Leadership and organizational culture: Are you headed for a #MeToo reckoning?

Leadership and organizational culture: Are you headed for a #MeToo reckoning?
February 25, 2018 Ken Ashdown
goldfish jumping out of water

As Edgar Schein (1990) notes, “Failing to understand how culture works is just as dangerous in the organizational world as failing to understand gravity and the atmosphere is in the physical/biological world.” Nearly 30 years later, in the wake of sexual harassment scandals that rocked Fox News, then Hollywood, and are (finally) being acknowledged by the music industry, we’re learning just how costly such ignorance can be. It’s hard to grasp the full scale and scope of the financial, legal, reputational, and relationship damage, in addition to the pain and humiliation inflicted on the victims. But the price will be even higher if we stop at naming the perpetrators and fail to fix the culture that enabled them.

Just as nations have cultures, so do organizations, individual departments, teams, or entire industries. They have tangible aspects — those we can see, hear, feel, or otherwise experience directly (such as jargon, workflows, preferred tools, etc.) — and intangible ones (including attitudes, ideals, and mythologies). As Schein notes, culture is basically “the way we do things around here,” based on a set of shared assumptions that ultimately drive the organization. It permeates everything the entity is and does. A culture is what makes it possible for people to work together and to compete more effectively in the outside world, by providing informal rules, boundaries, and expectations. It’s so pervasive that we become inured to it; David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement address offers a useful aquatic parable.

Cultures can also be healthy and productive, or unhealthy and dysfunctional. An organization’s culture can make change and innovation easier, or much harder. It can determine whether strategy thrives or dies. It cuts both ways.

Some of the norms and beliefs underpinning the pervasive sexual harassment in media and entertainment appear to include: Bad behaviour is excused, if the perpetrator produces hits. The “casting couch” is real. In a talent buyer’s market, whistleblowers have short careers. And so on. You don’t have to be an industry insider to know this.

That this culture is and was an open secret does not excuse the perpetrators. Indeed, they need to be held fully accountable — and so does the leadership where the sick culture was allowed to fester. That’s because, as Schein argues, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” They foster and shape it through their actions, or inaction. They set the tone, pace, and the example. They promote the development of culture according to their preferred systems of reward and penalties (or lack thereof); and by their choices in allocating resources such as time, money, and effort, whether their own or the organization’s. If a culture is the water in which we all swim, it’s the leader’s job to monitor its quality – and not just for the sharks.

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” – Edgar Schein

So it’s encouraging to see the Producers Guild of America establish Anti-Sexual Harassment Guidelines; it may be overdue, but it’s a step in the right direction. Meanwhile in the music sector, Neil Portnow’s ill-considered comments indicate just how deeply embedded and pernicious culture can be. Of course, the entertainment and media industry isn’t the only one subject to sick cultures and failures of leadership: Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, and Kobe Steel are some of the more recent and high-profile examples. Their specific manifestations may be different, but one conclusion is the same: the culture starts at the top. It should be no point of pride that in each case, the rank-and-file adapted to the environment; to borrow from Krishnamurti, it’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick culture. The key is course-correction before the whole ocean is polluted beyond recovery.

Let’s face it, diagnosing a culture is hard. If it were easy, things might be different and we might not need #MeToo movements. But industry veterans can be inoculated against a particular culture. For transplants from other industries, the relatively small number of surface cues and symptoms don’t tell the full story, and may belie the vast, unseen system of beliefs, attitudes, rationales, etc., lurking below. It requires courage to leave the CEO fishbowl long enough to get an accurate picture, and an hard-nosed objectivity, especially when you depend on that culture for a paycheck. Then, if you can figure out what the culture really is, you have to actively manage it. Again, no easy feat.

It’s still leadership’s responsibility. No strategy session can be complete without an honest, thorough assessment and analysis of the company culture. It should be an urgent concern for every leader, because it’s 2018… and #Time’sUp.

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