In the past few weeks, I’ve had an influx of conversations around organizational culture. In each case, the leaders were concerned about the possibility of their culture turning toxic. As I listened to the unique contributing factors for each organization, ranging from recent mergers to exponential growth and struggling financials, what I heard were managers worried that a scramble for resources and recognition would turn unhealthy. Certainly, that’s a valid concern, and one we should all proactively manage. It takes so little to turn an organization from an award-winning culture to Lord of the Flies.
But the challenge of teams fighting for resources and working to receive recognition doesn’t scare me. We all have varying degrees of tolerance for workplace conflict, and I don’t mind hearing a direct conversation or a heated discussion as long as the focus is still on work (not personal issues). When I hear a heated (though non-violent) discussion, I’m able to filter what was said in the context of passion and engagement. What I hear is someone who cares. I hear someone who is asking questions and pushing for answers. I hear energy.
The culture that scares me the most is the one where no one fights anymore. When no one is pushing for faster deadlines, more budget, more autonomy, or to have their voice heard, that’s when I feel a sense of dread. The deafening silence in those organizations is evidence that the workforce has given up. They fought too hard for too long without any results and lost the will to fight. They enter a state of learned helplessness where even though they know things could be better, they’ve stopped trying to create the change themselves. It becomes an office full of zombies who watch the clock and do just enough to stay employed. They quit, but stayed.
That’s the kind of culture you need to worry about the most. When no one is pushing the organization forward, it’s clear the top performers have checked out. It’s widely known that top performers account for 4x the productivity as the rest of the workforce. They work smarter, faster, and often harder than their counterparts, but they’re also the most at risk for burnout. It’s the employees who had the highest engagement that struggle the most with feeling ineffective, unsuccessful, and unproductive.
When the high performers are burnt out and stop working late, demanding attention, and taking risks, it’s the last sign before total collapse.
Keeping an eye on top performers is a smart way to identify how impactful individuals feel in the organization. When the naturally driven and engaged top performers start doing the bare minimum, it’s time for immediate, decisive action.
Start by directly engaging employees for feedback. Listen and take all reasonable actions you can to show you’re committed to resolving the problems.
Give the high performers a reason to re-engage. Remember, high performers are heavily recruited by your competitors and are feeling unfulfilled if they can’t make an impact on the organization. The flight risk is high, and they’re your most productive employees—even when they’re disengaged. Giving the high performers greater responsibility and asking them to help lead the transformation to a healthier culture can create an infusion of energy as well as an influential partnership.
Finally, remember that, as with all change, there will be growing pains. Even when change is necessary and clear to everyone, it can be uncomfortable. Set milestones and find ways to publicly celebrate positive corporate behaviors. Culture change won’t happen overnight, but if the leadership team understands the urgency of the situation, they can model healthier behaviors immediately to show growth in the right direction.