Control is the enemy of culture

When I worked in advertising, cleverer people than I were preoccupied with setting higher aspirations for our global company. One genius came up with the line’ good is the enemy of great.’ By which he meant that we who were satisfied with good performance would never excel. He had a point, but no ear for language.

The idea that our dearest beliefs may prevent us from achieving our ambitions has always stuck in my head. Recently it resurfaced when Price Waterhouse Coopers released a study on institutionalised corruption in Kenyan business. The big news, said PwC, is that the big bosses are no longer the biggest thieves. Nor, they added, must we heap further opprobrium on Millennials, the young generation that’s already the whipping boy for employer woes.

The rotten rump of corruption, says PwC, is Kenyan middle management. That’s not going to win PwC any new friends, but it does open a wider discussion. If the very people you rely on to manage the day-to-day operations of your business are devoting time and energy to defrauding it, what should you do?

In this situation, the natural inclination of business leaders is to impose control. PwC itself recommends that checks and balances be redoubled. Well they would say that, wouldn’t they? They’re accountants.

But the very people they expect to implement sustainable control once the leadership has moved on to the next crisis will be … middle management.

You see, when your most trusted employees have no qualms about stealing from you, that isn’t a control issue. It marks the collapse of your organisational culture.

That culture may not have been very robust in the first place. In my experience, business leaders are practiced self-deluders when it comes to employee engagement. Organise a Christmas party; hold a teambuilding; get the Accounts Department out planting trees and suddenly you’re a benevolent reformer on a par with the Aga Khan.

Your people appear happy. They even tell you they’re happy, when HR runs the annual  “tell us you’re happy – or else” Staff Survey. But the reality is always different.

Let’s assume you discover a darkness inside your enterprise that belies your shiny corporate brand?  What do you do?

Well, let me tell you something. You can’t control the culture of your Company; you can only influence it.  As Dr. Martin Luther King said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

Tools like Six Sigma or Balanced Scorecard are powerless to address collective human behaviour. They’re control measures, not creative ones. Changing your company culture requires imagination, not administration.

 

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa.

 

www.thebrandinside.com

 

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