you know about a co-worker the better. If you like a more intimate environment, look for family owned businesses and non-profits as a good start. If you prefer a more separated work environment, look for larger organizations and / or industries that have a greater emphasis on numbers (Ex: financial services, accounting, investment banking, etc…).

• How do you like to be rewarded? Do you prefer to be paid for performance or would you rather have a steady paycheck regardless of how things play out? This also speaks to how “risky” you’d like to be. Do you like the idea of “eating what you kill” and having no ceiling… or floor, or does that concept absolutely freak you out?

CULTURAL “MATCH.COM” – SCREENING CULTURES FOR THE RIGHT FIT

Those are some of the big questions to answer as you are looking for the “right” culture for you. If you want to try to gauge if a culture values what you value before you “marry,” follow these steps:

Step 1: Find out what they “say” their values are. What are the values the organization says it’s all about and do those fit with you? Check out the website for a good easy start, but don’t stop there. Just like dating, others can tell you what you want to hear. Actions speak louder than words.

Step 2: Figure out what REALLY goes on. Get coffee with current or former employees and ask what it’s like to work there. And find out how much voluntary turnover is going on in the organization. An organization with low-turnover is more likely to be living out its values with everyone on the same page. An organization with high turnover is a warning sign for instability. The culture is either unhealthy or in the middle of culture change. Like Forest Gump, a high turnover organization will be more like a box of chocolates… you’ll never know what you’ll get.

Step 3: Check out the background of the senior leader. A culture always represents what the senior leader values so take good notes. Research everything, from where they grew up and their major in college to their career path. That will tell you a lot about what he or she values and what’s really getting rewarded and reinforced at the organization.

There you have it – my version of “Match.com” for cultures. One last important note, just like personal relationships, be honest with yourself. Are you repeating unhealthy patterns in the cultures you select? Do you keep “dating” the same type of culture over and over again expecting it to change? Are you attracted to unhealthy cultures? Only you can stop that pattern. Be gut-level honest with yourself, identify the culture that will allow you to be at your best and start looking for “Mr./Ms. Right”. They’re out there… just waiting to be asked out.

 

Top 4 worst corporate cultures: #1 “This is an unethical culture”

Is your workplace unethical? Unethical cultures took the top spot on our list as the #1 worst corporate culture. Why you might ask? Very simple, while the other cultures are arguably more painful to live in, this culture, unlike the others, can have a lingering impact on you LONG AFTER you leave. At best, it can tarnish your reputation. Think of all of the “good folks” that worked at Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, etc… In fact, as you read it, you really don’t believe me do you? “Good folks” and Enron? Nasty lasting impact and that is just “at best.” At worst, you can go to jail. Don’t pass Go. Don’t collect $200. Go straight to jail. This can happen to the best of us, simply because we were in the wrong place at the wrong time and followed the wrong order. Here are some questions to determine if your workplace might be a candidate for unethical.

• Do you routinely use the phrase “if others only knew how we do things”? – Do you and your colleagues regularly say to each other “if others knew how we really operate, no one would be doing business with us?” This isn’t just a funny passing comment. This phrase in particular is a good sign that those “ways you are doing things” are potentially unethical, and could potentially cross the line into “illegal.” Watch out.

• Are there regular “investigations” (or threats of investigations) at work? – If you are regularly hearing about or being threatened by your boss that an investigation from the “authorities” could be looming, that’s a clear sign you are in a potentially unethical culture. Bill was in one of those cultures. One day, FBI agents showed up and took boxes. The next day business went on as usual – as if nothing happened. Trust me, if “agents” are showing up, things aren’t normal at your office.

• Have you ever gotten orders to delete, shred, burn, bury, and hide “stuff?” – This is not normal. If you are being asked to get rid of something, trust me, that is “evidence” you are being asked to remove. Do you want to be the one who is accused of “burying the body?” Let me put it this way, if you were the one doing all the shredding I wouldn’t want to be your defense counsel.

