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The Dangers Of An Overly Collegial Culture

By News Creatives Authors , in Small Business , at August 16, 2021

Partner & Co-Founder at Kuroshio Consulting, advising clients across North America on strategy, transformations and leadership. 

I’ve been advising executive leaders on organizational culture for two decades, and at this stage of the pandemic, the resurgence in what good culture looks like is refreshing.

I vividly recall having a discussion with a business unit president who had an agenda item before an executive meeting. He asked me, “Are you here to lead us?” As a consultant brought in to advise the executive team, this was at once both humorous and deeply alarming. What was underlying the question was the fact that “leadership” was a dirty word within the organizational culture — one where problems were just being glossed over or not addressed at all in the name of peace at any cost.

How do you know if you are in an overly collegial culture or one that is too nice? Ask yourself:

• Is there a lack of urgency and decisiveness? Are innovative ideas throttled?

• Do you find that multiple pre-discussions with individuals are held before every meeting so that there is no conflict during the group meeting?

• Do you get feedback in the hallways and through other sources, instead of directly?

• Is anyone held accountable? Are there any visible consequences for not meeting goals?

• For executive meetings, does the chair say they just want to “facilitate?”

• Are your meetings more show than substance, wherein the message is that all risks are mitigated in every circumstance?

These are some of the red flags that should trigger a conversation toward change. But why is this charade of collegiality not in the best interests of the organization?

How is it possible, for example, for a business unit president to not deliver on multi-million dollar commitments for four years in a row with no consequences? How had there been no decision made on turning the situation around, even after 46 monthly check-ins? And how did a team of peers sit through quarterly business review meetings and not once offer alternate perspectives or challenge the approach an executive was taking in their business unit?

An overly collegial culture can create a vacuum of information. In an effort to be liked, leaders might wait until a problem becomes insurmountable before communicating. This type of culture also tends to value niceness over holding people accountable, which is detrimental to meeting organizational strategic goals. It can also lead to decision-making inertia where consensus is constantly pursued, which then leads to zero change and a clingy attitude toward the status quo. A lack of provocation and the inability to bring diverse perspectives to the surface can also slow innovation to a crawl. Finally, productivity can plummet and you may face the loss of your high-performers (while low-performers continue their tenure as is). And each of these dangers was present in this organization.

Effective leadership includes communicating honestly (about both risks and benefits), driving accountability (creating action plans and taking responsibility) and bravery around decision-making (choosing a path responsibly with the data available at the time).

Changing an overly collegial culture takes time and tenacity. Try the following strategies to start the required cultural change toward an “on purpose” or “results-driven” culture:

1. Set expectations across the executive team around using meetings as “safe zones” to hold one another accountable. Ask the tough questions and provide candid feedback.

2. Ensure executives hold the “safe zone” conversations as sacred. It is critical to ensure that conversations had during these meetings do not become hallway gossip; all executives have to commit to showing a united front to the rest of the organization. This helps alleviate any initial anxiety or pressure felt from the change.

3. Call out “violations” of the “safe zone” expectations openly. If you find that meetings are leaning toward driving consensus again, call out the action and help steer the conversation to more critical thinking by asking pertinent questions. In other words, be the devil’s advocate.

4. Offer training so that each executive better understands their own behaviors and approaches to conflict (e.g., DiSC assessments), so they have the tools to navigate healthy conflict when the executive team gets together.

5. Create shared responsibility for certain strategic goals. Cross-pollination and striving to have more than one executive work on an initiative can help make the change in a subset of the executive team, which will permeate in the long run.

An overly collegial culture can be a significant factor in your organization’s downfall if left unaddressed. There is no easy path to learning how to engage in healthy conflict; you have to start and reinforce desired behaviors. That being said, leadership effectiveness can be learned, so try out these strategies and see if you can turn over a new leaf and build a results-driven, growth-focused culture.

Forbes Business Council is the foremost growth and networking organization for business owners and leaders. Do I qualify?


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