Corporate Cultures

Love It or Leave It

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders


 The biggest obstacle to changing a corporate culture that needs fixing isn't the employees.   It's management.

 In a company with a dysfunctional culture, the line-level employees generally are most often receptive, even enthusiastic, toward change.  "Anything is better than the way it is," goes their line of thought.  As long as it doesn't take money out of their pockets and cause them to work harder, they'll usually at least tolerate changes in the culture.  If they sense that the initiative means a better, happier working environment for them, they'll support it wholeheartedly.

 Managers, on the other hand, see threat in change.  The naysayers view the very suggestion that the culture isn't what it should be as an indictment of the way they run things.  That puts them on the defensive.  "It ain't broke.  Don't fix it."

 The degree of resistance depends on the management level.  Lower-level managers have a minimal hold on power and see any ripples in the culture as large enough to swamp their tentative lease on authority.  Top-level managers tend to consider themselves important and secure in their positions, enough so that they can afford a Big Picture view of changing things for the overall good of the company (more often, they are simply so out of touch with the casino floor that they believe everything is just fine with the culture).

 Middle managers have the real power and the most to lose, they feel, if somebody starts messing with their playhouse.  They have things worked out just the way they want them, and they don't want any help screwing it up.  They can screw it up just fine by themselves, thank you very much.  In many cases, they are a big contributor to the dysfunction.

 A general manager in a multi-site gaming operation runs his or her own fiefdom mostly out of view of the home office.  The culture of that particular casino is a direct reflection of attitudes the GM encourages, with a passing nod to the wishes of the corporate bigwigs.  Admitting that the culture could be better is wrongly considered to be admitting that those attitudes are inadequate or amiss.  The usual rationale for deviations from corporate dicta is that "We have a unique situation here in our casino."  The enlightened GM will have the vision to see that no organization is ever perfect and willingness to improve signifies strength, not failure.  The insecure GM will resist.

 Within a given casino, department heads typically also sit on the throne of their separate fiefdoms, and each claims unique circumstances for his or her department that justify dispensation from a standard of culture.  "You can't expect surveillance people to behave the same way as blackjack dealers," they might say.  "My security people are a different breed from bartenders," they might say.  The result is a mongrel culture with many pedigrees.

 Shift managers, pit bosses, and floor supervisors don't generally rule over fiefdoms, but they have their own ways to stake out turf.  "I don't care how they do it on the day shift, on my shift, we do it this way."  Employees usually have little recourse but to shut up and obey.

 The best of intentions in modifying the behavior of a corporate culture for the better can be stymied by the lack of buy-in from one or more levels of management.  Some managers resist openly.  More damaging to any culture-building initiative, though, is the manager who gives overt lip service to the need for it but manages in subtle ways to derail its execution.  "Oh, you bet, I think the company orientation is very important!  But you see, we're short a bunch of people, and I need those new employees on duty now.  Don't worry, I'll send them through the orientation later."  Of course, later often never comes.  The insidious effect on the corporate culture from this kind of manager is that it doesn't crash into a brick wall, it just strangles slowly to death.

 If the commitment of top management to cultural change is sincere and determined, there can only be two options for middle managers who don't initially buy in: love it or leave it.  If the internal marketing for the cultural initiative is compelling and strong enough, they may just be overwhelmed with the spirit of it and become willing champions.  That's the positive outcome you hope for.  Realistically, there are some who just don't or won't fit into the new and improved culture.  You can hope they "opt out" and go somewhere better suited to them.  If not, you may have to make the choice for them.

(This article appeared in the September 2000 issue.)

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