My dear Nephew Simon,
Your most recent letter put a big smile and a good laugh into the heart of an old man, as you described your current organizational culture as a bitter, lukewarm cup of yesterday’s coffee. Yes, it can be that bad! You will soon discover, regretfully, that this is the new norm for many health systems and other industries. Sadly, toxic workplace cultures have become pervasive, pernicious, and worst of all…permitted. And this, in my experience, is almost always a management problem.
The issue begins at the top. It stems from, what I refer to as trophy-leadership. The board hires a C-suite that looks good on paper. They make for good advertising. Their bios looks good in the press. And they are typically very accomplished in their field. But their actual ability to build engaged and effective teams is about as flat as their resume. They model poor management by their narcissistic attitudes or notorious absence, and this pattern of poor leadership becomes the organizational norm. Sigh. But let not your heart be troubled! As we discussed in my last letter, the culture for your team starts with you.
You asked if I could talk to you a little more about how managers create culture. I would be happy to, as this is a point that simply cannot be emphasized enough. Simon, listen, many well-meaning managers that I have met in my career have had good hearts but bad habits. And it is these bad habits that undermine all they are really trying to accomplish as leaders. Their teams are unhappy, and turnover is high. They blame the problem on bad luck, poor compensation and benefits, and disloyalty. The problem, however, is usually themselves.
As I mentioned in my last letter, the culture you create is just the cumulative impact of everything you say and do as a manager. But there are some particularly culture-defining opportunities for you to be especially mindful of. I’ll share just a few of them.
Meetings. Meetings are a microcosm of the organizational culture. If you, as a manager, call a meeting of your team, be sure to always show up on time. Rarely be late. Apologize if you are and try to not let it happen again. Chronic lateness to meetings shows a subtle yet significant disrespect for the time of others, and time is our most valuable and irreplaceable asset. Never interrupt others while they are speaking. End your meetings promptly as planned; your team is busy, and they have important work to do. Try to let people know the purpose of a meeting before it begins.
Email. We communicate a lot by email in our organizations, and so the way we use (or don’t use) this tool will say a lot about our culture to our team. Keep your emails relatively brief. Long, drawn-out emails suck the life out of the recipients. If you have a lot to communicate, put it in and attachment, and schedule a meeting to review it. Don’t send the same thing out by email, repeatedly. And be sure to reply to emails in a timely manner, particularly those from your team or others who depend upon you for your help. Your email etiquette conveys culture. By the way, a brief, unexpected email expressing gratitude to someone on your team might just make their day.
Visibility. Finally, if you want to create a positive, engaging, encouraging, trusting, and respectful culture in your organization and among your team, they need to see you in action. Doing this requires face-time. It requires boots on the ground. The culture you want to create needs to almost ooze out of you. Get out of the office. Offices are, in my opinion, one of the worst things to ever happen to managers. They suck us in, and we can go whole days, weeks, months without ever engaging face to face with our team. Let your light shine, Simon. As a wise person once said, no one buys a lamp and puts it under a basket.
Well, I think I’ve shared enough about culture for this letter. Bear in mind we have only just scratched the surface. Maybe in my next letter we can begin to discuss the real foundation of great management, or what I like to call, the heart of a manager. Do write again soon.
Your affectionate Uncle Josh.
Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash
Last modified: February 11, 2023