How micro acts of power can erode a great culture

“Culture is about the traditions, the language that you speak, and the value placed on every individual in the organisation” – Adam Goodes

When I read this quote recently it made me zing. Not just because I would love to be able to be so succinct in capturing the essence of something complex, but it hits the nail squarely on the head.

Often I am called in to work with execs who can't quite define their problem. 'Stuff' just isn't working. People aren't working to the standard they'd like to see, or the speed isn't there and there doesn't appear to be any obvious reason for it. I am routinely reassured they’re good to their staff, that there are a few issues to resolve but by and large it’s a great place to work, "if we can just get people on board".

A year or so ago I spoke to a second-tier executive in a midsized NFP that had recently done a staff survey. The organisation does really complex, emotionally demanding work with few resources. Staff are constantly under the pump. The previous staff survey had come back with unusually low staff satisfaction and a feeling that the executive team effectively lived in a little bubble, out of touch with the work the organisation did and with no idea of the day to day issues experienced by the people on the ground. The executive team results were exceptionally positive, they loved their work and their colleagues.

The exec were flabbergasted that the people on the ground didn’t feel the same way and put it down to staff not understanding the complexity and busy-ness of their executive roles. Staff were well paid. There were monthly certificates awarded for good work. They even provided the odd morning tea. It was staff envy and sour grapes that were the problem, not any failing on behalf of the leadership group. They decided to manage the situation by regularly and 'nicely' telling staff that actually, the executive team were working really hard thank you very much and that they (staff) should be a bit more understanding.

I caught up with this guy again late last year. A second survey had been done since we last spoken, explicitly with the intention of ensuring that the message about the executive team had sunk in and that people now understood how lucky they were to have such a cohesive leadership group. They did not. The results hit new extremes of abysmal for staff and dizzyingly high for the exec team. The senior leadership group remained perplexed. How had their emails and speeches about how hard they worked not elicited the rank and file's admiration?

I asked this manager about how the leadership group could get it so wrong and his answer belied a scenario I see over and over again. They had become completely disconnected from the day to day experience of others. As we gain power we lose empathy - even the best and kindest of us. According to Berkley based social psychologist Dacher Keltner those with power suffer deficits in empathy, the ability to read emotions, and the ability to adapt behaviours to other people. Another, University of Toronto Professor Michael Inzlicht's research shows obtaining power may even change our brain function. In the light of the Royal Commissions into the financial services industry and institutional sexual abuse, it might seem the usual endpoint of this is extremes of unethical and sometimes criminal behaviour. In reality that’s not the case, the typical result instead is a failure in everyday self-management. It’s the failure to keep small inconvenient promises, a propensity to monopolize the spotlight, to make decisions in a bubble of yes people and to expect little privileges (is there anything that signifies to staff ‘us and them’ more than ‘letting’ them eat the picked at, leftover gourmet cheese from the previous night’s Board meeting?)

All these acts add up to the culture of your organisation. Those traditions of privilege albeit small, the words that you use to describe the importance of particular individuals or groups or kinds of work, the value you place on the people in your organisations. Of course, culture is more than just the executive team - each team has its own culture, each regional office, each business unit. But they are all shaped around the standard the executive upholds or walks past; whether senior leaders pursue and whether junior leaders are allowed to pursue those every day micro abuses of power or whether instead, they work to ensure their empathy and generosity come through. It's the former that eats in to trust, that creates an environment where discretionary effort dissolves and little acts of employee subversion proliferate.

But, fortunately, it's also little acts that dial your culture back. Listening. Admitting to mistakes. Keeping promises. Giving credit where it's due. Ensuring the rules are the same for everyone. Gratitude for the work that is done. It even turns out gratitude rewires your brain too, it reverses our priorities and helps us appreciate those around us and our own privilege.