Companies that start out with too many restrictions on employees may see them leave in higher than typical numbers. In reviewing HR management practices, I was shocked at the volume of time, space and paper wasted on regulating things such as lunch breaks, holidays, work hours, communication formats, dress code and other behavior-conforming rules. In an effort to fix their own errors, they may mistake control for good business practices. They might add new rules and restrictions, and assemble a team of enforcers. The resulting negative, toxic energy drains the well-being of the company and limits what it can do for customers, vendors and the community. Soon, ‘command and control’ becomes the default management style.

How does it work? And how does it contribute to poor company culture?

First, someone with authority creates a rule or practice to enforce a desired outcome, without any input from those impacted by the rule. This type of disenfranchisement relegates workers to toddler status, demanding that they ‘do what I say, because I said so’. But employees are not toddlers. They don’t surrender like toddlers eventually do when they are too tired or powerless to fight back. Instead, they act like teenagers – wiggling around the rules, finding loopholes, being passive-aggressive, or flat-out defying authority and begging for a confrontation.

The irony is that none of this is necessary. Companies with good culture find ways to empower employees to make correct decisions themselves, rather than having to be reined in by management. Many restrictions in the workplace are superfluous to doing a good job.

Labouring under unnecessary rules is bad for morale, which is bad for motivation to perform, which is bad for… company culture. Sure, if your people work on an assembly line and everyone depends on the next co-worker in line to get the job done, then it makes sense to schedule floor hours and breaks at the same time. For less interdependent office workers, though, who cares if they want to take lunch at 11 o’clock instead of noon?

Often, the real problem does not arise from the employees as a group – it is that the individual hiring went poorly, and management failed to correct it. Maybe they erroneously selected someone whose skills or work ethic did not match the company’s values, mission, vision or commitment to customers. Having brought the wrong person in to do a job, management then commands that person to conform to its ideal. To avoid taking responsibility for a bad hire, the honchos might dictate a long list of rules for everyone else’s behaviour.

The fix would be to correct the hiring process – thoughtfully selecting the type of person who can make appropriate decisions about what to wear, when to take their lunch, and how to carry out the company’s mission based on clearly communicated objectives. This brings us to another, more subtle culture breaker, which also comes from the top: neglect. 

This extract from The Power of Company Culture by Chris Dyer is ©2018 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.