1300 228 042 info@joe-ringer.com
Select Page

How to Protect Your Organization from a Cancerous Culture

As I progressed through my career, I found myself in India in 2015.

We’ve talked about how my experiences growing up as an immigrant from the UK to Australia pushed me to excel at school and professional life. I always sought to please my immediate superiors and ensure I had a flawless performance, whether in the classroom or the boardroom.

Because of this mentality, I found myself overly investing in work—to the detriment of my relationships. The senior leadership of the company constantly talked about my potential and how they wished they could clone me… this enticed me much more than the prospect of family dinners or a visit to my parents.

In India, I worked on building out a healthcare startup. On this extremely busy trip, I buried myself in the work. I wanted to climb the ladder, and at that time, this meant overseeing huge international projects for my company in Asia and Oceania.

Then, I got a phone call from my mother that changed everything.

She had cancer.

This didn’t come as a complete shock. Our family has a genetic predisposition for breast cancer, and we all test for the gene. One of my closest cousins, who we’ll discuss more later, had this gene and passed away from breast cancer at a young age.

The surprise came from the fact that my mom had tested negative for the gene. The news rocked my world. I could no longer focus on the work project in front of me. All I could think about was whether my mother had adequate care. Did she have the support she needed? Had the cancer made it to her lymph nodes?

I instantly went into crisis management mode. I dropped my work project and got on the next plane back home. I had to make sure that my mother got the care she needed. This moment caused me to check my true priorities… and I’m so glad that I got them right this time.

Overall, this experience showed me a few things:

1. Relationships always supersede career.

Whether you like it or not, nobody can succeed in their profession long-term while ignoring meaningful, personal relationships. Over time, they will burn out. Or, the relationships we do have will force us to make a decision about what to prioritize.

I already discussed how my over commitment to work caused, in part, the dissolution of my marriage. Thankfully, in this instance, I decided that work can wait for family. I don’t regret it whatsoever, even though it meant not receiving affirmation from my superiors for a job well done in India.

Life eventually forces us all to decide what we prioritise. Whether we’re at the high point of our career or just beginning, we all need to reflect on how we’ll respond to these moments of decision.

2. Cancer grows within organisations, too.

As I reflect on those days and run it through the filter of my new career as an organizational leadership consultant, I see a similar pattern. Cancer can grow with an organization, especially when it undergoes a season of significant change. Plus, it can become very easy to ignore.

Many times a business or non-profit sees the need for change, so they work hard to get there. This is especially true during the rise of the triple bottom line, where organisations see the value of People and Planet in addition to Profit. So, the firm hires a consultant or begins a new change campaign.

The problem comes when the change doesn’t go deep enough. Many organisations settle for shallow change. They put a new set of values on the wall, begin initiatives that don’t get completed, and then stagnate until the winds of change blow once again.

Organisations have to ensure change goes all the way to the foundations. If a tree doesn’t grow, the problem most often occurs with the roots. This includes the habits, practices, beliefs, and culture of the organisation and its members. In essence, the core DNA must change.

If not, then the same issues are likely to transmit themselves to the new context. It could take weeks or months, but the organisation will experience a new manifestation of the old problem. Part of my work involves identifying the true root issues and addressing them, rather than attempting to make a surface-level fix.

3. Organisational cancer can be benign or malignant—but it must be dealt with.

Finally, most of these organisational concerns begin as minuscule issues. They may even be helpful at first. Here’s a common scenario to illustrate:

At many organisations, pressure flows downward from the senior leadership to the middle management, and then to the front line employees. The C-level leaders frequently put too much pressure on the managers, or at least more than they can handle without proper rewards and affirmation.

In turn, the middle managers begin to micromanage the employees below them. They have harsh performance metrics to meet, so they take control of every step of the process. In the short run, this can produce fantastic results. The middle management will meet the expectations of their superiors, and the organisation will thrive.

However, this benign cancer will turn malignant over time. Managers can only handle a certain level of pressure. Employees can only take a certain amount of micromanagement. Good people at the front lines will move on. Employees will begin to churn faster than replacements can be trained to match their results. Managers will burn out under the pressure, or begin lashing out at their subordinates out of the fear coming from above them.

The best time to address an unhealthy culture like the one in the situation above is during the benign stage. Do you have systems in place enabling honest, 360-degree feedback? Do you have an early screening system to prevent issues before they truly become issues? If not, consider what that might look like in your context.

What will you take away?

If you’re an organizational leader with an established career, take the time to consider how this might affect your organisation. Do you have issues that seem benign now, but could turn malignant later? Have you attempted to steer your team through a season of change, only to fall back into old patterns? The key to lasting change might lie deeper within the roots of your culture than you think.

If you’re a younger leader who aspires to greater heights (like I was), how are your relationships? Are you prepared to drop everything for what matters most, or will you hold onto career hopes at the expense of relationships?

This isn’t a black-and-white issue, by the way. You can have a strong career and strong relationships at the same time. However, there will come moments that clarify your priorities, like the moment I had in India. It will help if you evaluate and confirm your priorities now so that you’re prepared for these situations.