As I write this blog, year 2017 is winding down. Throughout the year my blogging partner, Katrin Muff, and I have commented frequently on corporate culture. The media seems to share our interest in this subject. Indeed, references to corporate culture have shown up on the front pages of many reputable newspapers and magazines this past year. I did a cursory web search to gather up a few of these stories.
I don’t claim to have done a scientific study of how often and in what context the media mentioned corporate culture. Nevertheless, many articles popped up when I entered the search term “corporate culture 2017”. Most pertained to companies’ significant problems attributed to toxic corporate cultures. Of course, the media often showcases the bad news stories. Still, the volume of content was significant enough to warrant my attention.
The Wells Fargo Bank fraud hit the headlines at the end of 2016 and kicked off 2017 with bad news for the company. Several newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times reported that Wells Fargo employees had opened millions of phony accounts without their clients’ consent. The articles attributed the malfeasance to a company culture where pressure to meet unrealistic sales goals undermined corporate ethics.
Likewise ride-sharing company Uber made the news repeatedly throughout the year. Referring to the egregious sexist culture, the Washington Post had this to say:
“Corporate culture has long been the sort of squishy management consultant term that’s hard to define, even harder to change, and the recipient of lots of lip service yet little action by chief executives. But however amorphous the phrase may be, its importance was stamped into stark relief this week after a former female Uber engineer made allegations about its sexist, chaotic and aggressive culture.” 
United Airlines landed in hot water in April of 2017 when a passenger was forcibly dragged off a plane. The articles attributed the incident to a culture where behavior is scripted and employees have little if any latitude to make decisions.
The last few months of the year brought countless stories of cultures where women were treated as prey. For example, in November of 2017, Fox News set up a Workplace Culture Panel following reports of widespread sexual harassment throughout the company. And as recently as December, the New York Times published an article on sexual harassment at two Ford Motor plants in Chicago. The headline read as follows: “How Tough is it to Change a Culture of Harassment? Ask the Women of Ford.” 
While I could devote the entire blog to recounting similar stories, I believe that the examples I have offered are sufficient to make the point. Culture counts. No matter how amorphous the concept may seem, those of us who lead companies ignore our organizations’ cultures at our own risk. Consider the degree to which toxic cultures impacted companies and the people in them in 2017. Let us each resolve to assess and address our own organizational cultures in 2018.
Take the first step by looking at your current culture. Ask yourselves questions such as the following:
- What is the purpose of our company and what do we stand for?
- How do our corporate values influence our decisions and behaviors?
- What are the stories that we tell each other about our organization?
- Who are our admired heroes?
- Who makes the rules for the organization?
- What do we reward and what do we punish?
- How often do we have conversations that consider diverse opinions?
- To what degree do we value the contributions of everyone in the company?
- What do we do to show respect for all?
- How do we ensure that everyone’s focus is on serving our customers?
In addition to answering these questions ourselves, we should pose them to others. In my 30+ years of consulting, I have found that leaders are predictably astonished by how employees’ perceptions of the organization diverge from their own. While some are tempted to explain away the differences, the best leaders value the input. They dig deeper to understand and address the discrepancies.
Leaders create the conditions within which a culture emerges. However, they may not fully understand the possible consequences of the systems that they put in place. Likewise, they may be shielded from what occurs within the organization day to day. Asking the right questions and listening openly to the answers can provide them with the needed data for making appropriate changes to improve the organizational culture.
As I anticipate 2018, I wonder what catastrophes might be prevented in the new year if leaders of every company committed to taking a close look at their own organizational cultures. Chances are most would find a mix of strengths to reinforce and weaknesses to address. And in some cases, they may find signs of the toxicity that, if not eradicated, could create serious consequences for their people and their companies. Let us all resolve to become proactive this new year in stamping out the unhealthy parts of our cultures while fortifying the strengths.
Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins
Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.