• Does leadership have a lot of really nice “stuff?” – I’m not just talking a nice car. I’m talking drivers, mansions, famous artwork, gold encrusted utensils, etc… If you notice that the leaders in your organization are living beyond the means of someone in their role, that is a huge red flag. At best, it could mean they like flashy “stuff” and have an overinflated sense of their worth. At worst, it could indicate elements of Narcissistic personality disorder – a belief that one is beyond the rules and can take whatever he or she wants whenever he or she wants to with little regard for others. If we revisit Bill, Bill’s boss was the owner of the business, a relatively small business with 50 employees or so. Yet Bill’s boss had several Monet and Renoir paintings in his various mansions. Hmm… no wonder we’ve got agents floating about.

STRATEGIES

Unethical cultures are potentially devastating to your career long after your departure. There are several strategies you can apply, but here’s a warning. Any strategy that involves sticking around means you are gambling you can get done what you need to before the house of cards crumbles:

1. Wait for a rescuer – This strategy involves keeping your head down and waiting for either the Board or the “authorities” to come and take away the culprits. And in unethical cultures, the culprits are often leadership. The problem with this strategy is two-fold. First, while we would all love to think that corporate Boards are watching over the health and well-being of the business, poised to jump in and stop any unethical behavior, my experience is that this is simply not true. Boards generally have a conflict-avoidant posture and tend to let things go on way too long. Second, if the authorities come, it is probably too late. They will be followed by the media and soon your reputation will be hitched to those of the culprits. You will be cursed with explaining this line on your resume for the rest of your career.

2. Pack up and leave… with counsel if necessary – This is your best strategy. The challenge for you is to get out before the house of cards come crashing down. But be careful. If you think you have been a party to any unethical actions (whether intentionally or unintentionally) while you were at the organization, make sure you get legal counsel. Otherwise, you might be the one everyone blames later. I remember when I was 8 years old, I was playing outside with a few friends of mine at a neighbor’s yard. Nobody was home at the neighbor’s house. One thing led to another and we had turned on their hose and were having a water fight outside. I decided this wasn’t for me so I went home. Guess who came knocking at my door an hour later? You guessed it. The neighbors. Seems my “buddies” threw me under the bus when the neighbors got home. Don’t let that happen to you. Get counsel if things look “grey.”

Unethical cultures are dangerous – not just because of the effect they have on you while you are there, but because of the damaging impact they can have on you long after you leave. If you see, smell or sense unethical behavior, get out. If you don’t make it out in time, it won’t be neighbors knocking on your door. It will be guys with black jackets and three letters on the front F…B…I.

 

Top 4 worst corporate cultures: #2 “This is an abusive culture”

Is your workplace abusive? Definitely worthy of the #2 slot on this countdown, abusive workplaces take huge tolls on everyone they touch. And I’m not just talking about physical abuse. I’m talking about cultures that foster mental and emotional abuse. The kind of abuse that wears on you over time until you begin to lose confidence and ultimately your own sense of identity. Here are some questions to determine if your workplace stacks up as abusive.

• Is your boss unstable? – Do you feel like you have to “walk on eggshells” when you are around your boss? When he or she is in one of those “bad moods,” do they often go off the handle and berate those around him or her? Tom’s boss was that way. It seems like his boss’ favorite word too use was “incompetent” when he lost his temper. And he didn’t just say it in passing. No. Tom’s boss would look someone dead in the eye and call them incompetent to their face. In fact, Tom heard it so often, he began to believe it.

• Do you routinely feel a combination of the following emotions: guilty, “bad,” incompetent, and worthless? – In abusive workplaces, just like in abusive relationships, the abuser beats on the abused so frequently that that abused begins to believe that he or she deserves it. And in those situations, the abused begins to feel some combination of these emotions on a regular basis: guilty, “bad,” incompetent, and worthless. If this is true for you, this is not healthy. Get help.

• Does your boss (or others in management roles) frequently call employees names? – If the leadership of your workplace uses name-calling as a way to release their frustrations on others, be wary. That’s not only unacceptable, but it is fostering an abusive workplace. Listen for phrases like: “idiot, incompetent, loser, worthless” as well as any profanity directed at another person as signs that you are not working with adults.

