Influencers, Outfluencers and the Apathetic Middle

This is being written during the Fourth of July weekend – a nice four-day escape from work and the perils of bureaucracy. Living within 100 miles of a coast, I am used to most from my area flocking to the beach towns of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland to relax, soak up the sun and enjoy time with friends and family.  This year, however, there was a major wrench tossed into the plans for a good number of people.  The state of New Jersey has been facing a failure to agree on a state budget, resulting in Governor Chris Christie implementing a state shutdown as of the start of the weekend, impacting non-essential services.  Included in the impacted services were state parks (including beaches).  This sounds bad, but it gets worse.  While travelers, bikers, runners, people with relaxation in mind were all turned away by state police at park entrances, word broke that the Governor himself, and his family, were enjoying their weekend on one of these closed beaches.  When asked about the hypocrisy, the Governor responded:

“The governor has a residence at Island Beach. Others don’t. Run for governor and you can have the residence.”

A crass response typical for the man (allegedly) responsible for the shutdown of a bridge to apply a heavy hand to a political non-conformist foe.  But hidden in the sensationalized headlines, is the message this sends about the culture allowed in the New Jersey state government.  Christie ran for Governor under the “Strong Leadership Now” slogan:

I do not intend to make this a political blog, it is just this story calcified the topic of culture for me.  I have recently been reflecting on culture since switching jobs to join the great folks at Contino.  Contino has an amazing culture, one I have not ever experienced before.  Intellect and technical agnosticism are pillars, respect and pragmatism are explicit, and the sense of team is highly apparent.  The culture of the company allows and enables these qualities.  While I spoke to one of the leads at Contino over a beer last week, I asked “How do these qualities remain as the company grows?”.  The answer was “It is our culture – we focus on hiring the right types of people.” – a good answer.  I then pointed out the definition of culture I have aligned with since first reading it: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” — Gruenter and Whitaker.

If you work for a place where “the brilliant jerk” is permitted, your culture is that of a jerk.

If you work for a place where “managing up” is understood to be the norm, you manage out the bottom.

And, if you are a governor and you close beaches to the public while you and your family take time to enjoy them, your culture is that of hypocrisy.

The flaw with the definition I attach to, is that it hinges on the “leader” to own culture, and I believe that is only a small part of the answer.  We all have a stake in the operating behavior of ourselves and our organizations.  Clearly there is reduced impact at the lower levels, but there is some weight to any position.  Those in areas of influence, either by title or sheer organizational respect, can impart cultural change by squashing cultural anti-patterns.  They have a responsibility as an influencer to take all reasonable steps to identify, make explicit, experiment, measure and improve culture issues within their domain.  These are the shepherds of improvement by working within the context of the organization and should be supported by the organization itself.

The apathetic middle is actually a meta-group for the potential influencers and potential detractors.  This makes up the majority of most traditional enterprise from my experience.  Members of this group are transient and flow between the two subgroups, especially when the influencers are not explicit enough or focused on the right areas of change.  This group requires respect and nurturing from the influencers and the organization leadership tier to constantly work on improving the cultural outlook and emotional health of the individuals.  Looking back to what Daniel Pink prescribed in Drive, these are the folks yearning for Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery in their work – and may need a little support to realize these things.  Maintaining a healthy middle is crucial for employee morale and attrition, but it is also critical to keep an open engagement line to the influencers to see positive growth in the area of positive culture.

Outfluencers are those that either do not agree with or do not see a clear culture within an organization.  Sometimes these are just frustrated folks that want out, no matter what.  The “rest-and-vest”s, or the “waiting for my severance” group.  It is also comprised of others that have shifted from the other groups.  In modern change management works, you are meant to ignore the change suppressors, and this group may appear to be suppressors – but they are not completely.  In this group are the former influencers that have hit the outer boundaries of culture change and are not seeing improvements, or are exposed to the corporate culture hypocrisy.  Understanding the “why” for the Outfluencer group is crucial for the leadership and the organization to realize continuous improvement.  It is less an exercise in converting an outfluencer, and more an attempt to gather data from which to learn and experiment on culture improvement.

When your leadership is comprised of folks like Chris Christie, where they tout “Strong Leadership Now”, but in practice exhibit the opposite, it is obvious to the company and the stakeholders.  Saying one thing and doing the other does not create healthy cultures and has negative impacts on engines of growth.  As the Fourth continues this weekend, raise a beer to all the change influencers and those in the middle trying to improve the status quo within organizations!