Your annual satisfaction survey results are in and once again the culture and engagement scores are dismal. What’s going on? You’ve brought in open work spaces, flexible working hours, even frozen yogurt Fridays! So, why are employees so dis-engaged? CEOs, it’s time to take a good, hard look at what you may be doing to unconsciously kill the organizational culture in your organization.

Like it or not, the top leader of the organization sets the tone for the entire company. Their actions will be mirrored by their direct reports and will trickle down to everyone else in the company. This goes far beyond what is said in public meetings and corporate messages but in what exact actions you, as the CEO, take in tough circumstances.

Actions Match Your Stated Values

As a leader, you must be very clear on what you value in your organization. This may definitely change as your company grows but you must be sure to communicate, with your words and your actions, what the key principles are that the organization values. There are many companies who value growth, profit and revenue above all else. There is nothing wrong with this focus (although I will argue that if you don’t hold people in high value as well, your organization will implode) so long as this is clear. There are many people who also value that style of work and will fit in well with your team. These people will be attracted to those values.

The problem arises when leaders state that they value teamwork, honesty, integrity or safety first, when that actually isn’t the case. The corporation builds their team values, communication and hiring practices around these things. In reality, they come in second, or third…, to profit or growth. Now you’ve hired employees whose values fundamentally differ with the leadership. They will figure this out quickly and will soon be disengaged and looking elsewhere for a culture that more closely aligns with their belief system.

Reward Risk Taking – Truly

If you want to grow an excellent team and company, you must focus on innovation and calculated risks. Creating a culture where employees are penalized for all errors will quickly turn into a culture of apathetic employees who go with the flow. You’ll know you have this issue when no one around the table is willing to challenge the leader on their thoughts or direction. A healthy culture is open to collaboration and debate.

Strong leaders also know that they are not the smartest person in the room and should be very comfortable hearing from the excellent people they’ve hired. If you’re a leader with a room full of yes-men, you may have created a culture of fear and reprisal for anyone challenging opinions. Or you may have drastically under-hired your team. Both situations require immediate mending.

Hold Everyone to the Same High Standard

I should correct this statement slightly. While everyone in the company should be held to the same high standard, your leadership team must be held to an even higher standard if you wish to perpetuate a culture of accountability and trust. Too often I experience organizations where employees are disciplined, or terminated, for certain behaviour or actions. Select leaders who exhibit the same toxic behaviour are excused, or even rewarded and promoted.

The rest of your company will quickly become wise to the hypocrisy and you will lose the trust and loyalty from your employees that you’ve worked so hard to build up.

Cultural Fit Should be Top Priority

The absolute most critical piece in hiring any position in your organization is cultural fit. This trumps any skill that an employee brings to the table. Nowhere is this more important and visible to the rest of the company than in the leadership team. Hiring the brilliant jerk will cost your company more in lost productivity and employee turn-over than can ever hope to be recovered in the brilliant jerk’s innovative ideas.

If you’ve made the error of misdiagnosing some of the bad behaviour through the hiring process, then the behaviour must be dealt with immediately upon recognition. I’ve heard often about how important, skilled or lucrative someone is the company. So, their aggressive style is excused while they leave a wake of destruction in their path. The problem is, others start to emulate the behaviour (which they view as visibly rewarded) while your truly great employees will leave you as they have no interest in working in that type of environment.

Be very aware of your previously top employees who are suddenly criticized by these new leaders. This is a very popular strategy by toxic leaders to rid themselves of employees who could be problematic for them. These problematic employees usually have the values you want and see right through the self-serving behaviour exhibited by your newly hired employee.

Team Work is King

Collaboration and team work should be your top priority in growing and maintaining an excellent company and corporate culture. There will always be a place in most companies for truly excellent individual contributors, but you must be careful to honestly assess someone’s ability for collaboration, teamwork and leadership before hiring or promoting into a leadership role.

An individual who doesn’t value the collective input and value of their team will immediately under-deliver. There is no brilliance that trumps collective thought and input. Creating a space and culture for everyone to deliver to the best of their ability keeps your company agile, fun and competitive.

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