THE BLOG
04/28/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Jun 28, 2014

Do You Have a Culture-Killing Virus?

Influenza pandemics occur when a new strain of a virus is transmitted from an animal to a human. A pig has a novel strain of a virus and someone in contact with it lacks the immunity and catches it and then begins to spread it to those around them, and it quickly spreads around the country and the world.

The key to combatting a pandemic is to find the origin of where the virus made the leap from its animal host to a human.

In treating companies with sick cultures, the key is to find the host and moment when the virus jumped. Most culture problems can be tied back to a point of origin.

The host organism is typically an employee who does something wrong. They steal. They harass. They embarrass leadership. They cheat. They lie.

This isn't the problem. In a group of people, someone will eventually do something wrong. What creates the pandemic is the reaction by the organization.

The organization's leadership has two options when dealing with an employee who has strayed from the values of the organization. The first is to treat it as an isolated incident, address it with the individual and move on. These organizations are immune from the virus.

The second option, often initiated by HR or legal counsel, is to transmit the virus to the rest of the organization by creating new policies that aim to prevent other people from similar transgressions. They create rules and policies to keep the 99 percent of people who are healthy and happy from acting like the one percent who deviated.

Rather than isolating the pandemic, they spread it to everyone else. The new policies begin to define the culture and norms around the things you can't do. The culture becomes defined by negative and paternal rules. They de facto give more power to the people that they are removing from the organization.

Organizations with healthy and vibrant cultures do the same thing, but in reverse. They build the culture around positive deviants not negative ones. They find people who do exceptional and amazing things and find ways to encourage and support others to follow their lead.

Lawyers may threaten that not creating policies to prevent bad behavior will open up the organization to liability and litigation. It might, but is it more important to have a strong and healthy culture or avoid litigation?

We must stop culture-killing pandemics by focusing on the culture we want, not the one we are trying to avoid. We need to celebrate the people who make our culture awesome, and not focus our energy on those that don't fit.