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I Thought I Built a Great Culture, What Happened

Mikaela Kiner
I Thought I Built a Great Culture As an executive coach and HR professional I work with leaders every day who experience wins and losses, sometimes minutes apart. They face failures big and small, and the most confident have learned to reframe those failures as learning – fail fast, fail well – and move on. Stats vary, but current research shows that over 60% of new managers don't receive any training to prepare them for their new roles. Those same untrained managers become tomorrow's senior leaders, founders, and CEOs. Yet these leaders are responsible for team dynamics, not to mention establishing and reinforcing mission, vision and values.

Off to a Good Start

Lately there's been a welcome increase on attention to company culture. One and two decades back, many renowned leaders of successful companies were known for their autocratic leadership styles. The most successful CEOs have been described as having psychopathic traits and tendencies. Arguably today's leaders are more interested in building mission driven companies that engender employee loyalty. They recognize what it takes to hire and engage a millennial workforce. Out with dictatorship, in with collaboration, caring, and flex time.

Now more than ever, leaders are thinking about culture from the start. I've seen teams of less than ten invest time thinking about how to describe their culture and creating company values. They want to know how to tie values to everything they do – hiring, feedback, promotions and pay increases. Forward thinking companies set up quarterly checkins and encourage continuous feedback vs. waiting for annual reviews to tell people how they're doing. They talk about culture at team meetings and company all hands. They may feel they're repeating themselves until they're blue in the face, in a good way. So imagine their surprise when things go sideways.

Nobody is “Good” at Conflict

Every team goes through phases known as Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing – there's nothing you can do to avoid it. People need time to get to know each other and get comfortable working together. Trust and strong relationships don't happen on their own. Most people are not taught to handle conflict productively at home, in school, or on the job. I've never met a team that is inherently “good at conflict.” However, it is something that can be learned when leaders make it a priority.

It's natural for people to have minor disagreements, or occasionally even a major one. Healthy teams discuss issues, don't make things personal, are willing to apologize and admit mistakes. Things to watch out for are disagreements that get worse or go unresolved. Team members who dislike, disparage, or treat others with disrespect will poison the group. Long–standing battles and people talking behind each other's backs erode trust. In her new book, Dare to Lead, Brene Brown says “Talk to people, not about people.” That's a rule every team should live by.  

Interpersonal Struggles

Leadership is hard. It's hard to set standards, get buy–in, role model the right behavior, and hold others accountable. Yet when you sign up to be a leader, it's your responsibility to live into your values every day. Here are just a handful of instances where it's important that you speak up and step in.

– When two or more team members aren't getting along in front of other employees. It's distracting and unpleasant.

– People on the team let their poor relationship affect timelines and put results at risk.

– Managers or project leads are out of alignment. They give conflicting direction and feedback. Others become paralyzed, not knowing who to follow.

– Someone makes a subtle dig at a colleague who's not in the room.

– You hear people talking badly about a client, customer or vendor.

– People come to you with interpersonal problems but never resolve them directly.

It's likely you notice it when these things happen, but you let it pass. That may be intentional, because calling it out is uncomfortable, or because you think it won't matter. Maybe you never even considered whether and how to intervene.

Is That Insubordination?

Situations that involve you directly are more obvious. Maybe there are people on the team who refuse to take direction. Or they say yes, then go off and do something completely different. Is there someone who always has an excuse about factors outside of their control that prevented them from meeting a deadline or doing their best work? Either way, you need to address both behavior and work quality, and hold people accountable.

Organizations Emulate Leaders

If you're reading this thinking “Yes, the problem is that my employees don't follow our values. They know how they should act and they just can't be bothered. I need to draw the line, or hire new people,” think again. If the majority of team members are not behaving the way you'd like them to, remember you're the common denominator .

As a leader, your voice is the loudest and your actions speak even louder than your words. If people are being disrespectful, not demonstrating company values, or missing their goals it's up to you to name the behavior and work with them to fix it. Every time you let these things go, you're telling the team it's ok. They might not even know you're frustrated and unhappy.  

If these examples resonate with you, it's likely you need a culture re–set. In our next blog, look for ideas about how to reinforce your culture and values, and increase accountability so you can get things back on track.
Mikaela KinerMikaela Kiner, CEO & Founder of Reverb, is a native Seattleite who's spent the last fifteen years in HR leadership roles at iconic Northwest companies including Microsoft, Amazon, PopCap Games and Redfin. She has an MS in HR Management with a certificate in Organizational Development and is an ICF credentialed coach. Mikaela delivers results by building trust and engaging her clients in creative problem solving. Clients appreciate her strategic thinking and hands on execution. You can find Mikaela on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.