Culture Blindness

You know that irritating person who can no longer smell their own cologne so they splash on more until the odor assaults everyone around them? Their condition is called nose blindness. 

But there’s another kind of blindness: culture blindness. That’s when you understand that something is rotten in your company but you don’t recognize that the stink is coming from your own office or the office of one of the other leaders. Too often leaders run about the place metaphorically spritzing everyone with quick-fix air fresheners. When leaders behave badly, it’s detrimental to the environment and no amount of training or cool agency outings or nifty office remodels can change that. The leaders must change their behavior.   

Most leaders are aware of the big glaring problems like abusive rage, sexual harassment, and race and gender discrimination. But some common cultural stenches that can come from leadership and negatively impact the whole place often get ignored. If you’ve noticed that morale stinks and your efforts to fix it have failed, maybe your leadership team has one of these problems. 

•    Character assassination. Gossip is an age old tradition for a reason. It can make us feel connected to the community around us, establish norms for behavior, and help people blow off steam. Every agency will have gossip. Gossip is pernicious when a leader talks maliciously and disrespectfully about others, creating a culture of backstabbing and character assassination that puts everyone on edge. Your employees aren’t stupid—they know when they leave the room or are out of earshot that they’ll be under attack. Nobody  can be comfortable or do their best work in those circumstances. 

The classic example is when one leader asks about another, “What does he/she actually do all day?” If you really don’t understand what the head of IT or new business or finance actually does, ask them. If you’re concerned about someone’s work ethic, address it. But don’t run around the agency asking people what other people do. This vaguely damning statement translates to, “I’m judging this person’s abilities and worth as a leader under the passive aggressive guise of a question put to another staffer to completely undermine the person about whom I am speaking.” 

•    Triangulation. When two people have a conflict and one of them involves a third person who can’t effect change, that’s triangulation. Let’s say that Boss 1 is angry with Boss 2 and goes to Creative A to complain. Creative A can’t do anything – the conversation may seem to be about Boss 1 seeking Creative A’s advice or input, but most often it’s actually about recruiting Creative A to Boss 1’s “side”. When two leaders are in conflict, they should only speak about it to each other, or, if necessary, another trusted leader who can actually help resolve the conflict. And if you’re like Creative A and on the receiving end of this kind of triangulation effort? Best to quietly and consistently refer Boss 1 to Boss 2 and try to leave the conversation. Or simply ask how, specifically, you can help. Triangulation is subtle but still pernicious. 

•    People pleasing. Some of the nicest leaders are very invested in their team liking them. They want to be loved. While this can be channeled effectively, it becomes a problem when it keeps them from doing their job. Being a boss can be like being a parent. If you’re doing it right, then your staff - like your kids – will sometimes hate you for it. These leaders avoid conflict and the tough conversations. If they can pass these conversations onto another senior leader who is less invested in being liked, that’s fine. But it can destroy a small shop where there’s no HR and the boss is too uncomfortable to address a corrosive issue that’s creating a hostile work environment. Sometimes, people need to be fired. Units or offices need to be closed. When leaders avoid these tough calls or conversations it’s like a slow leak in a tire. Eventually, you’ll have to stop and fix it. If not, you can ruin the tire and the wheel. You may even lose control of the car and crash. 

Feel free to add more in the comments. 


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