We conduct a program called The Leadership Room for small groups of executives. During last week's session we sent the ten participants to retail establishments to study the experience they had with the sales staff. We were interested in the relationship between the intentions of each organizations leadership and the actual behavior on the part of employees.
As our students were entering the front doors of these retailers, twelve prostitutes were allegedly entering the Colombian hotel rooms of some of the best government operatives in the world. So what's one got to do with the other? One word... culture.
The concept of culture is really quite simple. In business culture describes the patterns of behavior observed as people perform their jobs. Or put more simply the collective performance behaviors of a group. If everyone in your organization is rude to clients, then an aspect of your culture is be rude to clients. Now people like organizational and industrial psychologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, business theorists etc. will say "stop the press"; it's way more complicated than that -- but in fact it's not. What these experts are focused on is what drives the behaviors that comprise culture. That's really complicated, I agree.
We care about the drivers of culture so that management can create actual culture that is in line with their stated or desired culture. That's where our definitions of culture begin to involve things like values, norms, beliefs, etc. In business theory, most of the models that attempt to explain what influences performance related behavior are broken into simple categories like: Information Systems, Human Resource Management Processes, Structure, Decision Making Process, Work Process and Leadership.
Whatever manner our employees are behaving in IS the culture, even if there is no pattern to it and even if we don't like it. When leaders say "the behavior of our employees is inconsistent with our culture," they mean that behavior is inconsistent with our stated or desired culture. For better or worse, the behavior IS the culture.
In cases where employees operate outside a company's desired cultural system we consider the systems (listed above) that drive and define culture and determine which of those systems to modify to reinforce the desired behavior and extinguish the undesirable.
If an organization has articulated a cultural position of providing extraordinary levels of customer satisfaction and an employee breaks the rules in order to satisfy a customer the violator is often applauded because the behavior is in service of the higher order goal. In these cases many organizations look at the process the employee had to circumvent to accomplish the goal and figure out how the system can be better designed to support its objective.
Conversely when an employee breaks a code in a way that is not in line with the organization's stated cultural position the organization must look at the factors that support the systems that govern their culture to determine whether this is an isolated incident or a systemic issue.
When the stated and actual culture are one in the same, you receive customer service like you're at the Apple retail store. When the stated and actual cultures are different, you have a group of the most elite, intelligent well-trained government employees in the world, hiring prostitutes while on assignment to protect the president.
Lets take a look at what happened in Colombia. In determining if this is a cultural issue at the Secret Service I would consider:
• Hiring prostitutes is in violation of policy and these are all smart men who understood that.
• One person can behave impulsively (harder to have that happen to eleven).
• One person can be new and still in the learning mode (these were veterans).
• One person can be considered an exception -- (eleven approaches a norm).
• And finally, as my Dad told me, at 17, as he took my car privileges away, "This may be the first time you were caught speeding but I doubt it was the first time you sped."
Culturally they got the message that this was not really a problem. If they did in fact engage local courtesans, it's their "bad" however leadership is responsible for creating a culture, consciously or not, that would allow this behavior.
I suspect as many others do that the Secret Service has rigorous management systems in place to reinforce their desired culture and that all but one is working and that one is Leadership.