• Do you feel UNPROTECTED by H.R. and/or senior leadership? – Do you get the sense that if you tell human resources or other members of leadership about what’s been going on, the beatings will only get worse? This is a sign that not only has the abuse permeated all parts of the culture, but that it has become accepted. Sickening.

STRATEGIES

Abusive cultures are not something to be taken lightly. The longer you stay, the weaker your confidence becomes making it more difficult to leave. Worse yet, you may actually begin to believe you deserve the abuse. A very fair analogy is to compare abusive workplaces with abusive personal relationships:

1. Try to change the culture – This DOES NOT WORK. Don’t kid yourself into believing you can change another person or believe that there is “hope” if you just stick it out. Those beliefs are dysfunctional in themselves. Imagine the abused spouse that says, “I know he/she loves me. If I just do things different/better next time, it will be different. He or she will change.” You can’t change another person – only they can do that. The same goes for cultures. Unless you are the senior leader, culture change at best is a decade long process. At worst, it never happens. Do you really want to give up that much of your life with such a slim probability? Are they really worth it? We both know that answer to that question.

2. Pack up and leave – This is your best strategy. But it’s not as simple as that. Abusive cultures and the leaders of those cultures tend to see people as either “good” or “bad.” Once you announce your departure, you become “bad.” “How dare you leave me!” becomes the mindset. You will likely receive one more round of abuse. Abusers believe that they can beat people into staying, into loving them. And when you do leave, they will do everything they can to hurt you. So what can you do? Get a “safe house.” Have another job lined up, move to another city, or spend time with friends / family. Just get away. I would also recommend changing industries. If an abuser thinks you’ve gone to a competitor, they will make it a personal goal to hurt you even after you have left. Don’t just leave – disappear.

3. Look at yourself – Finally, if you have found yourself in an abusive workplace, be gut-level honest with yourself. Are you drawn to these situations in your life? Do you have a history of other abusive workplaces and / or personal relationships? If so, you need to seek professional counseling to break this unhealthy and destructive pattern. It is not something that is to be taken lightly. Abusers only exist when others allow it. You have the power to stop the pattern and those perpetuating it with help.

Abusive cultures are dangerous stuff. They are made up of five year old bullies that never grew up. If you find yourself in an abusive culture, get help and get out. No one should ever feel as though they deserve that form of treatment or belittling. It’s unacceptable. And frankly, you are just too important to allow it to continue. Get some courage, stand up and get moving.

 

Top 4 worst corporate cultures: #3 “My company’s culture is too political”

Is your organization too political? First, let me clarify one thing about office politics: if you are working with other people then you work in a political environment. Simple as that. But true highly political cultures are things to behold. They move with a slowness, irrationality and self-destructiveness that probably closest resembles a sinking Titanic. And the costs of being part of a highly political culture are high. Costs range from overall low performance to low-trust or both. Here are some signs of highly political cultures. Do any of these ring a bell for you?

• Do you use the word “silos” to describe your culture? – We often chalk up silos to a poor organizational structure. False. Silos are a product of people, not structure. More often than not, silos result from leaders not wanting to collaborate with each other for fear that one will gain an advantage over the other. I worked with one organization recently where one individual described it this way: “None of the leadership team will talk with each other. As a result, there are silos everywhere. If we want to collaborate with or even talk to a person in a different silo, we need to do it in secret.” Ridiculous.

• Does image matter more than performance? – Let me give you two stories to illustrate this. Story #1 – Paul had worked for several highly political companies his whole career. Paul had joined a small business unit as their VP of Marketing. After working with Paul for nearly three weeks, I realized Paul actually never did any work or made any real decisions. He spent all his time hiring people and vendors, bullying them and then claiming their work as his own. Story #2 – Beth was getting ready to start a newly created position with a traditional institution that was looking to innovate. Originally, Beth started with a temporary office until her bosses (yes, more than one) were trying to determine where she was going to sit. Beth began to receive fabulous office offers from various groups in the organization. Turns out, in Beth’s organization where you sit matters. It indicates your allegiances as well as whom you oppose. Choose wisely Beth.

