Leaders, What Culture Are You Prepared To Tolerate?

Company founders

Celebrity actors

Famous comics

And now Government officials and Senators.

In many of these situations what has quickly followed the apologies (in some cases), the contrition (in too few cases) or the steadfast denial (unbelievably) is an equally terse apology from the company or employer of said individual.

The company apologies have followed an eerily similar thread of contrite handwringing – often coupled with a sense of complete ignorance - for creating a culture where employees didn’t feel safe bringing harassment cases forward or where powerful figures were deemed beyond reproach.

Case in point London’s Old Vic Theatre put out this release on Tuesday.

“The Old Vic apologises wholeheartedly to the people who told us that they have been affected,” said Kate Varah, the theatre’s executive director. “We’ve learned that it is not enough to have the right process in place. Everyone needs to feel able to speak out no matter who they are.

“That apology really goes to the people who feel they were affected by this but what is also important to understand there is a new way forward for this organisation.”  

As repugnant and extreme as these examples are, they merely reinforce a personal belief that despite all the noise and energy about culture and building great company cultures, this is the truest definition of any corporation:

“Your Culture is defined by the worst behaviour tolerated by leadership”

For me, the power of the phrase hangs in one word - tolerated - because it suggests a willful corporate apathy to inexcusable behaviour.

Wells Fargo executives tolerated a hyper-aggressive culture of “cross-selling” that lead to employees creating 2.1 million phony or fake accounts and ultimately lead to a record fine of $185 million, a Government hearing and a fired and disgraced CEO.

Silicon Valley unicorn UBER tolerated a deeply misogynistic culture under former CEO Travis Kalanick until the company’s “bro-culture” was famously outed by a female employee. UBER’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi acknowledged that fixing the culture was his first task and, to that end, the company has recently released a new set of corporate values that were actually defined by the employees. Central to these new values is “We do the Right Thing. Period” which is powerful. As an aside what is surprising, to me at least, is that none of the values seem to reference the actual drivers who deliver the celebrated UBER service. What will those drivers have to tolerate under the new CEO I wonder?

In the midst of significant cost-cutting and layoffs, General Electric executives tolerated the practice of having a second corporate jet “shadow” former CEO Jeff Immelt as he flew around the world visiting other GE offices. At a cost to shareholders of $6,500 per hour this “shadow jet” scandal has cast a long shadow over the GE CEO’s legacy and a heightened skepticism about the company’s financial prudence. Perhaps it’s not surprising that newly-minted CEO John Flannery is recommending GE executives can fly commercial.

While these examples are extreme – which is why they make newspaper headlines and set off a chain-reaction of recriminations and upheavals – it is the smaller, more insidious behaviours that organizations tolerate which decimate morale and kill cultures.

The middle managers who don’t protect their teams from the wrath of management and let it all roll down hill.

The tenured leaders who espouse that ideas can come from anywhere yet pay no attention to any suggestions that come from the newest employees.

The sales leader with a crappy attitude, who is given a “hall pass” by management, because they always hit their numbers.

Perhaps this is why I admire Reed Hastings at Netflix who famously said “Do not tolerate brilliant jerks. The cost to team work is too high.”

Or Bob Chapman, CEO of barry-wehmiller and author of the sublime leadership book “Everybody Matters”, who rather eloquently had this to say about values and behaviours “It’s no good putting “honesty” or “integrity” on the wall if we aren’t willing to confront people who consistently fail to uphold those values, regardless of their performance.”

In my world, tolerate is what happens when our youngest wakes up at 6am on weekends and we let her crawl into our bed. It is not what happens when she refuses to share her toys or is disrespectful to her Mom.

What you’re prepared to tolerate – as a parent, as a friend, as an employee and as a leader – speaks volumes to the people around you. And to the environment you create.

So, does what you tolerate grow or diminish those around you?

Does what you tolerate stifle or augment the very best of your people?

Perhaps the better question is;

What are you no longer going to tolerate in pursuit of a truly brilliant culture?

Weigh In, Dear Reader, what are the behaviours you've seen tolerated by your organization that are getting in the way of your culture? I'm very keen to know.