Archive for May 3rd, 2021

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This is both a repost and addition to my Glass Wall Series. As the two posts in question were tightly linked and I have allowed so much time to pass, I thought it best to combine them into one post covering 5 characteristics of a Glass Wall. These 5 characteristics are certainly not comprehensive but are the most salient features that I have recognized during my 35 (ouch, just did that math) year career.

Before one can address a glass wall, one must be able to see it. this is no easy task as the cultural design and one of the primary characteristics of this kind of dysfunction is its invisibility. I am going to explore some of the fingerprints that you can find on the glass wall, a place to begin when taking a serious look at cultural barriers to operational success.

  1. Observed behavior contravenes a stated value of the organization.

Value statements have become standard in most organizations. They will be touted in flowery language on web pages, in orientation documents, annual reports, and regular employee meetings. This is perhaps one of the most visible signs of a glass wall in an organization. It is for this reason that it will most often go to great lengths to espouse its “values” at every level. The difficulty can be that organizations that function within their values may appear to do the same. The biggest tell is that the glass wall restricts value communications to being conceptual. Alliterated catch phrases, cool sketches and extended meetings will regularly lay a conceptual framework for the proposed value system. However, there is an absence of behavioral meat to the value system and a lack of accountability particularly amongst the leadership. It is almost impossible for an organization to function for any amount of time without this part of the glass wall getting dirty and more visible. This often triggers point 3 as well-meaning leadership realizes the disparity between the stated values and the actual behaviors occurring in the organization. Unfortunately, all these decisions and actions stem from point 2 and so never actually address the wall.

2. Leadership has an external locus of accountability.

There is a decision side and execution side of every glass wall. This separation results in consistent failure to achieve the stated goals of the decision side. This failure is often not even recognized and is either snuffed under a sudden change in language and goals or mined until some small positive is found that can be heralded as institutional success. The internal double speak that takes place to make this happen is both impressive and saddening. The decision side of the glass wall goes on undeterred and oblivious. However, should a failure penetrate the wall, the culture demands an immediate search for unaccountability. This results in a search for an external locus of control for the event and the institution of a blame game that focuses entirely on the execution side of the wall. It is in this category that anyone who challenges the wall most often finds themselves. In the absence of a scapegoat, or in organizations with a wall that has deep foundations and broad impact, the locus of control and accountability can be set in surrounding circumstances or external influences. This causes the culture to enforce a measure of isolation, and in some pernicious cases, place the blame on the population sector they serve. This lack of real accountability is perhaps the strongest defense mechanism employed by the glass wall.

3. There are regular declarations of a new day in the organization.

This most often happens when circumstances make the glass wall just a little more visible. The culture triggers new language and promises of new behaviors, but it then implements them entirely within the boundaries of the glass wall. The purpose of this characteristic is to “Windex” the wall and return it to its invisibility. There will be a conceptual recommitment to the stated organizational values. Value training as stated above will be required of every employee. New alliterations, graphics and catchphrases will abound. Unfortunately, new behavior and accountability will not. In some cases, new leadership will be brought in, or more often promoted from within to supervise the “reset”, “relaunch” or other “re”. There is real intent to change here, but the constrictions of the wall and the strength of culture to hide its own dysfunction, blunt the effort, and channel the energy back into the wall itself. Once the wall has been “Windexed” the organization will sometimes declare success and settle into its routine patterns of behavior. Other times the initiative will simply fade away once the smeary grime is no longer apparent. In the commercial sector the declaration of a new day may accompany a change of ownership. This rarely has a significant impact on a glass wall unless there is almost complete turnover at the highest levels in the organization. I have watched an organization go through successive ownership changes without significant cultural adjustments until it finally succumbed to its own cultural disabilities. In another case a company was purchased and taken private. The new ownership attempted to work within the constraints of the existing leadership but in the end the conflict between the new owner’s very transparent and successful leadership cultural and the purchased organizations dysfunctional cultural resulted in a complete house cleaning. In fact, the purchased company’s operations center was shut down and all operational control assumed by the parent organization. Leadership was let go lock stock and barrel and after significant operational changes the company reestablished positive growth and continues to thrive.

4. The Glass Wall triggers overt dishonesty in otherwise meticulously honest people in order to protect itself.

In business this can be inventory fraud, payroll shaving, buried expenses or simply lying about the achievement of goals. In order to justify this behavior carefully framed stakeholder language is developed and utilized repeatedly. It is groupthink in all its glory. Terms like “visionary expression”, “creative accounting”, “aspirational language”, “positive spin” and the development of a strong separation of “internal language” vs. “external language” are hallmarks of this characteristic of a Glass Wall. This is perhaps one of the most destructive aspects because it impacts not only the organization but the individual as well. While there are many characteristics of a Glass Wall that can spill over into the personal lives of those affected, this obstruction of accountability can have terrible consequences in the lives of the people affected. The introduction of dishonesty as a value to the organization, when accepted by its stakeholders, can lead to chaos in their personal lives as well. A corollary to this aspect of organizational glass walls is that unfortunately they will attract overtly dishonest individuals as well. These individuals will take advantage of the cultural milieu and of the honest members of the organization to pursue personal goals. In organizations with nascent glass walls, they will accelerate the process. They are often also willing to cross lines of legality that individuals simply caught up in the culture would not otherwise cross. In these cases, unfortunately those who believe they are simply working in the best interests of the organization will often be left holding the baggage left behind when the more dishonest stakeholders walk away or are removed.

5. Anyone who brings attention to the glass wall and attempts to clarify actual accountability will be quickly redirected (at best?) or terminated and vilified (at worst?).

Organizations with significant Glass Walls almost always have high turnover rates. This expensive and negative quality in any organization triggers characteristic 2 and characteristic 3. When a Glass Wall is seriously challenged, the perpetrator will be quickly portrayed as disloyal or someone who has failed to understand the values of the organization. Once a stakeholder has recognized the dysfunction, most simply move on to another opportunity but some will attempt to shine a light on the Glass Wall. However, they most often eventually move on when they encounter organizational resistance. Those who see the value and potential that the organization has to offer and believe that real change is possible, may make a serious attempt to champion change.

Regardless of the type of organization involved, detecting the glass walls within the organizational culture is a necessary step in positively addressing the negative behaviors and outcomes that accompany them. This is most often possible through the utilization of an outside individual or organization. There are several factors that determine the strength and stealth of a Glass Wall.

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