• Does “red tape” describe what you have to go through to get stuff done? Highly political organizations often have a ton of policies, procedures and general reasons to say “no” before “yes.” Process trumps urgency every time. When Mike graduated with his MBA, he joined a large consumer packaged goods company as a Brand Manager. Originally excited about the prospect of creative work, Mike was stunned to learn that not only was he put on laundry detergent, but his job was to get approval for the written instructions on the box – a process that took over three months. Think of it as a board game from hell – if anyone told Mike “no,” he had to start all over again at the beginning. He quit after six months.

• Is it difficult to get an honest answer? It’s tough enough to get truly honest answers anyway, but in highly political organizations, this is even worse. And the best politicians leave you feeling comforted, but don’t actually answer any of your questions. So, if you are hearing a lot of “it depends… I need to look into that… Let me get back to you” in response to your questions, you may be dealing with a skilled politician – not a manager or leader.

STRATEGIES

Any organization is going to have some of the above, but if you found yourself checking off most of those, you may have found yourself in the midst of a highly political organization. In these kinds of organizations, it is more akin to finding yourself in the middle of a civil war. Not fun. Here are some strategies that can help you survive:

1. Pick a side – If you fancy yourself as a skilled negotiator and strategist, you may choose to pick a side and align yourself with a leader and constituency – one that you see as the emerging victor from the political fray. Upside: If you pick correctly, you could become the chief lieutenant of the conquering army – enhancing your own political position. Downside: If you pick incorrectly you could be thrust into a life of servitude by the conquering regime or expelled with the leader you sided with.

2. Be Switzerland – You may just choose to stay out of it. In that case, you take a “Switzerland stance” and refuse to align with any constituency, treating all of them equally and refusing to spread gossip or participate in their reindeer games. Upside: When this strategy works, you are generally left alone, you are rarely brought into skirmishes and generally enjoy a sense of stability amongst all the chaos. Downside: You will not likely gain any ground. You may be at the same position for a very, very, very long time.

3. Be a good soldier – You may not want to go to the extreme of becoming Switzerland, but you may also not feel comfortable in picking a side. In this case, you take the “good soldier” position and manage your image tightly. Act the part, dress the part and overall play good politics by seeming to align with multiple groups, but never actually claiming any position. Upside: You are destined for a solid middle management position – a good company “soldier.” Downside: Your peers and direct reports will never trust you because of your reluctance to take a stance and be genuine. Oh, and you may just lose yourself in the process.

4. Flee the country – Then there is always the option to leave. Upside: I promise you will feel immediately better. Downside: Just like leaving a cut-throat culture, without a clear plan, you may be adrift for a long time. Bring supplies.

In highly political organizations, you can’t “not play” and stay. You need to have a position, even if that position is Switzerland. The only losing strategy is to ignore the reality you find yourself in. In addition, highly political organizations can exact a high toll on the individuals who stay. Characterized by low trust, low performance and game playing, if you stay in a highly political organization too long, you may not only lose your ability to perform effectively in a healthy culture, but you may also lose yourself. Some of the saddest clients I work with are the ones that are so political 24/7, that they lack the ability to form trusting relationships with the people around them in both their personal and professional lives. They lose who they really are. Don’t let that happen to you.

 

Top 4 worst corporate cultures: #4 “This is a cut-throat culture”

Cut-throat cultures are one of the worst corporate cultures to be a part of. Characterized by frequent back-stabbing, unethical behavior and high stress, this particular type of culture is absolutely torturous to those in it – whittling away at their confidence, health and sanity slowly but surely. So are you in a “cut-throat” culture? Here are some common traits of this caustic culture:

• Are you always watching your back? Do you believe that if you don’t watch out, your co-workers will not only stab you in the back, but they’ll even bury you in the grave they’ve already dug? Sam was in one of those cultures. She described her interactions with her co-workers like this: “I can’t trust a word they say. They smile and seem friendly, but it’s all an act. They are really just fishing for information they can use against me and if I make the mistake of telling them too much, I’ll find myself blind-sided. They’ll take what I’ve worked so hard for and leave me with nothing. I feel so alone.” If this sounds familiar, keep reading.

