Articles

Adam Grant – Beware The 4Rs Of Toxic Work Culture

August 25, 2022 - By Jessica Stillman, Contributor, Inc.Com Magazine

COMMENT BY WENDY LAMBOURNE, LEGITIMATE LEADERSHIP, ON THIS ARTICLE: I find Adam Grant’s mental map extremely helpful. The Relationship-Results continuum speaks to the criterion of Care. In Legitimate Leadership terms, though Care is about tough love, it is acting in the employees’ best interests (which are to be the best human beings that they can be). The Rules-Risk continuum relates to the criterion of Growth or Empowerment.

What Legitimate Leadership believes about controls in an organisation is as follows:

  1. Both the retention of control to perpetuity and the instantaneous removal of all control are disenabling.
  2. There is a place for control in a legitimate relationship of power as long as it is subordinate to the intention to empower.
  3. Freedom without rules or constraints is anarchy. Rules and constraints without freedom is totalitarianism. Empowerment is freedom within constraints.
  4. The level of control which is exercised in any legitimate relationship of power must be commensurate with the task and personal maturity of the person being empowered.

SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE: Tolstoy’s classic novel Anna Karenina famously begins, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

But every toxic company culture isn’t toxic in its own way. Every type of terrible company culture can be traced to just a handful of fundamental errors, apparently.

A “toxic” culture isn’t just one you subjectively don’t like.

On his WorkLife podcast recently, Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant said a toxic company culture is always about a lack of balance. Companies become toxic when they go way too far toward one side on a couple of scales of competing values: relationships versus results and rules versus risk.

Overemphasize one of these four 4Rs, he claims, and you’ll commit one of the four deadly sins of workplace culture:

RELATIONSHIPS. If not stepping on toes or upsetting people is all that matters at a business, it’s no surprise that actually getting things done falls way down the list of priorities. The result is mediocrity and a culture without accountability. “Even if you do a terrible job, you can still get ahead as long as people like you,” says Grant of this first fundamental type of toxicity.

RESULTS. This is the other end of the relationships-versus-results tradeoff. Over on this side are companies that value relationships so little that they’ll throw human decency under the bus in the name of performance. Grant (and research) suggests this variety of toxicity is the deadliest of all company culture sins and can result in disrespect, abuse, unethical decisions, and cutthroat behavior.

RULES. Every business must balance the stability of rules against the rewards of risks. If you stray too far toward rules, you end up with creativity- and initiative-killing bureaucracy. These are the companies that ask you to submit a form in triplicate just to use the bathroom, and which view even minor changes to the status quo with suspicion and hostility.

RISK. On the other end of the spectrum from rules and bureaucracy is the utter chaos of rules-free anarchy. When everyone can do whatever they want without coordination or alignment, people end up working at cross-purposes, valuable lessons are never learned, and a whole lot of effort gets wasted.

Grant’s framework provides a handy method to do just that sort of assessment. Whether you’re a job seeker trying to understand whether the culture of the company you might join is toxic or a leader keen to make sure that job seekers definitely don’t see your culture as toxic, it helps to have a mental map of the types of toxicity you should look out for. Grant’s 4Rs provide that.

Jessica Stillman
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