I’m reading a hilarious new book entitled, "Company" by Max Barry that details the highly dysfunctional inner workings of a fictitious company called Zephyr Holdings. In the text, employees try to do their jobs while dealing with the restrictions of a ludicrous internal culture, whose policies and procedures would be laughable if they didn’t ring so true.
The book got me thinking about some of the highly dysfunctional cultures in which I’ve labored over the years. For example, at one large consulting organization where I served as director of corporate communications, fear was the watchword of the day. Our CEO was a former offensive lineman with the Chicago Bears who literally looked like he was ready to smashmouth anyone who pissed him off. He was also perhaps the least literate CEO I’ve ever known. I remember one session in which we were discussing a general mailing to clients. I used the phrase "en masse" to describe the strategy. He stopped the conversation and asked, "Who’s Mass"? I told him I was using the French expression. This set off a violent temper tantrum laced by expletives in which he warned me to use the f-ing English language whenever I was in his presence.
I’d describe the culture at another former job as "romper room on steroids." The prevailing rule was that there were no rules, and the inmates really did run this particular asylum. Typical of the culture was the "dogs welcomed in the office" rule. Sounds cool, right? Wrong. We had dogs defecating in the hallways, rummaging through wastebaskets and mounting prospects’ legs.
The most dysfunctional culture I’ve ever experienced, however, had to be at the large agency where my partner, Ed and I worked for 15 hellacious months. Its cold, uncaring environment could have given the Kremlin a run for its money. And, the autocratic CEO and CFO ruled like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, respectively. As for me, I was the crown prince, appointed as heir apparent, but given no real authority. The three of us were feted like royalty. We had our own private secretaries, our own conference room and our own coffee service each morning. The "have nots" (i.e. the employees) had to take an elevator to a different floor and buy their coffee at the cafeteria.
Ed didn’t like this scenario. So, one day, he and the others in the public relations group decided to buy a coffeemaker. I was cool with that and gave it my blessing. Well, all hell broke loose. The Politburo cracked down on Ed and his fellow transgressors for bucking the system. When Ed asked why the PR team couldn’t have a coffeemaker, the CFO said, "Sorry Ed, but coffeemakers are a fire hazard."
You just can’t make this stuff up. And, while I’d like to believe "that was then and this is now," there are still legions of poor managers out there. Just yesterday, an executive of a large agency told me about the CEO he worked for who not only screamed and shouted daily, but also had people surreptitiously writing evaluation reports on one another. He likened it to working for a super secret government agency where no one knew who was friend or foe.
When management wises up and realizes how counter-productive and toxic these environments are, only then will they be able to attract and retain talented employees.