By Irving H. Buchen
How often have you met a former coworker at a conference or elsewhere who was fired or regarded as a problem employee and found him thriving, even exuberant: “You look wonderful. But you promised to come back for a visit?” Suddenly the light in his bright face fades and, with almost a growl, he grimaces, “I would not go back there even under a sentence of death. Leaving that place was the best thing that could have happened to me.” He then sees a client walk by and quickly and deftly disengages.
When this happened to me, I turned away and thought: “Wow! That was quite a load to drop on me. I wonder if he has met anyone else here from the firm and laid on them the same Jeckyl-and-Hyde double whammy. It is funny I never thought of myself as that different from him.”
What seems to be going on here? Why is it disturbing? Was I just lucky to escape the axe? Will our company come to be known by those who left, rather than those who stayed? Or, worse, by those who did better elsewhere? Finally, how and why did all the HR safety nets fail?
To answer these questions, a diagnostic checklist needs to be compiled, and one is offered here:
Many terminations are the fault of cultural mismatches.
This is seldom admitted because it would reflect negatively or call attention to the pivotal role of culture, which is typically undefined.
2. Catch 22
Performance and cultural mismatch are often not synonymous.
Misfits keep their discontent to themselves and perform well (like functioning alcoholics).
3. First Miss
Why was that not caught at the interview stage?
Because we were so eager to land this catch that we forgot about the net.
4. Fail Safe
How did he avoid the later evaluative stages?
Most evaluators were intimidated by and could not make sense of his vague discontent and his positive performance and were quick to avoid the ambiguous and give him a pass.
5. Exit Interview: Last Chance
What was revealed at the exit interview?
Nothing. He never showed up.
What if anything can be extracted from all this to ponder, to salvage, to reconstruct? We can go down the road of multiple processing; recruiting, interviewing, evaluating, exit interviewing, and so forth. Or reexamine the entire HR role as gatekeeper: the offer, onboarding, training, promotion, leadership development, and so on. And, finally, the most elusive and critical issue of all: the culture of an organization. How is it defined, how is it communicated, when, and by whom?
Typically, the last is avoided, and we quickly back up to the safety of processing or gate keeping–something more manageable, more improvable. But culture? Who would be so suicidal as to go down that less- or untraveled road? When was the last time that subject was ever discussed? Did anyone ever suggest it could be quantified?
What rapidly becomes clear is that we have a tiger by the tail and we are besieged by so many unasked, unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable questions that it may explain why culture is generally so ignored and is so important. So the first thing to do is to settle the subject down–give it some order and sequence; and above all acknowledge that far from being abstract, it affects every employee, especially those it alienates and fires.
What is culture? Where does it come from? What does it do to or for us? Whatever else human beings are and do over time, we are supreme organizers. In fact, evolutionists claim that not until individuals banded to work together as communities did major developmental shifts occur. Of course, that also involved us subsequently in all sorts of cultures–governmental, religious, fraternal, and work. Big and small, known and unknown, culture is so omni-present that one is tempted to conclude that if we were to subtract all that does not animate or direct our lives we would be left with little other that is not culture.
2. Culture Is Invasive
But to grasp its essence and its impact on our daily lives, we need to engage the subject in more manageable and tangible terms. We need to see how for better or ill it shapes our 9-5 working lives–how the culture of our firm was formed, how it changed over time, and whether it still possesses the kind of resilience and intelligence we associate with the Founding Fathers and the Bill of Rights.
3. Culture Is Not Static
It changes over time but reluctantly; and then not quickly or easily. Culture resists being overthrown in general but insists like constitutional amendments on due process and consensus. That is because culture is supposed to be deep-seated, not subject to changing whims or fashions. It should be bedrock. But of late, culture has been subdued, pushed into the background and subjected to marketing. It has become brand. But brand is static and fixed; it is not a force of or for development. Whether you are aware of it or not, you work in and for a culture–and that culture and its CEO have growth designs on you.
4. Culture Impacts
Culture is not trivial or minimal. It makes, unmakes, and remakes you. It is a second creation story. The first is what you do and are still doing; the second is what is done to complete you–all that is unfinished and yet to be. That is why choosing a culture is as important as choosing a mate or God. You have to choose what stretches and carries you beyond your current self and opens you up to surprise. It is equally important that culture, in turn, also chooses wisely. Its investment is not a small one. Besides it spreads the gospel.
5. Cultural Distinction
Although there are many organizational cultures out there, differentiation rapidly occurs with the second journey of completion. That cannot be undertaken apart from the goad and stamp of organizational culture that imparts definition. It is signature–it is the way you ultimately think and strut: “You can always tell a Google or Apple man.” To be accurate and deep and honest, our resumes should supplement our job listings with their cultural counterparts and contributions. Truth be told, when we hire we are often hiring cultures rather than just their embodiments. Good headhunters are always selling what culture brings to the table. When we hire a CEO from a Six Sigma company, we are really hiring his or her culture.
6. Vision and Mission
We resisted for many years defining vision and mission until the critical issue of productivity-by-alignment hastened the process. This was a critical first step because culture finds its home between the two. Indeed, such polarity grants culture its extremes of being simultaneously big and small, obvious and hidden, silent and talkative, solid and fluid. Above all, organizational and personal culture not only animate structure externally and internally, but also do so until each defines itself in terms of the other. Culture s the nexus between the two–the tension wire between heaven and earth, gods and mortal, leaders and followers. Vision stretches culture to its top; mission anchors culture to its base. Its head is in the clouds; its feet on the ground.
7. Culture Loves Structure
Culture is busy. It spills over into the every day. It shapes the work environment, creates work conditions, affects work relationships and conversations, and even determines whether the level and intensity of exchange is noisy or quiet. It is also where the character of the culture becomes the behavior of the company.
8. Cultures Have Creeds
They tend to be noble and kind so as to redeem greed on the one hand and create civility and courtesy on the other. A creed tends to be multiple not singular and covers all bases. One such exemplary cultural creed is to be: Smart, Just, Happy, and Reassuring.
9. Culture Is Humane Resources
A number of years ago when quality statistical controls were introduced, the precondition was eliminating fear. Culture is the behavioral watchdog of vision and mission. It sniffs out whatever compromises productivity and work relationships. In particular, it focuses on sources of employee apprehension. When culture discovers that the attitude of employees anticipating evaluation runs from fear, freeze, fight, to flight, it calls for a halt to a process gone awry. Similarly, when it finds a pattern of tolerance for managerial bullying, it calls for an end to such practices.
10. Culture Is the Core and the Cure
Culture is cohesion; it is the glue; it is whatever holds everything and everyone together. It grants direction, purpose, and unity. Without it, there is no collaboration; no esprit de corps; no co-dependence, no consensus, and, finally, no followers for leaders to lead.
In short, a good culture is HR at its best. When employees quit or are fired because of cultural mis-matching, it may also be the time for more drastic change–for the appearance of a counter-culture to turn things around. Spitting out those who do not fit, not providing a rare octagonal hole for an octagonal peg, may signal that the culture has lost not only its flexible range and edge, but also forfeited its right to the 10 commandments above; and, above all, to the stretch of diversity, the welcoming of misfits, and the enthusiasm of difference.
About the Author
Irving H. Buchen, PhD, secured his doctorate from Johns Hopkins; taught at Cal State, Wisconsin, and Penn State; served as a consultant and executive coach; and published over 150 articles and 10 books.