Two Words that Tell You That You Have a Culture Problem

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Fran S.

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I’m always hearing long stories about the executive I’ve been asked to coach, the leader of a team I’ve been asked to work with, or the Individual Contributor that is causing people to leave. These stories may involve aggressive personalities, immaturity, disruptive communication styles, and social cluelessness. Usually, about at the point where the HR person or attorney is telling me how this person went off the rails, I’ll hear that they tried to explain to the complainant, “That’s just… (insert name here.)”

“That’s just…” isn’t just an indicator that someone’s personality, style or treatment of others has been a known issue in the past, but that those in a position of authority have both excused and accepted those attributes as a cost of doing business. They have normalized something that they recognize to be aberrant or problematic. I have heard, “That’s just…” to minimize and normalize racism, harassment, abuse, and shoddy business practices. I have heard, “That’s just…” to suggest that the people raising concerns are somehow inflexible or not adaptable because they find the behavior problematic. By suggesting that problematic conduct in the workplace is acceptable because someone’s style or personality is somehow immutable, the organization sends many unintended messages:

• Your concerns don’t matter
• We view this person as an insider and a complaint will make you an outsider
• It is a requirement of our culture that you tolerate things that interfere with your engagement if most of us can tolerate it.
• Accountability doesn’t apply to some people.
• We don’t have the tools or skills to address this known issue so we pretend it is normal.

Fairness and respect in the workplace are the core of organizational success. When people perceive that each person is held to the same standards, that respect and dignity are part of the DNA of an organization and that their perspective, especially if it not the same as the majority, is valued, organizations thrive. “That’s just…” undercuts all of this in a single sentence.

If you are an organizational leader or HR practitioner, ask yourself if you have ever chuckled while explaining “That’s just…” Put yourself on the receiving end. How did the person coming to you feel about their interaction with that person? Did your response validate their feelings? Did the response convince them you were going to take them seriously? Did the employee feel that trust was established so they would come to you again in the future? It’s highly unlikely. Rather, what you might say is, for instance, “We are aware that (name) can be a challenge to deal with. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

Once you’ve done that, ask yourself what your process was for deciding that you were going to head down the “That’s just…” road.  Do you have a blind spot?  Were you told that this person was “just this way,” from the beginning?  And most importantly, ask yourself what you can do to remain clear-eyed in the future to be sure that you are not engaged in a pattern of unwarranted excuses for failing to provide feedback, coach, report or even investigate.

Healthy organizational cultures require clear values that are lived consistently and apply to everyone.  A commitment to respectful behavior, candid feedback, and clear expectations builds engagement rather than alienation when problems are brought to your attention.


Fran S.

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