How do well-meaning companies become soul-sucking bastions of evil?

Example of work text message; disengaged employees, workplace from hellIf you’ve never experienced a dysfunctional, distrustful, Darwinian nightmare of a workplace, count yourself lucky. If you have, you understand the lasting impact of these environments on confidence and self-worth, not to mention physical and emotional health.

I’m pretty sure no one ever started a business with the goal of becoming a corporate prison, but sadly, a great many end up that way. How does it happen?

#1 Cognitive Dissonance

Psychologist Leon Festinger proposed this theory: We humans have an inner need for our beliefs and behaviors to be consistent. When they aren’t this creates disharmony that has a powerful impact on behavior and actions. People become cynical and distrustful.

Organizations often create lofty statements of purpose and lists of core values, then fail to consistently use these as filters for decision-making. Or, leaders rationalize decisions without anticipating the disconnect perceived by employees. I once worked with an organization that actually farmed out the creation of its “Values” to a consultancy which then delivered a product based solely on input from the executive team. Fortunately, this version wasn’t rolled out. We convinced leadership to adopt a participative process engaging grass-roots peer leaders. What we got was unfiltered feedback about the tacit or perceived values of the company, and consensus about “aspirational” values. In a future post, I will discuss “dialogue-based leadership” and how it can help to reduce cognitive dissonance in organizations.

#2 Bureaucracy and Territorialism

Have you ever been in a job interview where you were questioned in detail about the number of reports and size of your budget in a previous role? It’s a completely outmoded way of gauging the size of a person’s contribution, but one that’s common in many, mostly larger, companies. Hmm – shouldn’t you be asking what I was able to accomplish with scarce resources and a limited budget?”

Tying titles, levels, and rewards to size of team and budget leads to bad behavior. Management has no incentive to flatten structure and empower employees. Even worse, I’ve seen Machiavellian maneuvering during budget creation and blatant land grabs by departments or business units in competition for resources.

The lack of trust engendered by territorialism is deadly to culture. Favored departments become predators of talent and resources while others become prey. Leaders focus on defending turf vs. collaboration. The little people get eaten.

#3 Hanging onto Bad Bosses

Of all the factors that can make a workplace hell, the most damaging (and most obvious) is leadership’s tolerance of bad bosses. A good friend told me that when he took over as CHRO for a large private company, he became a hero by focusing on only two things: filling open positions quickly with high quality talent, and zero tolerance for “bad bosses.” A few years later, he was promoted to president.

We’ve all had bad bosses and know the misery they create through poor communication, over- or under-managing, and lack of people skills. Many hiring/promotion processes result in advancement of the person who was best at the work done in the department, not the best at leading people who do that work. A well-known R&D organization realized that their best scientists were often not the best managers of other scientists. They began creating a group of non-scientist leaders whose primary focus was supporting innovation and removing roadblocks, and who were evaluated on the success and retention of their scientists. In contrast, I’ve seen organizations hang onto bad bosses because they hit their budget targets, even as they continually bleed talent.

In short, the difference between a great workplace and a miserable hell-hole can be as simple as shifting how we measure and on what we base our decisions.


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