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Is Policy Creating your Culture?

One of the common drivers of culture is policy. Policies, both written and unwritten, can shape a company’s culture. One of the activities in changing culture is to find out what policies are driving cultural elements that no longer serve the organization.

Make the wrong thing hard to do. Make the right thing easy.

— Holly Golightly, from the song "Stopped My Heart" on the album "Slowtown Now!"

What kinds of policies are shaping your culture? How can you identify and dislodge these policies? Sometimes when you uproot a policy that has deep roots in the culture, you may disrupt policies and culture that you hadn’t anticipated.

Here are some examples of policies that are no longer serving many organizations, along with some ideas on how to untangle them.

Arbitrary Dates to Drive Urgency. Commitment to dates, in areas of high uncertainty. This is typical in many organizations that measure success via deadlines. What happens when people are asked to put their neck on the line for a date? Usually, they will build in a ton of buffer. “Under promise and over deliver” is the motto of many people in this role. And what happens when we are off-plan along the way? People are incentivized to lie or cover up the gap between plan and actual. I asked a fraud prevention team once whether they were driven by preventing fraud or meeting dates. Their collective blushing gave me the answer.

What cultural elements can spawn out of a date-driven culture? Waste and outcomes are less important than promises. Asking for help becomes unlikely because that would mean admitting you are off plan.

Approval Processes. Approvals are a big offender of creating negative cultural elements. When people need approval in order to take action, they give up responsibility for the decision. For example, I want to send out a communication company-wide. If I need approval before I do this, I have absolved myself of responsibility for the communication. If my communication causes a backlash, hey my boss approved it, it’s not my fault. Approvals can create a culture where no one takes responsibility.

A good first step here is to change the approval to a notification. David Marquet uses the phrase “intend to”. “Boss, I intend to send out this communication.” This creates some safety as you uproot the policy, so the boss is not left in the dark, but the responsibility remains with the person doing the work.

Travel Approvals. Google gives employees a dollar spend allocation for trips, which they can bank or borrow against future trips. There is no approval required to travel and there is no approval for your expenses. Google assumes people won’t travel if they don’t have to.

What culture is created when travel and expense approval is required? When travel approval is required, that tells me that I do not have responsibility for the ROI (return on investment) of my work. I have to go begging each time I need to do what’s right for the company and feel like I’m asking for a luxury. Is it really a luxury to fly or drive, be away from my family and sleep in a hotel? Sometimes people just give up and stop asking, figuring that if the company wanted me to do what’s right they would make it easier.

A simple solution is to gives teams responsibility for their P&L (or budget & spend). When teams decide whether travel will be worth it to contribute to the returns, approval is completely obsolete.

Communication Protocols. There are many communication protocols, especially in a hierarchical organization. Are you allowed to talk to your boss’ boss without clearing it through your boss first? I heard an executive once command that “I will not meet with anyone unless they are a Director or above.”

What type of culture does this create? In some cases, it creates what my friend Kelly calls the “Permafrost layer” between management and workers. Information won’t get to leadership if they refuse to talk to people. When you can’t go over your boss’ head, ideas will die at the manager level. This creates a culture where ideas don’t incubate and people eventually just give up. At one company, someone was rewarded for pushing an idea through even though his boss has rejected it 3 times. “Good job!” they said, “we need more of this!” How about not rejecting his idea 3 times?

Layoffs. At many companies, it’s taboo to say aloud that layoffs might be affecting culture and productivity. When companies have a policy of regularly scheduled layoffs it impacts the culture. Are you surprised that layoffs are a policy? Remember the GE “cut bottom 10% each year” policy? First, it creates protectionism, people make decisions with the goal of saving their own jobs. Second, it sends the message that everyone is expendable. I once heard someone tell their staff, “you are lucky to still have jobs.” What culture does that create? I think of employment as a two-way street, you pay me and I make you money. Once people start thinking of their job as a “favor” they stop looking for ways to add value to the company, and just do as their told.

In high layoff cultures, change is really hard. People don’t want to risk any black mark that might put them on the chopping block. “If I do my job well, why would I try anything different?” Job mobility also plummets for the same reason. People don’t want to be the new person in a department, because they will be the first one cut.

This is just a small subset of policies that can inadvertently drive culture. What policies have you seen affect culture? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.

— Peter Drucker

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