Culture Isn’t Soft — it Has Hard Consequences

Boeing has made headlines again as it finally successfully launched a spaceship, becoming the only company to do so after SpaceX. While I’m thrilled at this news, I can’t help but wonder about the safety of this operation… and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Boeing’s profit-over-people company culture has been exposed, and their brand now bears the mark. 

Boeing’s now very public series of  fiascos serves as a valuable lesson for us all: culture isn’t soft, it has hard consequences.

While this moral of the story applies to organizations big and small, it is heard especially loud now that it is being demonstrated by such a household name. Boeing is a once preeminent company in the U. S. — truly a shining star. When they merged with engineering powerhouse McDonnell Douglas in 1997, they kept the Boeing name, but not much else.  Boeing was internationally revered and had a culture of innovation, decentralized decision making and accountability. McDonnell Douglas had a bureaucratic and cost-cutting culture, which almost never fosters innovation or decentralized decision making and often prioritizes share-holder return above all else.   

In just the last 5 years, Boeing has had 2 chiefs step down in an attempt to remedy the negative company image that has been gaining increasing momentum. And, in the first 3 months of 2024, there were 9 documented issues with Boeing flights, with a recorded average of about 2 to 3 incidents per month in 2022 and 2023. Obviously, there is a quality control issue here, but that is merely a symptom and not the root cause. So, what’s the real problem at hand?

It all comes down to culture. Culture can seem ambiguous and easily fall to the wayside — until crisis erupts and culture seems to be the only thing that can save the sinking ship. More often than not, crises are caused by a flawed culture to begin with. 

One of the most common problems I see is profit taking priority above all else. In reality, profit should be of equal importance as people, processes, and other critical components of culture. Culture is often thought to be soft and fluffy, but the truth is it’s hard stuff, with hard consequences. In the case of Boeing, those consequences were literally a matter of life and death. It may seem like an extreme example, given the gravity of the calamities, but culture is inextricably linked with business outcome, and it will always come full circle. 

So, what lessons in culture can we learn from the Boeing drama?

Articulate Your Culture Clearly 

Outline your culture, vision, and values in a way that cannot be misinterpreted. Make sure that you have also clearly defined your systems and processes in a way that aligns with your culture. When new leaders come into your organization whether through a merger, acquisition or otherwise, ensure they have crystal clarity on the intentional culture you are fostering. Leaders need to embody the culture. Communicate and share values and culture stories at town halls, facilitate dialogue around what the culture is (and isn’t) to make sure that everyone is on the same page. And remember that your culture is upheld by every action of every individual — not the words on your website. 

Ensure Accountability

Once you have established clear culture and expectations, it is important to actually enforce it. All too often we see leaders espouse a particular culture but do not put the reinforcing mechanisms in place to ensure the culture vision is fully experienced.  Culture doesn’t create itself… you really need to actively nurture it through each person on your team. Accountability can take many forms – and it starts with leading by example.  Feedback to leaders and employees on how their actions align or deviate from cultural expectations is also key. Reinforcing mechanisms help to provide a structural component through people and operational processes. Think about who you hire (and fire), who is promoted, whose stories are amplified and overlay them on your aspirational culture. These visible actions are symbols of your culture and should align. 

Nurture Psychological Safety

While psychological safety may feel like the new buzz phrase, it is about ensuring that your  workplace is one where employees at all levels feel comfortable expressing ideas and options, asking tough questions, and admitting mistakes. When we have workplaces where employees feel empowered and not fearful, we experience increased innovation, creativity, collaboration and improved decision making. Employees are also more adaptable, resilient and less likely to burn out. In organizations that don’t prioritize psychological safety, people do not feel safe to speak up. Whether they are being actively silenced, or it’s a more subliminal matter does not matter; if employees don’t feel like their input is welcome, then they will not give it. If you think back to the Boeing examples, it’s very likely the engineers had insights that were being ignored or marginalized.  Make sure that voices are desired to be heard and people are encouraged to contribute.  

Creating a sustainable, positive culture takes intentional, daily work and it absolutely has hard, bottom-line consequences. Is your organization operating with that in mind… or merely waiting for alarm bells to bring the wake up call?

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