The Five Most Common Culture Problems — And Their Solutions

Author

Liz Ryan

August 18, 2016

Dear Liz,

I’m interviewing to become the first HR Director for a business-to-business services firm. I’ve had two interviews and I really like what I’ve heard so far. For my third (and I believe, final) interview, the regional President who will interview me has asked me to prepare questions for him.

I do have questions for him, but I want to focus in on his Business Pain as I’ve learned from you to do! If they didn’t have significant pain, they wouldn’t be replacing their former HR Manager (who moved out of state) with an HR Director now.

The company outsources its payroll, benefits and HRIS to a third-party vendor. Everyone I have met in the company says that the vendor does a great job. So, I think the region’s Business Pain is more in the area of culture, which is not surprising because they are growing fast and hiring a lot of people.

What are some of the most common culture problems you observe, and if you can share them in a few words, how do you solve the most common problems? I want to talk about my experience creating training programs, communication programs and retention programs as I think these kinds of interventions could be very useful for my (hopefully) new employer.

Thanks Liz!

Yours,

Chris

Dear Chris,

Often as HR practitioners we are taught to see the world through program-colored glasses. That is, we get used to observing a team and a workplace with the question “What do these folks need — more training, more communication or a different pay structure?” planted in our heads.

We have tools at our disposal — -the ability to write policies, classrooms and devices through which we can reach our teammates, and so on – and we want to use them! I teach the opposite approach. Forget about interventions for now and focus on what is happening inside your possible next employer. What is causing your regional President sleepless nights right now? I guarantee you he isn’t lying awake thinking “I need a new leadership development program!”

Pain shows up in little ways at first. Your regional President (I’m calling him Mike) undoubtedly runs into daily or many-times-daily issues that make him wonder “Are we doing everything we need to do to keep this team focused and connected as we grow?” The answer may well be “No.” It’s very hard for growing companies to keep all the pieces together.

Small companies tend to grow a ton in a short term and then overreact by installing too much HR infrastructure (and the worst, crusty kind of infrastructure to boot). They rush to install formal systems like 360-degree feedback programs and annual Employee Engagement Surveys.

Try to resist the urge to suggest even more weenie programs to Mike when you meet him. Listen to him and anticipate his problems, instead. That’s how you will grow your Pain-Spotting muscles!

It’s tempting to go straight to solutions but I don’t recommend that you do that. The only way you will build trust and credibility with Mike is by truly hearing him and probing more and more deeply for his most pressing Business Pain. Once you have a good sense of Mike’s pain, you can tell stories about times when you dealt with similar pain. These are called Dragon-Slaying Stories!

Here are the five most common corporate culture problems I see, and ideas for solving them.

  1. Employees are bored, discouraged and/or generally unhappy. You’ll know your prospective teammates are less than excited because Mike or another interviewer will tell you about it, because you spot it with your own eyes when you’re in the facility or because Mike talks to you about quality control or attendance issues. How do you solve this? You can’t force people to be happy. You have to listen to them, and you can’t even do that until you build trust with them. That’s a slow process but it’s worth the effort!
  2. Supervisors are under-equipped, so they over-supervise. Naturally a new supervisor thrown into the deep end of the pool will feel anxious. Insecure supervisors will often over-manage and get bossy. That will rankle the employees and the negative cycle is reinforced. Before you think about supervisory training, you’ve got to open lines of communication. You’ve got to define a supervisor’s job for the benefit of everyone — not just the supervisors — and then coach and support your supervisors as they grow into the role.
  3. Turnover is too high. If people are leaving your company regularly to get better jobs and it isn’t in your business plan to employ a revolving door of short-timers, you have a turnover problem and thus a culture problem. The solution is once again to back off on rules and policies and give your employees a voice. It’s amazing how people will join in and make great suggestions if only they are respected for what they know and what they bring to the organization.
  4. Conflict or tension is palpable. The easiest culture problem for a leader or a whole leadership team to overlook is a dark, heavy feeling in the air. Nobody talks about it because they are afraid to bring up the topic “Why is it so hard to work here?” No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but all the employees know that it feels like death to walk into work every day. The solution here is that you will be the truth-teller, and if you’re not willing to do that, don’t take the job! You have an advantage over the managers who got there before you. You were hired to build a healthy culture. That’s what HR Directors do!
  5. Communication only flows down, and not up. 

    A sure sign of an unhealthy culture is communication that flows down rather than up and across. Some companies put out memos and across-the-board email blasts to communicate with their employees, but the executives and managers don’t stop and talk with employees when they run into them. In a healthy company, everybody is always talking. Managers are always asking “What do you think about that? Is it a good idea? How would you do it differently?” They want to hear people’s opinions, no matter what they are. You can instill this kind of communication once you get the job — and you can probe for this kind of pain on your interview.

You can start your Pain-Spotting conversation by asking your possible next boss “In the midst of all this growth, I’d have to imagine that you sometimes run into communication roadblocks and disturbances in the force. Sometimes it’s absenteeism and other times supervisors aren’t sure how to manage their teams, for instance. Have you been running into these kinds of issues?”

You are becoming a champion at probing for Business Pain and seeing any prospective employer through a cultural lens rather than a break/fix lens. This is a big step in your evolution as an HR Minister of Culture.

Enjoy the journey!

Yours,

Liz

 

This article was written by Liz Ryan from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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