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The Hungry Ghosts of Corporate Culture How to deal with it By J.C. Cruz Few today begin and end their careers at the same place. When it comes to the workplace, everyone leaves eventually. Whether it be a choice one makes freely, for greener pastures and exciting opportunities, or a choice made for them by the powers that be, departures inevitably occur with everyone. How the members of an organization choose to speak about former staff speaks volumes to the health of the organization’s culture. How do you, your colleagues, and your employees speak of former colleagues? How do your former colleagues elsewhere speak of you? When it comes to evaluating the corporate cultural climate, what is said matters, but more important is how and why it is said. A Tale of Two Water Coolers Those who speak of their colleagues’ former contributions, with gratitude, even if and when those contributions were few, seek to honor the individual, and to ensure the organization remains above a self-harming amount of cynicism and negativity. Wishing to avoid a strictly utilitarian view of others, and wanting to maintain proper attitudes, colleagues will speak of those who have left in positive ways, accentuating their contributions, and wishing them the best. These expressions are not just made publicly, but privately, and informally. Water cooler talk is the most accurate measure of cultural health when it comes to discussing former colleagues. Not all water cooler is bad. Some of it, done right, can be quite beneficial. Those who speak with an emphasis on the negative, however, with a tone of judgment, of what remained unsaid when that individual was present, of what was left undone, and speaking strictly in utilitarian tones, have within them the baser organizational cultural default of “we vs. them”, of deficit-based thinking, and of a generally unsatisfied sense of entitlement. They speak, at least at the water cooler, with a tendency toward unspoken blame now free to share, of past criticisms regarding subjects of little relevancy in the present, and general negativity they would not otherwise want the individuals to ever hear. Worst of all, of course, is the public praise discordantly coupled with the negative water cooler discussions. This speaks not only of an unhealthy culture, but a deceptive and heartless one. Dispassionate attitudes toward those who have moved on, coupled with a desire to only appear caring and politically correct, is one of the most damaging organizational health risks of all. To be clear, this is hardly ever damaging to the individual who has left, for the reputation of the former employer to degrade and devalue former employees tends to precede the individual’s reputation. It may not feel as such to the individual who is spoken ill of, but it is objectively the case that organizations who speak negatively and deceptively have their reputation for such behavior firmly before them, and seen by all. The Hungry Ghosts of Corporate Culture Eastern culture has long defined “hungry ghosts” as dark entities trapped between the living and the dead, suffering from their bad karma of greed and desire, never able to appreciate the moment nor experience a sense of gratitude for what they have or had. Metaphorically, the idea is quite applicable to the workplace with cultural illnesses. The hungry ghosts of the corporate world tend to be those who live off of the negativity of their surroundings, “chewing up” the goodwill and contributions of others so as to feel themselves superior, and thirsty for whatever gossip the water cooler can offer them. These corporate ghosts feel they have already given much of their reputation and hard work to the organization, and relish the sensual rewards of “team loyalty”, disdaining former teammates most of all. Keeping hungry ghosts from devouring good corporate culture and professional reputation, is every manager’s responsibility. If you don’t think you have any ghosts eating at your culture, bare this 2012 statistic in mind: in one study, over 15% of company email was gossip, with negative gossip outnumbering positive gossip 3 to 1 (See Source). Dealing with Hungry Ghosts Managers need to be most observant of the water cooler gossip about former employees, and of their own tendencies toward either authenticity or “political correctness”. Managers whose former employees truly contributed to an organization, and who are sorely missed, should be spoken of as great contributors to company legacy, and not as a “traitor” (which can unfortunately be conveyed quite easily and unintentionally by managers feeling the pressure to fill the vacancies of former performers). Managers must be vigilant in establishing expectations for their cultural attitude toward former employees. Whether they left in good standing or bad, accentuating the positive, expressing gratitude for their contributions, acknowledging their value as a human being, honoring their choice to depart, or at least honoring the necessity of departure for everyone’s best interest and welfare, is critically important in (a) sustaining the health of the organization, (b) exemplifying proper attitude and behavior, (c) honoring the whole person as one would hope to be honored themselves, and (d) practicing decency as a leader and role model that serves to build up rather than tear down. Lastly, managers must be vigilant not only in expressing gratitude and valuing the whole person, but also in protecting the organization from the damage caused by the hungry ghosts of gossip and ill-will. It is critically important, then, that managers also (a) make expectations clear not only for what is said, but for how people are perceived and valued, (b) address the actions of hungry ghosts directly and swiftly, (c) raise awareness that such behavior is equivalent to harassment and bullying whether or not the person may actually be present, and (d) follow-up according to existing policy when expectations and warnings fail to convince. PE J.C. Cruz is Senior Associate with Sotelo & Associates, LLC. He is a leadership and team consultant and coach with 20-years of experience in American Higher Education administration and management. J.C. specializes in leadership coaching using a strengths-based, transformative leadership model based on neuroscience and psychology principles. Email jose@sotelocoach.com Call 956.664.2137 Blog The Executive Mind Blog 16 Submit your Articles Personal Excellence essentials presented by HR.com | 11.2014


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