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When Culture Killers Are Top Performers

If culture is truly central to organizational success, those who contribute to its death should not and cannot be considered top performers.

June 19, 2013

Recently, I heard a dynamic keynote presentation at a human resources forum attended by leaders from some of the nation's largest and best known organizations.

The senior vice president gave a crisp talk explaining how her company, well known to all of us who have consumed their fast-food specialties, had built its organization based on a strong, friendly, welcoming culture providing career opportunities for future growth.

Her organization, as does others, faces a challenge as many of its jobs are not on the high end of the wage spectrum. This makes competing for the best talent in terms of skills, experience, commitment and passion difficult.

Yet, the company's positive climate helps it recruit, employ and retain people all over the globe. There were about 300 of us paying attention as she gave us a quick history of her firm's action steps, results and moving individual stories. At one point though, the speaker made a comment that struck me as off the mark, but true. The statement that caught my ear went something like this: "When culture killers are top performers, you have a big problem."

I looked around the room. People were nodding in agreement. First, I don't think she was exaggerating in using the term "culture killers." Unfortunately, I've worked with them at times and written about such individuals.

In some organizations, those who are responsible for big revenues or have important technical skills, can, through their demeaning or abstract behavior and apparent invulnerability, undermine the work and commitment of many. Their conduct, if unchecked, sets up special standards for them, marginalizes organizational values and infects those around them.

Think of financial whizzes who don't just cut corners but eliminate them through chicanery, bluster and bullying. Those who work with them can't trust that the organization's standards are real. Over time, some will mimic the action of their leaders, assuming that's the way to succeed. Salt an organization with a few of these prominent anti-heroes and the vision of a common credible culture vanishes.

If culture is truly central to organizational success, those who contribute to its death should not and cannot be considered top performers. They may perform some of their job functions well but referring to them as "top performers" is an awful mistake.

It suggests that culture is important to a point--those who get great current metrics in part of their role have a pass and can generally do what they want. They'll be dealt with not when the culture is at risk but often when the very survival of the organization is.

Allowing this to happen overlooks the reason for making culture important in the first place, which in most cases, will lead to long-term business advantage beyond the immediacy of a quarterly or annual result. Until we clearly include how we work as an integral part of how we're considered to perform, it will be challenging, at best, to build enduring cultures of the kind the speaker referenced.

Instead of referring to "culture killers," here's my suggestion: Unless they commit unpardonable violations, give "culture killers" clear standards regarding acceptable behavior and a chance to perform. If they don't measure up, don't call them "culture killers."

The better reference would be "former employees."