Bad culture and "blame pie"
Dysfunction among disappointing results is a warning sign that change is needed
When results are good, corporate culture gets a lot of credit - warranted or not
When results are consistently disappointing, people resort to finger-pointing
Assigning blame and making excuses may feel good, but is counterproductive
A full diagnosis of problems includes a close look at the health of your culture
Focus on improving culture to boost effectiveness of new strategies and tactics
Playing the blame game? Look at your culture
The English Premier League recently kicked off another season this month and the biggest headlines involve its most storied club, Manchester United. In the 30 seasons that the Premier League has been in existence, Man United have finished at the top of the table (standings) in first place 13 times. The club with the second most top finishes is their crosstown rivals, Manchester City with six titles. However, since the retirement of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of their final championship season in 2012-13, Man United has fallen on hard times. 5 of the 6 titles won by rival Manchester City have been after Man United’s last win, including 4 of the last 5 seasons. Meanwhile, Manchester United have gone through 8 managers in the past 9 years since the departure of Ferguson, and they currently sit in last place (20th) two matches into the new season.
This loss in form by Manchester United, one of the most recognized sports brands in the world, has been painful for supporters and casual fans alike and, not surprisingly, has led to the “blame game”. Prior to the start of this new season, there were signs of tension between superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and new manager Erik ten Hag highlighted by Ronaldo leaving a preseason match after half time along with other teammates, a move the coach termed “unacceptable”. Things got worse as Manchester United lost their first match of the season at Old Trafford (their home stadium) to Brighton, historically not a strong squad. This past weekend, however, things went from bad to worse as Man U lost 4-0 to Brentford, a club who just joined the top flight Premier League last season for the first time. The loss was miserable, punctuated by poor communication and teamwork as all four Brentford goals were scored in the first half. To add insult to injury, the starting players for Brentford are earning a collective £55 million as compared with the £424 million that Manchester United’s starting team makes, including multiple individual players that earn more than the entire Brentford starters. While Manchester United’s roster boasts players that are recognized as some of the very best in the whole (and paid as such), they are grossly underperforming.
In reaction to the devastating loss where manager Erik ten Hag received a lot of criticism for his strategic game plan, he responded by putting responsibility for the poor showing directly on his players. This was a marked departure from his supportive preseason comments that contradicting the previous manager Ralf Rangnick’s assertion that the team lacked energy and physicality. While manager last season, Rangnick himself made comments eerily similar to Erik ten Hag about the team’s “terrible” performance in an earlier 4-0 loss to Brighton. Meanwhile, star Cristiano Ronaldo posted on his Instagram account this week blasting media accounts of his poor conduct and cryptically referring to “truth” coming out in a couple of weeks based on a notebook he has been keeping. The media in Britain among others has referred to Manchester United’s current state as a “circus” and multiple individuals have come forward stating their wish to buy the team from the current owners, the Glazer family, who have owned the team since 2005.
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A broken corporate culture takes a while to fix
While the soap opera style drama may be great fodder for sports fans, it is decidedly less enjoyable when this sort of circus is occurring at your company. Sadly, many of us have been through similar situations in our careers. There are some telltale signs:
Results start to slip - the organization struggles to meet its goals and objectives
People look for reasons for poor performance and settle for simple explanations
To avoid individual responsibility, people make excuses to avoid being blamed
Excuses due to external factors are accepted and business as usual continues
More goals and objectives are missed and the search for blame becomes wider
Executives and/or supervisors are replaced and new leaders make big changes
Results continue to underperform and new leaders blame their team members
Debates among poor strategy, tactics, and execution go around and get personal
More leaders get replaced, team morale sinks, and top people leave the team
The pieces of “blame pie” get bigger and teams struggle to recruit new members
The endless cycle continues to spirals until there is a massive shake up occurs - often unexpected and imposed from outside the organization
In the case of Manchester United, something has clearly been lost from the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson. The constant churn of managers, replacement of players, and increasing levels of blame are fueling a downward spiral fed by the media and fans. Unfortunately for Man United, it has reached a point where many top players do not want to play for the team once considered the best football club in the world.
Where to start? By focusing on the culture. No individual hire, no change in strategy, no amount of money is going to single handily fix the problem. There is no silver bullet. The amount of distrust and animosity cannot be repaired overnight, but it must be systematically addressed and built up so that everyone can begin to properly function in their respective roles again.
Consider your culture when facing challenges
When facing repeated challenges that recur despite making moves designed to overcome obstacles, it could be a sign that the problem you face are cultural in nature, not inherently problems with your strategy or execution. Too often the role of culture is minimized or ignored. When assessing failure, ask whether or not there are elements of your corporate culture that could be contributing. Can people talk about failure openly at your organization, or do they look instead to assign blame? Do people feel open to criticize in a constructive manner or articulate a difference in opinion? Is it OK for leaders and team members to row in the wrong direction? When a corporate culture is not well aligned with what employees need to succeed, it can serve as demotivation and lead to “quiet quitting” where employees only due what is required and do not go above and beyond the minimal expectations of their role.
Just as human relationships require continual focus and nourishment, so do corporate cultures. If you are not proactively evaluating your culture, assessing its strengths and opportunities, and consciously making efforts to improve it, you’re likely one day to find you are falling behind and locked into a downward spiral loop featuring the blame game. Although it is difficult to quantify a positive or negative corporate culture, people know it when they experience it. Keep in mind that different people thrive in different corporate cultures - just as all of the teams in the Premier League do not have the same cultures in each dressing room, neither do companies. Sports fans often see examples where a player who struggled in one setting thrived when a new coach comes in or they change teams. Generally, a player’s skills and abilities have not radically improved; rather the change in culture allowed the player to showcase his or her full abilities to achieve success. The same is true at a broader level for all individuals: the key is to dedicate time, energy, and resources to build a healthy culture that maximizes the potential of your people. Don’t wait until it is too late after results slip to the point where negativity seeps in and sentiment starts to spiral downward.
Have you had the misfortune of being in a bad culture that felt like a downward spiral with no end? Have you seen what you perceived to be a misallocation of blame that was not deserved in your view? Do you know anyone who is “quiet quitting” or has in the past? What are the elements of a healthy corporate culture in your experience? What role does trust play - is it an outcome of good cultures or a key ingredient into building a strong culture? How can strong cultures be built across a remote workforce? Any advice for new leaders starting out?