Is the End Really Nigh?

A member of your senior team informs you of a serious problem: Your company’s culture is eroding. Employees are suspicious of management, finger-pointing and scapegoating have become the norm, people are breaking up into competing factions, key staff are talking about heading for the exit — and you, the CEO, have been oblivious!

The dire diagnosis may or may not come with suggestions and solutions, but the first thing you need to do before reacting is decide whether or not it’s even a credible assessment of the situation. Rather than running out and hiring a change consultant or throwing an expensive morale-building event, it pays to verify what, if anything is the problem.

Understand two things: First, you will naturally be skeptical that such change happened without your knowledge, and you may gather information that incorrectly confirms that all is well. Second, your doomsday advisor may have a conscious or unconscious agenda for telling you that the sky is falling.

Let’s talk about why a trusted employee may misread the situation.

Motivations of the alarmists

Change phobia. A long-term employee sees changes happening in areas such as the company’s use of technology, preferred means of internal communication, and desired skill sets and attitudes of newer hires. The employee feels threatened that his experience and skills may no longer be valued and that he may lose his power base and even become irrelevant. After commiserating with other threatened employees, he comes to the conclusion that for all the progress, something has been lost — some level of teamwork or camaraderie that was special. He portrays the changes as having ruined the culture, thinking that perhaps if the boss can be made to appreciate what was special about the good old days, a rollback of the changes will occur.

True loyalty. Some employees truly identify with the company, much like a patriotic member of society or a zealous sports fan. They may be the most loyal of employees and those willing to expend great effort for the good of the company. However, they may have an idealized view of the organization embodying certain family-like values. These can include reciprocal loyalty, shared responsibility for failures, and interweaving of the personal and professional. Such employees may further believe that these values should be maintained no matter what occurs in society or the economy. They truly identify with the organization, at least as they picture it, and zealously guard the values or modes of conduct that used to prevail and seemingly no longer do. (If they worked for your father before you became CEO, this is even more likely.) Commiserating with other loyalists confirms their concerns.

Opportunism. Some employees pick up on bits of grumbling and gossip and spin a pattern. They are fond of saying “people are talking” when actually they are the whole source of the buzz about culture failure. They are trying to become the boss’s go-to person and confidante by whipping up the impression of hysteria or despair. They reason that as the one who identified the problem, they will be asked to be out in front of efforts to improve the situation.

On the other hand, they may be right – and you don’t want to ignore a valid warning.

On the other hand

In all these cases, unless the informing employee is a habitual liar or prone to drama, it is crucial to validate his warnings, because the person who comes to you may have none of these blind spots or ulterior motives. He may actually be providing an accurate report that something has derailed your company’s culture.

Your first inclination will be to call in other employees and confront them with what you heard. Are things really that bad here? If the original employee made your lack of awareness part of the problem (such as lack of communication, lack of trust, or distance between leadership and the rank and file), you may be especially sensitive to the accusations. What better way to dispel the claims than by having an open talk with your people and proving you are open to hearing the truth, no matter how bad it is?

The problem is that if you really are out of touch, even if only in certain areas, they will tell you what you want to hear or what they think you can tolerate. You are better off bringing in someone impartial who can maintain your employees’ confidentiality and get them to be open about if and where the culture may need improvement. Surveys, focus groups and/or interviews can uncover a wealth of information. That will give you a better assessment of whether there really is a problem or whether it is being overblown by individuals with various agendas. If the former is true, you will be well on your way to responding from a place of clarity.


Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.  This article appeared originally in the May-June 2015 issues  of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.