The Truth About Your Corporate Culture

Picture the scene. 

A young ambitious manager, filled with indignation and shock, is asking a seasoned C-Suite executive why he requested two members of another department to act in a way that threatened the very future of the entire organization.

The C-Suite executive, angrily bristling at being called out for his decision, tells the young manager that he couldn’t possible understand the reason why the decision was made.

“You want the truth?” he asks brusquely.

“You can’t handle the truth!”

You’ve likely recognized the Jack Nicholson’s immortal lines from “A Few Good Men”

A line you’ve likely uttered yourself numerous times in your career.

Whether it’s a fictitious story about the United States Marines or real stories about real organizations in the real world, the reality is that the “truth” about your organization might not be a conversation that many of your C-Suite executives are willing – or able – to have.

And, not surprisingly, it is often at times of utmost crisis that the truth inevitably comes out.

After two very public aviation disasters, what “truth” about the Boeing organization is likely to emerge? Were airlines and pilots adequately informed and trained about new features in the 737 MAX 8? What was known about the idiosyncrasies of the new technology and the new sensors by whom and when?

What was the “truth” about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos – and when did her investors know what many of her own employees had known for months?

VW’s “Emissiongate” scandal – and subsequently recalls and toppling of key executives – highlights another painful “truth” about an organization that was historically much revered and adored globally.

Truths aren’t always as monumental as those listed above. Often in the smallest ways, the truth of an organization comes to light. Sadly it is often the small ways that are most damaging to the morale and culture of an organization.

Diversity and Inclusion taskforces are struck, meet frequently and create bold action plans, yet the overt signs of a real D&I culture remain unchanged.

Innovation is broadly touted as the most critical imperative for an organization but new ideas are ruthlessly tossed aside as too risky and too difficult to operationalize.

For all the critical discussions about increasing psychological safety in the workplace, creating an environment of vulnerability where trust and collaboration can flourish, I wonder if creating an environment of truth isn’t even more foundational?

For all the necessary work about defining an organization’s purpose so that employees can find genuine meaning in their work and disproportionately contribute their heart and intellect, I wonder if equal attention shouldn’t be placed on ascertaining an organization’s truth first?

Re-reading Daniel Coyle’s incredible book “The Culture Code” I was reminded about one of the most famous PR case studies in history – the tainted Tylenol scandal – and a fascinating back story I wasn’t familiar with.

In 1975 President James Burke convened a group of 35 J&J executives to vigorously debate “The Credo” – a document crafted by the founder of J&J and an ethos that sat at the very core of the organization.

Burke was troubled by a sense that the famous Credo didn’t seem to matter very much to new employees and even he wasn’t entirely convinced that it should. Many on the J&J board thought the idea was insane but the meeting – and the debate – was held.

By all accounts the debate was so galvanizing that Burke kept regularly holding these Credo “challenge” sessions with employees across the organization. Perhaps not surprising there was a concurrent perception that the Credo had once again gained a central place within the organization’s culture.

Fast forward to September 1982 and 7 people fell ill and died from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules manufactured by J&J. For a pharmaceutical company this was a cataclysmic event.

Over the course of a week, buffeted by intense national media coverage and scrutiny and input from both the FDA and FBI, the J&J executive team weighed their options. At the centre of the debate was the notion of a product recall that would accelerate the demise of the entire company. Many outsiders were proposing a limited recall in Chicago where the deaths had occurred. A limited recall might slow the demise.

Burke and his team took another direction. They recalled all Tylenol product. At a cost of $100 million dollars. An unambiguous signal to the market.

Not content with that, J&J released brand new safer packaging just six weeks after the initial attacks. Contemplate the complexity required to make that happen.

Even more remarkable was that after many predicted that J&J would flat-line and become a footnote in business history, the stock actually rebounded, growing to levels that exceeded the pre-attack stock prices.

This Burke quote really sums up the story perfectly:

“We had to make hundreds of decisions on the fly, hundreds of people made thousands of decisions….Those thousands of decisions had a splendid consistency about them, and that was that the public was going to be served first, because that’s who was at stake…Because the hearts and minds of the people who were J&J and who were making the decisions in a whole series of disparate companies…they all knew what to do.”

There’s so many rich lessons to be taken from this story.

The relentless curiosity to debate and discuss the very foundational document that began the company.

The commitment to bring that discussion to all levels of the organization.

The recognition that going back to the Credo again and again and again created a ritual, a mythology even, about the story and the significance of it. In short, almost creating a organization-wide shared memory.

Perhaps, more fundamentally, it meant rediscovering – and recommitting – the truth at the heart of the company.

The question is, are you prepared to be as diligent and committed to defining, debating and celebrating the truth at the center of your organization?

Do you see the opportunity to reduce the complexity of your organization’s thinking and decision making by ironing out the truth of your firm?

I genuinely believe that if you can find that truth, being able to build trust, collaboration, agility, innovation will become a whole lot easier.

It may actually set your organization free.