• Are ALL of your performance goals individually-based? Is your performance solely evaluated based on your individual performance with no emphasis on team results, collaboration or other contributions to the broader organization? If this is true, this can be a very bad sign. I received a note from a reader with this issue. He had been with the same retailer for years. But after the economic down-turn, the culture changed. He said now all they evaluate are the individual sales numbers that he and others produce. According to him, “this has created a cut-throat culture. No one collaborates anymore and everyone is trying to ‘steal’ from everyone else so they can survive. Forget customer service. It’s been thrown out long ago.” What are you being evaluated on?

• Have all the “good people” been let go or have left? Have you noticed that the people you really enjoyed working with, the one’s that seemed to work well in teams, were trustworthy and overall “good people” have either left or been let go? That’s a sign you should look at closely. Strong cultures, whether good or bad, repel those individuals that share different values. If you like all the people that have left, maybe you should follow their lead, particularly if you look around and don’t like what you see.

• Does your boss have a “what have you done for me lately” mindset? Another sign of a cut-throat culture is leadership that has a short-term focus and zero loyalty. What does that look like? It is commonly seen when one’s boss only cares about your current results and could care less about any big wins you might have under your belt or your level of commitment to the organization (tenure, sacrifices, etc…). If it seems like you are always on the verge of being fired if you don’t deliver today, regardless of your past performance and commitment, this might be a sign that your culture has moved into cut-throat territory.

STRATEGIES

I sure hope for your sake you are shaking your head right now saying “my culture’s not that bad.” But if you are looking at these signs and are nodding your head in agreement, let me offer some strategies you use to protect yourself in a cut-throat culture.  Cut-throat cultures are a lot like being under a dictatorial regime.  And just like being under any dictatorial regime, there are things you can do to protect yourself, but all require a degree of courage and patience:

1. Form a coalition and wait for regime change – One option available to you is to go underground and form a sub-culture of like-minded colleagues. Think of this as your own personal rebellion. Meet regularly and plan how you can support and help each other both with information as well as results. This could be a temporary strategy or one you use when you hope to either wait out leadership change or overthrow the current regime. Overthrowing a current regime is a particularly dangerous gamble, but believe it or not, I’ve seen it work.

2. Follow the defectors – A second option is to seek out the defectors and find out why they left and where they went to. Odds are if they are happy with their new environment, it might be a good fit for you. I met with several coaching clients last week who had all left the exact same bank over the course of their careers. It was shocking that each of them individually described that well-known bank as “cut-throat.” It turns out, they all found their way to their current bank and they couldn’t be happier. Funny how that works. Notice where the defectors went to and ask to be smuggled in.

3. Get on a raft – A third option is to get out ASAP. This is the equivalent to leaving in the middle of the night with only the shirt on your back. You might just decide that you can’t wait any longer – no time to build coalitions or talk to defectors. Or maybe you’ve tried those options with no luck. If that‘s the case, hop on your raft. The good news is that I can promise you that you will immediately begin to feel better – free of the pressures and stress that you were under. The bad news is that this strategy proves to be the most unpredictable when it comes to finding another job. Be prepared that you may be at sea for a long, long time. Bring supplies.

Regardless of what you pick, pick something. A cut-throat culture will wear you down to the point that you are so emotionally abused, you may be tempted to cross the line and do something unethical – just to survive. When that happens, you’ve become one of them. Don’t let happen to you. Protect yourself, your integrity and your soul. Get a plan and get moving.

Warning signs that you are in the wrong corporate culture

Are you wondering if you are in the wrong corporate culture? For the clients I work with, there are some significant “tell tale” signs – and they aren’t pretty. Being in the wrong corporate culture for an extended period of time can cost us our health, sanity and in some cases our very soul. Here are four questions you can use to diagnose if you are indeed in the wrong corporate culture:

1. How are you sleeping? So, how is your sleep these days? Is your sleep not what it used to be? Look closely, this could be a sign that you are in the wrong culture. Whether it’s the inability to sleep soundly or troubled dreams, sleep is a great clue to something bigger at play. Here is an example of a dream a client of mine recently had:

