Fighting Fire with Ire

If you want to change your corporate culture, you have to first understand your corporate culture. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger Keil Hubert relates the story of a well-meaing executive to tried to fix his broken organisation by ‘fixing’ each manager individually.

It was obvious that our CEO had been sold a pig in a poke the moment that the seminar facilitator announced that the participants were all required to give up caffeine for four straight days. Her announcement suggested that she was either insane, incompetent, or else unusually cruel. What it didn’t suggest was that we were about to learn any damned thing about positive ‘culture change.’

I’m sorry; let me back this story up. Last week, I discussed how fraudsters and business consultants cynically use our involuntary biological reactions to high-energy stimuli in order to convince their customers that they’ve experienced a ‘life-changing’ event. It’s sort of like sneaking up behind a friend and letting loose a blood-curdling scream: They jump. They get excited. They do feel different, mostly because their brain is suddenly flooded with adrenaline and a bunch of other fight-or-flight chemicals. They don’t, however, change. A momentary jump scare does not a revolution make.

All this came to mind when I was reviewing my notes from the very long, very expensive, and sadly ineffective ‘culture change’ seminar that inspired last week’s piece. Our company had sent all of the management staff to a private consulting firm’s event in the hopes of making our workplace less confrontational and more productive. That was the seminar’s stated intent, anyway. I think our CEO got ripped off, because the actual seminar had nothing at all to do with cultural change and everything do with personal change. Knowing what I know now about him, I suspect that the CEO didn’t appreciate that these were two very different things …

Each individual employee’s personal problems are unlike all of their colleagues’ personal problems. Together, this gestalt of crap coalesces as the malignant office culture that traps them all in an unending cycle of despair and doughnuts. 

I can’t really get mad at the CEO for this. He’d come from a very regimented career path. As a former military man, he was accustomed to every employee knowing exactly what his or her job was, what their place was in the larger organisation, and what was expected of them. He’d served on many different bases that all looked, sounded, and felt exactly the same. If a unit had performance problems, the accepted solution was always to correct the undesirable behaviour of the unit’s worst malcontents. They didn’t try and change the actual organisational culture because that wasn’t on option. The impersonal and aloof military HQ dictated everything that the organisation did, from what everyone wore to what they ate to what time the lights came on in the morning.

So, when our CEO came to our highly-dysfunctional campus and realized that employee morale was shot, discipline was near-non-existent, and productivity was pathetically low, he did the only the only thing that he knew how to do: he sent all of the senior managers to an intense, multi-day seminar in order to learn how to correct the undesirable behaviour of the unit’s worst malcontents. If we all understood our own faults and foibles (his reasoning went) then we’d be come back to the office and teach our underperforming employees how to do the same for themselves in classic military ‘train-the-trainer’ fashion.

It was a noble idea. I’ll give him that. Doomed to failure, but noble all the same. He meant well.

There were about fifty participants in my session. I only knew one other manager: a junior supervisor from our payroll department. Supposedly there were three or four shop chiefs from the production side attending as well but I hadn’t met them. Everyone else in the class was there for personal – not professional – self-improvement. I learned during pre-class orientation that a few people had convinced their employers to pay their course fees, but learned they hadn’t been sent for ‘culture change’ training. They’d come to get their personal lives back on track.

As soon as the doors opened, all of us attendees filed into a generic hotel ballroom that was vibrating with blaring pop music. Along the perimeter of the ballroom, a bunch of staff members were dancing like nobody was watching. [1] We were exhorted by the little old lady who’d introduced herself as our course facilitator to jump and dance because it was going to be such a privilege to take part in The Programme (capitalisation required).

So, this, but indoors

After a few awkward minutes of this, the ballroom doors closed and the loud music stopped. The course facilitator started laying down her Rules of The Programme: there was to be no (she insisted) ‘ingestion of caffeine’ while we in the course. She clarified that this meant no coffee, no tea, no sodas, no little lorry driver pills. Nothing. We’d have to go bare-brained. A collective groan sounded.

There was to be no smoking while in the course either, she continued. A quarter of the audience began to mutter angrily and move towards the exists. The facilitator didn’t stop there. There was to be no consumption of alcohol during the course. Half the room joined in the grumbling. Then she said that there was to be no taking of illegal drugs while in the course. At that last command, the room went awkwardly silent. I looked at the accountant from my delegation and raised a why-is-this-necessary? eyebrow. He responded with an I-don’t-think-we’re-in-the-right-room shrug.

