Behind every hazardous work culture there’s probably at least one dangerous leader who sets the tone. Crawl a little further into these leaders’ heads. Probably, they live with beliefs that make counter-productive behaviors seem totally rational and healthy. I heard those beliefs vocalized by an administrative assistant a while ago in such bald terms it took my breath away.
I was about to start a strategy session with a leadership team. She was organizing the otherwise-empty room, setting out breakfast, dropping off snacks.
She said quietly to me, “I wish I could be here in the meeting.”
I paused, sensing something else was coming. “I mean, how do you do it?” she asked.
It’s a good question. How do I do it? I wondered.
Wait, do what?
So I asked her, “What do you mean by ‘do it?’”
She smiled slyly. “How do you get a group of senior leaders to actually work together? It must be a huge challenge.” She blinked at me knowingly. I stared back, puzzled.
“Ummm. Well, it has its moments but which challenge are you referring to?”
“Well, let’s face it. All of these people got here by stepping on others, by using and abusing people, by watching out for themselves. How do you get them to turn that off and start working together?”
Her belief system was stunning. Leaders use. Leaders lie. Leaders scrap. Because of their inherent selfishness, leaders are highly unlikely to work together.
I later learned that she had cut her teeth at a top professional services firm, one equal in reputation for excellence and aggressiveness. I couldn’t help but wonder if those formative experiences had shaped her view of leaders and work and what’s possible in a company.
Just like family backgrounds have a profound impact on how we see the world, so our early companies often shape how we see life. We pick up their beliefs and attitudes like lint – or sometimes we have an allergic reaction to them and choose to go the opposite way.
Unlike family backgrounds, we can exercise some choice about our companies of origin – at least early on in our careers. So now, when talking with young people entering the workforce, I’m going to give them a little advice: choose your company of origin carefully. We all like to believe the myth that we’re independent thinkers, impervious to the influence of those around us. It’s a lie. And we should get over it.
Here are a few beliefs you might pick up from the behaviors around you early in your career:
- Cut-throat vs. Collaborative: If your early companies allow colleagues to be cut-throat, you’ll start to believe that you have to watch your back if you want to survive. But if your early companies expect people to help each other out – sometimes sacrificially – you’ll start to believe that loyalty and teamwork will help you thrive.
- Corner-cutting vs. High Integrity: If your early companies are willing to bend the truth to sell stuff, you’ll start to believe that the sales goals justify the means. But if your early companies only make promises they can keep to customers, you’ll start to believe that integrity leads to long-term success.
- Perfectionistic vs. Learning-Driven: If your early companies punish people for making mistakes, you’ll start to believe that you should keep your head down if you want to survive. But if your early companies encourage people to take smart risks, you’ll start to believe that accelerated learning is the best path to long-term earning.
- Passive-Aggressive vs. Straight-Talking: If your early companies carefully avoid confrontation, you’ll start to believe that it’s smarter to passively resist things you don’t like instead of dealing with things head-on. But if your early companies practice constructive truth-telling, you’ll start to believe that caring enough to speak the truth is the smartest policy of all.
- Takers vs. Servants: If your early companies only care about customers because of the profit they bring to the company, you’ll start to believe that customers are conquests or even opponents. But if your early companies show radical concern for customers, you’ll start to believe that all great work starts with the attitude of service.
- Hype vs. Substance: If your early companies do token “community service” or “social responsibility,” you’ll start to believe that work is primarily about making money and keeping up appearances on everything else. But if your early companies have woven social responsibility into the very fabric of their business models, you’ll start to believe that great work always serves the common good as well as the bottom line.
Many of us are past those days of choosing our companies of origin. We have a stack of beliefs we’ve picked up along the way at our various employers and clients. But we aren’t powerless about this either. We aren’t doomed by the attitudes we picked up. We just have to challenge them a little bit.
Here’s how. Start by recognizing beliefs when they pop up, often in statements that begin with “all” or “none.” For example, the assistant I described above had a belief, stated bluntly as “All leaders are self-serving, Machiavellian liars.”
- Ask yourself, “Where did I get that belief?” Play back the situations and characters who shaped that thought.
- Ask yourself again, “Is that belief really true now? Does it need to be true now?” Does that belief pertain to your current situation or are you saddling today with yesterday’s beliefs?
- Think for a moment about how those beliefs might be holding you back in your work today. Are they making you less trusting, less giving, more cynical, more defensive? And are those responses helping you do your best work?
- Choose models and mentors for your future who help you do your best work with your most constructive mindset. They shouldn’t be pollyanna-ish any more than they should be hardened cynics. They should be those who are at home with the way things are, while still being their best selves.
Wherever you are, do all in your power to create your own exemplary workplace – a place where you’d want your child or your best friend’s child to have her first work experience.