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August 30, 2017

Defuzzifying Dangerous Silicon Valley Company Cultures

Google’s recent events have called into question its company culture, and the cultures of others in Silicon Valley. The questions swirling around the company culture will continue long after the current situation is resolved. With that news and other high-profile company cultures in the spotlight, it’s strange that no one is talking about the roots of company cultures.

What is at the roots of a culture? A lot of humans that are going to interpret rules, expectations, and policies are at the root. Until the roots are addressed, attempts to establish or change a company culture will only be temporary.

In the case of Google, the question that deals with the culture isn’t as much about what is acceptable gender policy as much as it is, how subjective – open to interpretation – are those policies and other policies that influence the culture.

Of course, the more visible necessity of strong leadership sending a clear, strong message about the culture is essential. Equally as essential and not as obvious is the need to have policies, practices and processes in place that are objective – not open to interpretation. Subjective policies, practices and processes will counteract all of the constructive work of the leadership and the message.

Where is the danger?

Fuzzy language, processes, and expectations are the danger and they hide in plain sight. “Fuzzy” means subjective – open to interpretation. That is where the few bad apples that want to resist, or to counteract a positive culture will hide.

For example, a financial services company in the Southwest had to recover from its first sexual harassment scandal and had to recover quickly. Until that point, it had been a good-ol’-boy culture in which the compliant phrases about sexual harassment had been circulated, but the policies were fuzzy with plenty of room to protect the leaders that were used to getting around the rules.

Phrases such as “will not be tolerated,” “unwelcome conduct,” “an offensive environment,” are examples of fuzzies. This is where the people that might cause trouble begin to rationalize their actions and hide behind the interpretations.

The fuzzies are dangerous when they are in the policies, processes, and consequences. If there is something open to interpretation, there are grounds for conflict.

What’s the remedy?

Fuzzies can be squeezed out of policies, processes, and consequences through a relatively simple process taught by human performance guru, Dr. Robert Mager. He calls it Goal Analysis, but he describes it as defuzzifying fuzzies.

Once a fuzzy is discovered, it must be translated to observable performances. If done in conversation it sound something like this:

Boss: “There will be no unwelcome conduct!”

Defuzzifier: “Well said, Boss. When you observe “unwelcome conduct” (or whatever the fuzzy is) what actions are you observing?”

Boss: “Well, no one should tell jokes that the listeners consider to be inappropriate for the workplace,”

Defuzzifier: “Fair enough. What else?”

Boss: “There should be no pictures on display that people consider to be sexually oriented.”

Defuzzifier: “Got it. What else?”

The “what elses” continue until the boss decides the list of observable performances describes her fuzzy of “unwelcome conduct.”

That process is how the fuzzies were addressed in the policies and in all of the communications dealing with sexual harassment in the financial services company. That complemented the leadership’s strong message of the cultural “clarification.” With the fuzzies translated into observable performances, there were no places left to hide.

Calling this a “simple” process does not mean this conversation or the efforts to review and revise work processes to rid them of subjectivity are easy. It takes a lot of effort, but the process is not complex.

The work processes that must be reviewed are all of those that support the message. In our sexual harassment example there are processes for:

  • Educating people on the subject;
  • Reporting violations;
  • Addressing reports of violations;
  • Taking disciplinary actions;
  • Reviewing and revising policies.

Each process is made up of steps taken in order to achieve the intended outcome. The steps must be reviewed to ensure there are no gaps in the process and that the language is free of fuzzies.

What is the danger of other cultural fuzzies?

Subjectivity cannot be allowed in the language, policies, and practices of a critical cultural component of an organization. Sexual harassment is an obvious example, but this applies also to cultural descriptions, such as “high performance culture,” “a great place to work,” or “an inclusive culture.”

The problem with having fuzzies is that it puts bosses in the tenuous position of being the judge. Yes, you want bosses to have good judgment, but you don’t want work processes to cause them to interpret subjective guidance on what should be done, how it should be done, and how it should be evaluated. That opens each situation to conflict, which is a tremendous obstacle to performance in the workplace.

When you drill down to the root of most workplace conflict, you will find the disagreement is over a work process that is subjective – left open to interpretation. Even a good boss will find it difficult to be good when they are trying to defend subjective work processes and systems. As W. Edwards Deming – the acknowledged Father of the Quality Movement – put it, “A bad process will beat a good person every time.”

Subjective work processes and systems are the dangerous root of most all evil in the workplace.


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Rex Conner is the author of What If Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business? and lead partner and owner of Mager Consortium where, since 2012, they’ve applied the uniquely effective processes of Dr. Robert Mager to the entire spectrum of human performance in the workplace. Conner has witnessed the common violations of common sense while working as a trusted partner inside of more than 50 companies in dozens of industries over the last three decades. He is also a Certified Instructional Technologist, holds a Masters Degree in Education, and a Doctrate in Flying Instruction. For more information, visit www.magerconsortium.com.

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