“I am in the 50th story of a massive office building and I am at work with my colleagues. My boss’s boss calls me over, ‘we need to chat about your next role.’ As I walk over to him I feel the entire building slowly start to lean to my right and I get a horrible feeling in my stomach, but my boss’s boss does not look worried. I suddenly feel the building snap in half, the upper half falling quickly to the right toward another large building. I scramble as our building crashes at an angle against another building and catches on fire. Somehow, I jump down to the ground level and run as fast as I can from large, flaming chunks of building that seem to chase me and explode when they hit the pavement. I manage to get to safety with some colleagues, but then they say, ‘we need to have our 12:30 meeting back upstairs or we won’t have access to the intranet.’ The last thing I remember is looking at the broken, burning building, knowing it would be crazy to go back in.”

What is your sleep telling you?

2. How is your physical health? Has your health taken a turn for the worse recently? Are you suffering from chronic or mysterious symptoms? These could be a result of your work environment and not just your poor exercise regimen. A friend of mine had been suffering from debilitating stomach cramps for months. She went to every doctor imaginable with no diagnosis as to the cause. She changed her diet, tried various herbal remedies and had countless tests run – still nothing. She had given up. About the same time her health issues began, a new president of her division had taken over, resulting in a drastic change of the culture in the office. What had once been a peaceful, laissez-faire atmosphere was now a place of micromanagement and hostility. When she finally got up the nerve to confront her boss and to discuss the issues with Human Resources, her health issues mysteriously went away.

What is your body telling you?

3. How would others describe your recent mood? Are the people close to you commenting that you just aren’t acting like yourself these days? Are you snapping at the ones you care about on a more regular basis? Are your personal relationships on the rocks? Any of these could be a product of a bad corporate culture fit. Heather had that problem. She noticed that every one of her relationships always ended the same way: whoever she was dating would say that she just seemed moody and on edge to the point that they felt like they were walking on eggshells around her. Heather realized that the company she worked for was such a poor culture fit for who she was that it was costing her more than just discomfort at work. Heather left and found a company culture that fit her like a glove and a long-term relationship. She couldn’t be happier.

What are the people close to you telling you about you?

4. Are you losing who you are? Are you becoming a different person? If we are in the wrong corporate culture for too long, this is the heaviest cost we can pay – our very soul. Have you noticed that you are two different people – one person at work and one person at home? How much longer can you keep that up? And what is that soul-splitting costing you? If we go back to an earlier post on purpose, I would challenge you to ask yourself three questions:

o Do you like your customers?
o Do you like your co-workers?
o Are you proud of what the company stands for?

If you answered “no” to any of the above, you may be in the wrong corporate culture. The longer you stay and play the part, the further you could go from who you are.

What is your soul telling you?

Listen closely to your mind, body, heart and soul. They could be giving you an important message. And in my experience, they don’t stop complaining until one of two things happens: either you listen and leave or you are forcibly removed. I like the first option the best, don’t you? Start listening and get moving.

 

“This is NOT the right corporate culture for me”

Ah, corporate cultures. We’ve all been there – stuck in a place that just wasn’t us. Whether it’s the overly bureaucratic company whose policies just drive us nuts or the small “mom & pop” family-owned company where we aren’t part of the family, company cultures can either make our lives wonderful or an absolute nightmare. So how about you? Are you stuck in a company culture that’s killing you slowly each and every day? And what can you do about it?

This month, we will tackle this dysfunction: “This is NOT the right corporate culture for me.” Throughout the month we’ll cover, amongst other things:

  • Are you in the wrong corporate culture?
  • What are the ways you can tell what the right culture is for you?
  • What can you do to change the culture you are in… and can you?
  • And if you are the leader, what can you do to change the company culture?

Every Monday, I’ll kick off our conversation for the week by addressing one of these big questions. Throughout the week I’ll collect and share stories, examples and other opinions as we dig in. By the end of the month, if we haven’t cured this dysfunction, we’ll do a darn good job treating it!

Write to me with your stories, examples or opinions on the subject. I promise to protect the innocent (and guilty!).

So, look around. Do you feel like a “fish in water” at work or are you flopping around, gasping for air and don’t know how much longer you can last? Help is coming.