The Model Corporation: An Uplifting Organizational Culture

Part Four of Six Part Series

An organization’s culture, whether that of a corporation, a government agency or any NGO is like an autobiography that says, “This is who we are, what we value, and how we operate.” Whatever its particulars may be, an organization’s culture will either lift up its people and performance or drag them down. I will give you brief particulars of two real cultures that once dragged people and their performance down, down, down.

The Screw before Getting Screwed Culture

Barbara Toffler graphically tells in her book about how she was dragged down by the corrosive effects of the culture at the now defunct Arthur Anderson firm. She describes bosses who bullied, desperate sales pitches, excessive over billings, demeaning motivational hype, and a “brutally cutthroat” culture where “I learned to try to screw someone else before they screwed me.” ((Toffler, B. Final Accounting: Ambition, Greed, and the Fall of Arthur Anderson. NY: Broadway Books, 2003))

The Poisonous Culture

The 2006 annual leadership retreat was vividly different from the previous one in the surroundings, attendees, and speeches. The 2005 retreat was posh, “the Palm Spring’s fling.” The 2006 retreat was austere. The former chief financial officer and another top executive could not come to the 2006 retreat. They were in Federal prison. The CEO in 2005 did not attend the next retreat. He had been ousted. The new CEO, reputed to be a “straight arrow,” presided over the 2006 retreat. The 2005 speeches must have been self-congratulatory and smug. The 2006 speeches were a stern “wake-up call.” The new CEO said the corporation was “plagued by a poisonous culture,” one that supported winning at any cost and that pervaded the corporation from top to bottom.   ((My account of Boeing’s troubles is drawn from two sources: Gates, D. & Mundy, A. Boeing Lawyer Warns of Company’s Legal Peril. Seattle Times, January 31, 2006, A1, A8; and Holmes, S. Cleaning up Boeing. Business Week, March 13, 2006, 63-68.))  The corporation was Boeing, one of America’s top 25 defense industries. For all of that CEO’s preaching, do you think Boeing has really stopped milking the government?

The Seven Essentials of an Uplifting Organizational Culture

So far in this six-part series a model corporation has been described in comparison to real corporations as one that is shorter and smaller and is responsibly owned, governed and led. In this fourth article another required feature is added, an uplifting culture, one that helps to lift up, not drag down, the people within and their performance for the corporation. An uplifting culture of a corporation or of any organization will have seven essential features.

1. Supportive Values. Values reflect and help influence what really matters to organizations and their people about what is to be done and how it is to be done. When there is consensus in the corporation about the basic value of doing business consistently in a positive manner and in consistently producing positive results (see Part One), then it is virtually certain that all of the following supportive values will be honored in practice throughout the corporation: honesty, integrity, loyalty, promise keeping, fairness, justice, caring for and respecting others, excellence, responsibility, and accountability.

Those supportive values, by the way, just happen to be the same as those Michael Josephson, a lawyer turned ethicist-a novel career switch, calls the universal ethical values. No matter where he looked, in whatever culture, in whatever part of the world, he kept finding these values promoted even when not practiced.  ((Josephson, M. (1988). Teaching ethical decision-making and principled reasoning. Ethics: Easier Said than Done, 1, 27-33.))

Excellence and accountability may seem misfit as ethical values but aren’t. Think of excellence as the opposite of knowingly making and selling shoddy products. Think of accountability as the guardian of the other ethical values. And think of the harm that can be done when business is done unethically, not to mention unlawfully.

2. A Liberating Language. “Sticks and stones won’t hurt me but names will.” Wasn’t that a childhood chant? A Nobel prize winner in literature, Toni Morrison, put it well when she said that words can be used to “sanction ignorance, preserve privilege, and create and perpetuate subjugation.”  ((Robinson E. Toni Morrison’s Measured Words, The Washington Post, December 8, 1993.))

One of the meanings of subordinate, for instance, is that of being subservient in an inferior way. An uplifting culture is one where subjugating words like “boss” and “subordinate” are never heard or used.

3. Organizational Justice. The dictionary defines justice as a condition of moral rightness but does not do enough justice to the nuances of justice. There are five equally important conditions of organizational justice: procedural justice (fair process); distributive justice (fair outcomes); interpersonal justice (everyone treated respectfully); informational justice (the right for everyone to know); and restorative justice (healing the harm done). Each condition must exist when it’s applicable in a given case. One-fourth to four-fourths justice isn’t justice.

A couple more points need to be made about these conditions. They must not only be met within the organization but also outside it whenever they apply. And as the cliché goes, “for justice to be done, it must also be seen as being done.” Meeting the conditions also needs to be seen as meeting the conditions.

4. No Poppycock Rules. In bureaucracies, corporations no exception, poppycock rules grow like weeds. Rules stifle reason and slow performance. Even a matter like organizational justice doesn’t need to depend on poppycock rules about organizational justice.

5. No Officious Ethics. Ethics doesn’t need an office, nor, as Socrates answered his student Menlo’s question with one of his Socratic questions, “Do we need to teach ethics?” Barbara Toffler is a case in point. She was “partner-in-charge” of the ethics program and responsible for business practices, yet recall her confession.

An ethics office/program amounts to paper ethics; tends to relieve individual responsibility for behaving ethically; distances accountability; and gives a sense of impunity for unethical behavior. The same could be said, by the way, about corporate social responsibility and philanthropy offices and programs.

6. Structured Flexibility. I coined this term decades ago to stand for the right balance between too much and too little organization, between two many and too few procedures, and between too many and too few policies. The hierarchical structure is a perfect place for structured inflexibility. The reason, incidentally why I regard structured flexibility as a cultural feature is that people need to see it as “who we are, what we value, and how we operate.”

7. Total Accountability. Besides being the guardian of all universal ethical values, a minimum level of accountability is absolutely necessary for any organization, or any society for that matter, to function. A model corporation requires the maximum level.  For it to exist, corporate performance and that of its members must be managed totally and properly. How that is done is the subject of the next article.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Gary Brumback, PhD, is a retired psychologist and Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science. Read other articles by Gary.