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The compliment sandwich and 4 other common mistakes leaders make

An organizational psychologist explains how company culture needs to be more than stuffing negative feedback into a positive assessment and offering ping-pong and bagels.

The compliment sandwich and 4 other common mistakes leaders make
[Photo: RC/Pexels]
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Most companies recognize the impact culture has on employee engagement, productivity, and performance. But while many leaders think they are cultivating an effective culture, some of their actions are actually culture mistakes.

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Take the compliment sandwich, for instance. This is when feedback is provided by sandwiching “negative” feedback between two compliments. While the intent behind this is excellent (provide more praise and appreciation than criticism), the implementation can be flawed.

The idea is that this method makes it easier for employees to accept criticisms, but it’s essential to remember that no two humans are alike. This one-size-fits-all approach can actually have the opposite effect. Your employee may focus on just the negative or positive comments rather than listening to the complete feedback. Also, because it tends to be contrived, it can hurt trust and build up negative anticipation when employees can feel it coming and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Leaders may want to have one-on-one conversations with employees about their preferences for receiving feedback instead. Then they can honor those preferences individually.

There are many other examples of how leaders can inadvertently create culture missteps, some of which are outlined here. If you can recognize the pitfalls early on, you can adjust your leadership style and strategy to create your desired culture.

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Failing to link culture to strategy

Many leaders fail to recognize how critical it is to link their culture to their strategy. The most effective approach is to get clear about your future vision for the company and the strategy to get there. Then, think about how your company culture aligns with the execution of that strategy. What behaviors do you want from your team to achieve that future vision? This process of linking the two helps you ensure that they are not working at cross purposes, but rather the culture is making it easier for the people on your team to do the work and be successful.

Moving too fast to achieve true alignment

Another one of the most common mistakes that leaders make is moving too fast when thinking through the future vision and company strategy. Then they not only fail to achieve the level of clarity that will help them get aligned, but they fail to ensure that the members of the leadership team are genuinely engaged in a way that addresses any confusion or resistance they have. Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up. Spending a few extra hours in conversation with the leadership team about what the strategy really is will not only yield better decisions about the company’s future but will also create a stronger level of team cohesion, which is essential to accomplish company goals.

Relying on the artifacts

Company culture tends to be pretty misunderstood, and people like to think about the visible artifacts as the culture. Leaders often attempt to create a fun environment for people by creating a game room or getting a ping-pong table. Or maybe they think they can generate culture by bringing in bagels for the staff or having a potluck around holidays. Authentic culture is so much more than what you might see around special occasions or how an office is set up. Authentic culture is everything to do with the interactions of human beings as they are doing the day-to-day work. Sometimes leaders lean too hard on artifacts and believe having isolated team-building events will create the kind of morale boost that they need for effective company culture. They’re just not getting it.

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Triangulating (even with good intentions)

One of the most toxic things that happens in organizations is called triangulation. Triangulation is when you talk about somebody when you have an issue with them, rather than talking directly to them. Sometimes this can be done in a gossipy or kind of nasty way, which is obviously detrimental. However, even when leaders triangulate from a place of positive intention, it can harm culture.

No matter what the conversation might be when you’re talking about somebody, it can erode trust. It also fails to recognize how humans really work. Humans have all kinds of biases and lenses that filter information. This means that even if someone is trying to share information with you about how you can most effectively communicate with Susie, your relationship with Susie will always be different from someone else’s relationship with her. Because of this, the most effective thing for leaders to do is always encourage, invite, and even insist that employees talk directly to one another when they have interpersonal challenges. Not only will this increase trust between your team members, but it will free up your time as a leader to focus on more strategic things.

Failing to invest

CEOs will often look for a simple way to lead cultural change within their organization, but the problem with this type of thinking is it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of culture. Culture shifts do not happen overnight, and real change begins from the inside out. For example, suppose you want people in your organization to be more open to change, which is critical because change is constant. In that case, you want to build the capacity to adapt to your organization’s culture as an attribute. By far and away, the biggest mistake the leaders make when it comes to culture is simply not investing in it. Most of the time, the biggest investment is actually the time it takes to have these important conversations, rather than a significant financial burden.

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Ultimately, culture can become harmful or ineffective if not planned out carefully and with purpose. Evaluate all culture initiatives based on their ability to drive business results, improve lives and increase employee engagement to determine if they are worth implementing.


Laura Gallaher, PhD, is a leadership coach and organizational psychologist. She is the founder of Gallaher Edge.