The tail wagging the dog: culture change vs top talent

Failing to set clear behavioural expectations and hold people accountable to them is the primary reason organisations struggle with culture change

Failing to set clear behavioural expectations and hold people accountable to them is the primary reason organisations struggle with culture change, writes Karen Gately

We’ve all seen it happen; the so-called high performing team member repeatedly getting away with behaving in ways no one else is allowed to. Entitled, demanding and disrespectful behaviours are all too often allowed from people with rare skill sets or a strong track record of success. Despite the adverse impact they have on their colleagues and the broader organisations ability to thrive, it’s common for these people to go unchallenged and be regarded as “untouchable”.

Allowing the ‘tail to wag the dog’ is among the primary reasons organisations typically fail to create the cultural environment they aspire to. Taking an inconsistent approach to the way in which values are applied will undermine any leader’s ability to engage their team and manage culture. When leaders fail to address poor conduct, continue to reward people for what they do, despite how they go about it, the trust and commitment most people feel is eroded.

Ensuring the tail isn’t wagging the dog in your organisation

1. Reflect on your current reality. All too often the leaders I work with fail to see the impacts of poor behaving staff on other members of their team. Being disconnected, often due to busyness, means many leaders don’t appreciate how poor behaviours are undermining the success of not only individuals but also their team as a whole. Others, while somewhat aware, fail to explore issues deeply enough to see how overindulged poor behaving ‘star talent’ are at the heart of many issue.

What level of priority does your leadership team place on behaviour and alignment with your organisations values? To what extent does the way people choose to interact with their colleagues or approach their role really matter to how they are perceived and valued? What signals are you sending to your team about behaviours that are desired or accepted? Are the decisions reached about the people you recognise, reward and promote aligned to the values you espouse?

2. Commit to creating the culture you want. Have a clear view of the environment most likely to enable your team’s success and fully commit to creating it. Ensure every member of your leadership teams understands achieving your cultural vision is a matter of strategic priority. When the ways in which culture impacts your organisations performance are well understood, leaders are more likely to play the role they need to.

Help leaders to see that while a single instance of poor conduct may seem inconsequential, when viewed in light of the organisations cultural aspirations its importance is evident. Tolerating poor behaviour from even one member of their team can undermine the entire organisations ability to create and maintaining a thriving culture.

3. Set and apply expectations consistently. Failing to set clear behavioural expectations and hold people accountable to them is the primary reason organisations struggle to deliberately influence culture. It’s also the reason why so many culture change programs fail to make any real difference to the way people typically choose to behave.

Badly behaved leaders and team members, who not only go unpunished but are also rewarded, set the standard at which anyone can reasonably be held accountable to. Expect every member of your team irrespective of their seniority or influence to behave in ways that have a positive influence on your team and business. Spend time discussing more than the outcomes people need to achieve but also the ways in which they are expected to engage and operate.

Place priority on ensuring leaders demonstrate behaviours aligned with those you wish to see from your team. Expect also that they address poor conduct irrespective of the individual contribution that person makes.

4. Select and develop leaders. Inexperienced and weak leaders are those most likely to tolerate or encourage undesirable behaviour from staff they view as ‘getting the job done’. Reflect on the leaders you most often observe accepting poor behaviour from high achieving staff. Typically those who do lack the awareness, empathy, courage or capability needed to have effective performance conversations and take decisive steps to address behavioural concerns with talented people.

Appointment of technical experts with poor leadership potential to management positions is a common mistake organisations make. Success as an individual contributor, while important, is a narrow view of the potential someone has to lead and manage others well. Consider carefully the extent to which a candidate has the character and aptitude required to become a strong leader of people. Inadequate leadership training is another common reason organisations struggle to manage the behaviour of difficult people.

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