According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Carbon Monoxide (CO) is “an odorless gas that can kill you.” Pretty straightforward, right? Science was not always my strongest subject, but I do know that CO is a dangerous fume created when gas is burned. If the fumes are not ventilated properly, the results can be deadly. The same is true for organizations. If the toxic fumes within an organization’s culture are not ventilated properly, it can result in a phenomenon called Cultural Monoxide. The toxic fumes left undetected kills organizational culture.
Let us use a house as an example. Most houses have at least one furnace that is operated off natural gas or propane that provides heat during the winter. In our house, the furnace is located in the basement. There is a vent that runs from the unit to the roof where it carries the deadly fumes to open air. From there, the fumes are no longer a hazard to our family’s health.
Organizational culture can be summed up by the way your team feels when they come to work. The behaviors, the attitudes, the beliefs, the feelings. Culture is everything to an organization. Peter Drucker said that, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As a community leader you have a responsibility to better others and the world you live in. Developing a positive an enjoyable work environment for your people is critical. Your organization may be a school, church, local government, small business, non-profit, or a sports team. Whatever world you live in, as the leader, you influence the culture more than anyone else. Culture starts at the top. It requires your daily attention. You have to fight for it.
Warning Signs Of Cultural Monoxide
Timeout for a Public Service Announcement (PSA). If you do not have a carbon monoxide detector(s) in your house, get one. Seriously, like yesterday. CO is a silent killer with no warning signs. A CO detector is the best way to know that there is an issue. Unfortunately, there is not a device that detects dangerous levels of cultural monoxide in your organization. Fortunately, unlike carbon monoxide, cultural monoxide comes with warning signs.
You can detect cultural monoxide through its symptoms. I just had my annual dermatologist screening. It is one of many preventative visits with our doctors we should be taking advantage of to head off any issues early or detect any abnormalities (PSA number two). Each year, we do a “culture checkup” with our team. Just like my trip to the dermatologist, we are taking preventative measures to catch something in its early stages. If the dermatologist finds something of concern, he/she develops a plan that addresses it quickly and removes the problem. We should do the same with symptoms that are threatening our organizational culture.
Our culture checkup is an opportunity for me to meet individually with anyone who leads anybody in our organization. It is a process in which they have my undivided attention to answer three simple questions that guide our conversation:
- What are some words that you would associate with our culture that are good?
- What are some words that you would associate with our culture that are bad?
- Are you happy?
These three simple questions can detect four things. One, like it thankfully did at the dermatologist that day, it provided affirmation that everything checks out okay. The culture is healthy. Two, the consistent feedback, both positive and negative, gives you a good baseline diagnostic of your organization’s culture. Three, you pick up on things that have improved or digressed since your last checkup. From the physical checkup side, you may need to exercise to improve your health. From the cultural sense, you may need to develop strategies to improve your organization’s health. Four, you detect abnormalities. Things that are not consistent. Maybe a subculture has developed, maybe a team member is in a season of struggle, or maybe even that team member’s season is coming to an end.
As we discussed earlier, the toxic gases need to be ventilated properly. They need to vent up. When people get sick or die from CO poisoning it is because the system failed. There was a fitting loose, a hole in the ductwork, or the furnace was not functioning properly. Whatever the malfunction is, the fumes are pushed out laterally through the house rather than ventilated vertically to open air.
We have all seen this take place in organizations. Team members tend to find it easier to vent laterally rather than taking their problems vertically to those who can solve them. There are very few circumstances where venting to a co-worker is healthy for an organization. Granted, you had a bad day and you just needed to get some things off your chest to feel better, vent laterally. What we are talking about here is when your griping, your discontent, or your disagreement is related to the organizational culture. This needs to be vented up before the toxic fumes poison the organization.
Do you have a peer that continually vents to you? Remember this. Your silence is inherent agreement. Do them and yourselves a favor. Offer to go to leadership with them to share their concerns. Let them know if they do not, you will. Your decision to do this or not develops culture.
Quality Listening Detects Symptoms of Cultural Monoxide And Encourages Proper Ventilation
As a leader, you must listen. It is in article one, section four of the leadership rule book! Whether it is during a culture checkup or when a team member decides to vent up. Do not just go through the motions, but genuinely try to hear what your team is saying. Your organization’s culture is at stake. If you fail to listen, you are basically shoving a rag in the pipe. No one will feel comfortable venting up. The symptoms will go undetected and poison the organization. Andy Stanley says that, “Leaders who do not listen will eventually be surrounded by people with nothing to say.” Powerful!
On the same page the CDC defines CO, they say, “The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.” An organization with a toxic culture can have similar symptoms. The stress and anxiety created by the work environment can cause these symptoms to develop and cause further damage. They go on to say, “People…can die from CO poisoning before they have symptoms.” Leaders that are out of touch with the pulse of their organization may not see the symptoms until it is too late for treatment.
As leaders, we have an obligation to detect the toxic fumes seeping through our organization. Be a detection device for these toxic culture killers. Lead well by being engaged with your people through regular culture checkups, genuinely listening, and making sure that culture matters.
Ordinary to Extraordinary Intersection
What are the toxins that poison your organization’s culture? Are you aware of them? Has your organization had an annual checkup? What culture are you contributing to? Are you genuinely and authentically listening to your team?
A quick side note, would love for you to put in your podcast queue the episode of the Hangin’ with the AD Podcast I mentioned in last week’s post, Interceders. The episode was released last Thursday where I discuss the concept of community leadership with the hosts Josh Mathews and Don Baker. If you live in the world of athletic administration, make sure to subscribe to their Podcast, they are doing big things to better others in the world they live in!