It went on. We were told that we weren’t allowed to leave the campus for any reason prior to ‘graduation.’ We had a schedule with very little time for breaks. We couldn’t interact with people outside the course until the afternoon of last day. That meant no calling home to chat with loved ones and absolutely no sneaking off to do work. We were all expected to put the rest of the world on hold so that all of our attention could be devoted to The Programme.

It turned out that the course facilitator had an ambitious agenda. After the grumbling petered out, us attendees were all seated in a giant circle and were told to testify before the ensemble what terrible mistake had brought us to so low a point in our lives that we needed The Programme to reveal God’s Plan for Each of Us. [2] No one was allowed to remain silent. It took a while; many of the participants had a lot of metaphorical baggage to unload.

The majority of attendees who already knew what the course was about came prepared to talk. Our company, meanwhile, had deliberately kept us in the dark, supposedly to help us better ‘savour the surprise.’   

One of the first women to speak confessed tearfully that she was considering divorcing her cheating husband. Another woman admitted that she wanted help dealing with her suicidal thoughts. A young fellow announced (to much supportive applause) that he had decided to quit heroin. All I had to say when it reached my turn to confess was ‘My boss told me that I’ll lose my job if I don’t graduate this course.’ It was true, but it didn’t go over well with the crowd. Needless to say, us Company Men were looking, sounding, and feeling distinctly out of place. This … wasn’t what we had been told it was.

In context, then, the course facilitator’s programme rules made sense. First, she was trying to make the obvious point that our various addictions should be resisted. Fair enough; I was in the habit back then of downing an entire 80-ounce pot of coffee before driving to work. I was on conceptually and pragmatically board with her ‘get control of your vices’ message.

On the other hand, I’d grown up around this sort of ‘tent revival’ approach to manipulating audiences. I recognized some of the tactics that the facilitator was employing. The real reason why she’d implemented the ‘no substance’s rule was to trigger everyone’s withdrawal symptoms. Denying us the chemical crutches that kept us upright and civilised put us all on the defensive. We got irritable and cross with one another. People became irrational and childish. Meanwhile, the staff were always cool, calm, and in control. That obvious difference lent the presenters legitimacy, which helped drive home their lessons about self-control and personal responsibility. They, of course, were exempt from the course restrictions (but were slick enough not to let the participants realise it).

For the next four days, our surly band of brothers slogged grumpily through the various games, discussions, and activities that the course designer had engineered to help her penitent participants own up to their personal self-destructive natures. Some people learned to share their repressed feelings. Others learned how to listen better when others spoke. A few people seemed to experience a moment of epiphany and admit that their litany of woes may actually be their own fault. I can’t argue with those results; people who need help getting the help they need is usually a good thing.

When you figure that some of these strangers’ next stop was either a hospital room or a jail cell, I can’t begrudge any of them the time and money we all invested in convincing them to accept help. 

Unfortunately, the experience did absolutely nothing to improve our company’s longstanding cultural issues. If anything, some of our programme graduates actually came back, employed the lessons that they’d learned in The Programme, and made things worse. [3] That’s because the programme’s intent – taking personal accountability for one’s self-improvement – didn’t in any way address the systemic problems that plagued our campus. Specifically, the programme only required graduates to address their own perceived negative traits, not the traits that their peers and subordinates considered negative. So, our graduates came out of the programme eager to embrace the various bad attributes that they disliked in themselves (like smoking too much, or not spending enough time with their children), but returned to work feeling validated in their crap leadership approach. That didn’t help.

Second, the programme didn’t address collective behaviour or peer pressure. Our company had huge institutionalized ethics problems at the time: everything from sexual harassment cover-ups and systemic racism to nepotism and entitlements fraud. Unfortunately, the recurring message from the Head Office was that there were two classes of employees in the company: the ‘made men’ [4] who could get away with anything, consequence-free, and everyone else. As these senior and mid-tier graduates came back to the office, their line workers noticed that nothing had actually changed. The sexist pigs were still sexist. The racist thugs were still racist. The corrupt managers were still corrupt. The programme graduates might be more relaxed, but they hadn’t gotten any less evil.

