How to decode your office's hidden signals

Forget what the chief exec says. Take a look around if you want to know your real 'core values'.

Last Updated: 20 Mar 2018

‘Modern leadership is no longer about strategy. It’s about inspiration and creating a culture where people can thrive.’

That’s a powerful, common sentiment. It’s also one of the great management myths of our time. Culture has always been important. Leaders have always inspired and influenced, and they will always need to make the big decisions.

By and large, the modern focus on culture is a good thing, but it causes a few unfortunate side effects, not least among them the proliferation of ‘corporate values’.

Integrity, respect, creativity, inclusivity, courage, accountability, innovation, leading by example - such words are widely packaged in dreary slogans, proclaimed in town-hall monologues and plastered in curiously brightly-coloured propaganda posters on every other office wall.

Yet as any great leader will tell you, a list of values does not a culture make. Any attempt to change or influence the culture therefore has to begin with how people actually think and behave in the workplace.

To gauge that, you need to know how to read the signs. Here are some of the common signals that an observant leader will notice, and what they mean.

Top floor, corner office

‘We’re not hierarchical round here. Command and control is so 20th century. Please, just call me David.’ Fine words, boss, but where’s your office? If the senior leadership in your organisation sits apart from the ordinary worker, it sort of disproves the idea that hierarchy is dead.

And if the boss has a bigger, better space on the top floor with an executive washroom and a bird’s eye view over the toiling plebs below... well, you get the idea.

Suggested changes: Sit among the people. You might learn something about the company you run.

Absolute silence

 ‘I worked with a company which had a fiercely competitive culture,’ author Margaret Heffernan told MT once. ‘They thought if they put in open plan areas everyone would become friendly and collaborative. You could have heard a pin drop.’

There’s nothing quite as telling as silence. While you might interpret it as evidence of dedication and diligence, it could also signify fear. In any case, it doesn’t exactly shout that you’ve got a great working environment, either for your employees’ creativity or for their wellbeing.

Suggested changes: The great thing about conversation is that it’s infectious. Start talking. If all else fails, pipe in some light, uplifting music.

Boring meetings

You peer through the one of the many meeting rooms in your building, and what do you see? Endurance. Workers staring into space, watching the clock, waiting to leave.

The pointless meeting is an emblem of corporate bureaucracy. No matter how fervently you assert your agility, you will never be nimble if every decision or exchange of information requires 15 people to sit round a table for two hours.

Suggested changes:  Take the chairs out the room. Standing meetings are a tried and tested way of limiting meeting time. Also, lead by example – don’t call meetings or include the whole department unless necessary.

5 o’clock daggers

You need to set off early to do the school run. It’s been okayed by HR. It may even be in your contract. But that doesn’t stop the glares or snarky comments from your colleagues. There they go again, leaving early while the rest of us toil away into the wee hours...

This is a clear sign that flexible working is not culturally acceptable in your organisation, whether it’s formally allowed or not.

Suggested changes: Like a lot of behaviours, sometimes flexible working has to be role-modelled. Work from home occasionally. Come in late or leave early, and make sure everyone knows you still get things done. Then they’ll feel empowered to do the same.

Passive aggressive notes

‘Could you please keep it down over here. You may think we can’t hear you in the rest of the office, but it’s actually an echo chamber.’

A reasonable request, right? But not if it’s scrawled on a post-it note on your desk while you’re out for lunch. Good conflict resolution is direct, respectful and face-to-face. Passive aggressive notes indicate either communication problems or a sense of anonymity – the note was left because people don’t actually know anyone outside of their direct team.

Suggested changes: Strong relationships would solve this problem, so encourage social events, inter-departmental mentoring and conflict-resolution training. You might also want to consider changing your stationery supply policies...

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