July 20, 2024
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Dubroff: Companies looking to change work culture face daunting task


Henry Dubroff

Henry Dubroff

You don’t have to look too far to find a big company in deep trouble.

Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, United Airlines — three icons of global business have taken their lumps recently. Add to that the failures that led to the financial crisis, the retail meltdown and too many credit card hacks to count and it’s no wonder that the global corporate elite is under attack.

In the case of Wells Fargo and VW, we’ve seen new executives take over, promise a house cleaning and vow never again to make the same mistakes.

But is there any guarantee that next time will be any different?

A just-published book, in which I had a supportive role, argues that it will take more than new names on office doors and a new CEO at the top to fix what’s wrong with many corporations. “Good People, Bad Managers: How Work Culture Corrupts Good Intentions” by Samuel A. Culbert (Oxford University Press, $24.95, published May 29), takes a deep dive into the inner dynamics of executives, managers and their employees, arguing for a direct, open approach to problem solving.

Culbert, a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, deconstructs the way that workplace culture is constructed, demonstrating that inside most companies, “work culture is a force field” that blocks effective communication and prevents problems from being spotted and dealt with. “Managers have a much tougher job than anybody thought,” Culbert told me in a phone chat on May 30. Fixing corporate culture, he said, means “changing people’s awareness.”

I’ve got more than a passing interest in hoping Culbert’s message gets across. I’ve known Sam for many, many years, I wrote the forward for “Good People, Bad Managers,” and I’ve been a sounding board for many of the concepts it explores.

I first got to know Culbert at a reception for judges for the Gerald Loeb Awards, a top honor in business journalism, hosted at UCLA. We started a dialogue that’s continued over the years, through recession, wars and corporate screw-ups that are increasingly depressing.

I come at the problem with a journalist’s “hold the CEOs accountable” approach, with orange jumpsuits for criminals and hefty clawbacks for mere incompetents, something that only recently has resulted in bad bosses coughing up millions.

Culbert caused a national sensation in 2010 with his call to end performance reviews — a call that has been increasingly answered by corporations looking to improve results.

In “Good People, Bad Managers,” Culbert attacks a system that causes people, however good their intentions, to act badly. “I don’t blame them,” he told me in our phone conversation, adding that “these folks are in a pressure cooker.”

Companies looking to change their culture do face a daunting task. They must really encourage their managers to be more open and, therefore, more vulnerable, but also give them the security they need to open up to their direct reports.

They must make it safe for line workers to open a dialogue with their managers in a way that doesn’t punish heretical thinking and promises an open mind.

What managers in the middle of a culture change need is a “Captain Midnight decoder ring for what people are doing and saying,” Culbert said.

These are enormous enough challenges that embarking on them guarantees that at some point any group within a large organization will fall short.

But I have seen a few times in my life when a small team of truly engaged professionals can accomplish amazing things. Culbert himself speaks to the turnaround that Louis Gerstner brought about at IBM and the ways that The Home Depot has found to engage with customers and then re-engaged with them when it fell short. I wish he had written about a few more of these, including Costco, a personal favorite.

I hold out some hope that instead of turning first to big data and second to high-priced HR consultants, American CEOs, still the envy of the world, will begin the process of cultural change by taking a single step: a good, long look at how managers at the lowest level are interacting with their employees to achieve effective results through straight talk.

• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.