This is why our CEO’s approach to ‘culture change’ was a resounding flop. He sincerely attempted to ‘fix’ his broken company culture by addressing individual actors’ negative traits while assuming that the company’s structure, governance, and processes were fundamentally sound. That’s akin to trying to escape a raging forest fire by trimming the dead limbs off of one tree at a time. Well-intentioned, but largely infective. Culture change, like forestry, demands that you fight fire with fire. Not with fire-and-brimstone sermons, group hugs, and feel-good sing-a-longs.

What we needed (and never got) was a systemic re-engineering of personnel performance standards. The CEO needed to re-set people’s expectations regarding acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and then enforce his standards across the board. The first several leaders caught undermining the reforms had to be publically thrown out of the company and replaced with people determined to meet standards. Those people who managed to successfully suppress their anti-social leanings could be held up as positive examples. People who couldn’t control their conduct had to go.

‘It’s not because of the quality of your work, Chad. You’re terminated because you’re an unrepentant abusive git.’

Yes, this meant implementing a purge (of sorts). Not the normal sort where a new executive cynically replaces all of the existing senior staff with his or her own cronies. No, what’s needed is for the CEO needed to bring in outside blood: new leaders that haven’t been compromised by the company’s ‘old guard’ and could therefore provide even-handed, fair, and just leadership. It requires a touch of angry determination to see the transition through. Anyone who refuses to give up the old ways has got to go. Hopefully with dignity, but go nonetheless.

Over time, the allegorical new growth displaces and overshadows the old. After three or four personnel replacement cycles, enough of the malcontents will have been displaced to allow the new corporate culture to become ‘the way things are’ for the majority of workers. Done right, new employees won’t ever realize how dismal the organisation had once been because there won’t be enough malcontents left to pass on the old institution’s (and legacy culture’s) corrupting values.

I’m confident that this was the right way forward because it was the exact ‘cultural re-engineering’ approach that I implemented in my own department after I returned from The Programme. I largely ignored all the feel-good, love-yourself, rah-rah messages and instead rebuilt the IT department’s collective identity. I changed all the official iconography and symbols, reorganised the team, replaced ineffective leaders with fresh blood from outside the company, and purged the malcontents who wanted to keep the team racist, sexist, corrupt, and perpetually angry. It took several years and a few ‘generations’ of new workers, but we eventually succeeded in making the department one that people actually wanted to serve in. By the end of the process, we’d re-built the IT department into a team with exceptional morale and esprit-de-corps, where anyone could build a respectable career and rise on his or her own merits. A place where people felt safe to be themselves and to contribute. Even better: no one had to give up coffee or cigarettes in the process.

I don’t want to ding our CEO for making an awful blunder; I strongly believe that he meant well. I spoke to him enough times to appreciate that he was genuinely compassionate, highly intelligent, and morally straight. We fought a lot over budgets, plans, and tactics, but we left each fight respectfully. No, he wasn’t a fool. He was, however, untrained. The man had a ‘hard’ science background; he hadn’t studied anthropology, sociology, psychology, criminology, organisational behaviour, or any of the other ‘soft’ sciences that he needed to pursue his ‘culture change’ initiative. So, when a slick salesperson offered him a ‘sure-fire solution’ for his constant personnel problems, he pounced on it. Unfortunately, we blew through a million pounds of company discretionary funds before he realized that The Programme – while highly successful at its intended purpose – couldn’t possibly deliver what he really needed.


[1] That is, enthusiastically … and badly.

[2] Yep. Our company paid £1,000 per employee for about one hundred managers and above to attend a Christian self-help programme. You’d think that sort of thing would be mentioned.

[3] I expanded this anecdote in my book Office Cowboys.

[4] Expanded on at great length in my book In Bob We Trust. Speaking of, if you actually read all the way down to the fourth footnote, good on ya! Contact me directly with the promotional code ‘ABOUTBOB’ for 20% off the retail price of the print edition of IBWT.

Title Allusion: Dino Elefante and John Elefante, Fight Fire with Fire (1983 pop song)

Images under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk copyright: forest, Gabiixs; at school, Naenaejung; dancing, Wavebreakmedia; suitcase, Sasha_Suzi; doctor, YakobchukOlena; cardboard box, LightFieldStudios


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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