We had a family friend once who had a cracked pipe in their heating system. When he first noticed it, he simply put a bucket underneath the pipe to capture the small drips. He resolved to fix it at some point, but felt that it wasn’t too big of an issue.
The pipe kept leaking for a year or more so eventually he got an engineer out to have a look at the problem. He diagnosed it, produced a report, provided him with a cost and time estimate and some dates when it could be fixed.
Our friend was shocked at the cost that the trained engineer provided, so decided to try and fix the problem himself. He went to the hardware store, bought some materials, found a book with the instructions and set about fixing it himself.
The fix lasted for about three months and then the pipe started dripping again. He left it for another two months by which time the dripping had become more frequent. At that point our friend phoned the engineer who said that he could fix the problem in about six weeks time.
Not long after the call we had an exceptionally cold early winter’s morning. As a result of the crack in the pipe, cold air was able to penetrate it and the water in the heating system froze. The pressure built up in the system and the pipes burst, flooding the property and ruining the furniture and fittings.
Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst part. His partner had been telling him to get the problem professionally fixed for months, but he said that he knew best. The burst pipe was the last straw and their marriage ended shortly after.
In my experience, senior leaders can often see the leaks, but never do enough to fix the pipes.
I thought of this story recently when someone at a workshop told me about a culture that they’d worked in previously. She told me how they had a number of issues with various managers that people knew about. The issues were reported but no action was taken.
Shortly after, the CEO commissioned consultants to review their culture, which resulted in a five-point plan to resolve the issues. The CEO decided that, whilst culture was a priority, the money and time was better spent elsewhere. The HR Manager resigned because of the pressure she was put under to make the changes and an engagement survey later that year showed that things had got worse.
About a month or two after that, the culture became so bad that it caught the attention of the media and a short time after that the CEO and COO both resigned.
In my experience, senior leaders can often see the leaks, but never do enough to fix the pipes. They know where the problems are but either wait for them to fix themselves (they never do), wait for the perfect time to do the work (there isn’t one) or else put it on a ‘to-do’ list for the future and never make it a priority.
The danger — from a culture perspective — of not addressing the problem is five-fold:
- Escalation of the problem — the issues won’t go away, in fact they’ll likely get worse
- Decreased productivity — a negative culture will impact the attitude and mindset of staff leading to compromised outputs or outcomes
- Financial implications — if outcomes are compromised then the organisation will likely miss its financial targets
- Reputational impact — not just from reviews that employees post on Glassdoor, but also in the media too
- Loss of key staff — talented people won’t sit and wait for you to fix the problem, they’ll seek employment with organisations that regularly maintain their culture
Every organisation — regardless of size, sector or country — needs to pay regular attention to its culture. There’s never a perfect time to do this work, and money could always be spent elsewhere. However, failure to maintain the very thing the organisation relies on to produce results will always be a risky strategy. Just one leaky pipe is enough to bring the house down.