This is what goes wrong when your culture is too nice

As The Social Element's CEO Tamara Littleton discovered, it's possible for teams to be too supportive.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 25 Nov 2019

Conflict is productive. The best teams put critical topics on the table for discussion – and they don’t shy away from heated debate.

"Teams that trust each other are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organisation’s success," says Patrick Lencioni in his New York Times best-selling business book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. "They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions."

Tamara Littleton learned this the hard way. Following stints as online operations manager for BBC Online and product delivery director for Chello Broadband, she launched her own business, The Social Element, in 2002 using a £10,000 loan from her parents.

Working from her garage with a team of remote workers, she initially focussed on internet child safety before pivoting into social media marketing.

Her first big project was the "Picture a Healthy World" campaign for GE – the first digital "take over" of Times Square. Clients including PlayStation, Disney, Toyota and Diageo soon followed, and the company’s growth skyrocketed.

It was only after a failed expansion into Australia in 2014 that Littleton realised she’d inadvertently created a culture that was "far too nice" and stifled debate.

"Even though we were headquartered in London, our clients were spread across the world with the majority of revenues coming from the States. I was set on expanding into Asia and thought Australia would be the perfect hub. 

"The UKTI offered to help us and sent a 10-page document outlining the due diligence we should undertake – but I ignored it. I was going with my gut instinct and worried that if we took too long, we’d lose market momentum. I thought: ‘Let’s just go for it. No risk, no reward.’  

"So I went on a recce to Sydney and hired a handful of sales people out there – but we just didn’t get any traction. The local agencies were less collaborative. We discovered that Australia wasn’t a springboard into Asia (Hong Kong or Singapore would have been far better). And the Australian market, on its own, just wasn’t big enough to sustain a commercial operation. We shut it within a year – and lost around £250,000.

"My executive team later admitted that they hadn’t been sure about the strategy but they hadn’t wanted to appear negative or disappoint me. They felt it was their job to back my vision – not challenge me.

"I realised I’d created a culture that was too nice and didn’t allow for healthy conflict. That had to change. We spent a lot of time – the best part of a year – on DISC training [psychological profiling based on the traits of dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness] to help us discover our own behaviours and personality types and improve our personal approach to conflict.

"The exec team learned that it’s okay to challenge the CEO and have animated and passionate discussions; I won’t get upset.

"The Social Element is now a £9m-turnover business employing 300 people globally. My advice to other business leaders is: don't be afraid of conflict  it leads to better decisions."

Image copyright: The Social Element

Tamara was a delegate at The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network, connecting female entrepreneurs across the globe.

Book your tickets to Management Today's Inspiring Women conference on 21st November, with speakers including: Dame Inga Beale, former CEO of Lloyd's of London; Dame Cilla Snowball, former group CEO of AMV BBDO; Ella Dolphin, CEO of The Stylist Group; Gemma Greaves, CEO of The Marketing Society; and Renee Elliott, founder of Planet Organic. 


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