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Stop misbehaving?

A blog written by Michiel van Delden: “Years ago, I worked for a company pervaded by a fairly corporate culture. The top30 leaders included only two women. One day, at a management meeting for this group of leaders it was announced that one of them had decided to accept a position with another company and thus would leave the group. A silence followed the announcement. Then someone shouted: “One down, one more to go! 

Laughter ensued; it seemed a harmless student joke. They were a nice enough group of people, that I often met with in my role as internal consultant. Leadership development was taken seriously, people were open and generally behaved warmly towards each other. No-one said anything about what had been shouted – nor did I.

Leadership failed

Only recently,  I read the report on the research conducted by the Van Rijn Committee, which had been asked to investigate unacceptable behavior at the Dutch public broadcasting company (consisting of various individually operating  broadcasting companies).

The results of the report portrayed a shocking company culture. Almost 58% of the respondents had either been a victim or witness of instances of pestering, intimidation, sexual misconduct, or discrimination. The broadcasting companies’ cultures are tough and challenging. The common thread in the report is ‘leadership failure’.

Staff members expected their managers to address the issues they encountered adequately, but in most cases their managers did not. Leadership was missing, leaders proved themselves to be egocentric, or even showed toxic leadership. The report’s recommendations mostly entail strengthening leadership competencies, therefore.

Are leaders to blame for specific cultures?

Indisputably, the role of leaders is crucial in changing cultures and behaviors within organizations. It triggers the question whether we can turn things around: are leaders to blame for any current negative culture? Formally speaking, yes, they can be, especially in cases where they were the perpetrators themselves (not in the case at hand). That is, however, taking too narrow a perspective for gaining a full understanding of what is happening.

Both leaders and staff members create organizational cultures. An organization’s norms and views on what is ‘acceptable’ influence managers and staff members in equal measure. Both groups confirm what is the norm everyday. By their own behavior and by accepting specific  behaviors of others.

What is ‘acceptable’?

The Committee’s major recommendation is ‘stop misbehaving!’ The issue is, however, that individual teams considered the conduct the Committee describes more or less  ‘acceptable’. The teams saw it as ‘acceptable’ because it fitted their norm to such an extent that the team members adhered to it for a long time.

The ensuing behaviors may not have been the most pleasant ones but were seen as “part and parcel of our world” or resulting from “playing in the Champions League every day” – an excuse for letting off steam.

Similar convictions – of both managers and staff members – are a probable cause for the longevity of the culture at the broadcasting company. Just like my acceptance of the student joke at the company I worked for: the behavior struck me as it was against the grain of my own norms, but I considered it to be ‘acceptable’ given the context.

Tough conversations

Strengthening leadership competencies will no doubt help improve the broadcasting companies’ cultures. Let us not underestimate, however, how hard it will be for the average manager to escape from the prevailing culture. That is the reason we must acknowledge the responsibility of all other colleagues, too. To be clear, I am not referring to the victims here, but to the entire community that makes up an organization. Colleagues within teams and departments will need to determine what composes a healthy culture together.

Anyone finding prevailing norms problematic will have to show guts as tough conversations with people who feel the norms are fully acceptable will ensue. The talks will require leaders competent in facilitating them, creating a safe environment. This is conditional to enabling new, shared norms to emerge. Once teams have defined them, it is important to recognize that establishing the targeted culture is a lengthy change process, involving leaders to play their part as well as appealing to the responsibility of every individual staff member.”

Michiel van Delden is an expert in organizational change and communication and partner at Involve.


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