How critical is your business culture?

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I was thinking about this last night for a while. Let me try to lay out what I’m talking about. I’ll probably do a semi-poor job, so bear with me.

  • In every organization, regardless of size or industry, decisions need to be made and projects need to be approved.
  • This is usually a multi-step process of something being presented, and then others (oftentimes many others) giving feedback and “tweaks” and the original thing being redone.
  • Sometimes, the final product can be miles away from the original product/concept. Sometimes, they can be very similar.

The main ‘rub’ / elephant in the room with this whole sequence of iterating and creating new things (or even spin-offs of old things) is that there has to be criticism, either constructive or overt, from many people at every stage. Otherwise, what would people be doing? If you had a boss that said “Looks great!” to everything on a first pass, well, that might be awesome … but it might make you a little weary after a while, too. That likely means your boss could give two shits and everything is great, fine, get it out the door. That’s not the best environment either.

So there’s essentially ‘tiers,’ best I can tell, of how critical of others an organization can be:

  • Low: Totally passive; most stuff gets through without a ton of process/tweaks. This would be an org of a lot of “satisficers.”
  • Medium: Somewhere between passive/quick turns and complete heads-down/49 people get to weigh in on everything and the tweaks never stop.
  • High: 59 people get to weigh in on every comma placement, the tweaks never stop, and the criticism can feel personal.

There’s probably some intermediate tiers that I’m missing, and of course, every organization is different.

Like most things — thank you, Goldilocks! — it’s all about hitting that middle slot, if you can. You don’t want a totally passive culture, but the highly-critical, assume-everything-can-be-scrapped-and-turned-totally-around culture isn’t good either.

The primary reason that ‘highly critical’ culture isn’t good — IMHO — is because oftentimes it’s leadership (i.e. people that would ideally be driving strategy and long-term thinking) who are in there making the most last-second tweaks and adjustments and “What if…” and “Maybe we could…” That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I would say it’s a good quality of a leader to constantly be thinking about how some idea/concept/product could be better than it currently looks/is, but you all probably know the down-in-the-weeds leader who’s clinging to the stuff they know best in order to not be seen as incompetent.

On the criticism-as-personal front: had this happen to me a lot, in almost every job I’ve ever had. That said, I’m an overly sensitive person. I struggle often to remember that work criticisms are about deliverables or tasks; they’re not (usually) about you as a human being. Sometimes it can feel that way on projects, though — especially in those highly-critical, change-it-all-on-a-dime cultures.

This is an interesting little discussion to me, because no one really thinks about it (best I can tell). People aren’t sitting in meetings saying “How critical of others is our culture?” They’re sitting in meetings talking about revenue and margins and headcount and projects and bandwidth and financial metrics. But all that stuff — the stuff we really care about, but don’t admit we care about — is deeply driven by these other concepts.

Parting thought: let’s say you have one of these highly-critical cultures, right? If you have a bunch of motivated, purposeful, passionate people working but over time they realize every project they work on can be cluster-f’ed by people from other departments or with no contextual ties to what they’re supposed to be working on, well … eventually that’s going to sap motivation. As your people’s energy wanes, your revenues eventually wane. That’s how it goes. Management is about people’s energy; it’s not about deliverables. That’s why that middle-spot above makes sense; be critical and keen and analytic on the big things, but be a little passive on the smaller ones (that don’t truly matter as much). It keeps your people humming, which is good for your org.


My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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