The Dangerous Role of Subjectivity in Your Company Culture

Uber has changed the way we view transportation, and recent events at the company have also begun to change the way we view company culture. While there has been a lot of media coverage of Uber's cultural problems, not much has been said about the roots of the culture that caused those problems. We ignore these roots at our peril.

What sits at the root of a culture? Humans do – humans who will interpret rules, expectations, and policies. Until the roots are addressed, fixes to any culture will only be temporary.

Of course, leadership sending clear, strong messages about the culture is also essential. Equally as essential is having objective policies, practices, and processes in place that are not open to interpretation. Subjective policies, practices, and processes will counteract all of the constructive work of the leadership and the message.

Where Is the Danger?

"Fuzzy" language, processes, and expectations are the danger, and they hide in plain sight. "Fuzzy" means "subjective," open to interpretation. That is where the few bad apples who counteract the culture will hide.

I remember a financial services company in the Southwest that had to recover from a sexual harassment scandal – and had to recover quickly. Until that point, this company had a good-ol'-boy culture in which the compliant talking points about sexual harassment had been circulated, but the policies were fuzzy. These policies left plenty of room to protect the leaders who got around the rules.

Phrases such as "will not be tolerated," "unwelcome conduct," and "an offensive environment" are examples of "fuzzies." People who might cause trouble look at this fuzzy language, begin to rationalize their actions, and hide behind their interpretations.

The fuzzies are especially dangerous when they are in the policies, processes, and consequences. If there is something open to interpretation, there are grounds for conflict.

What Is the Remedy?

Fuzzies can be squeezed out of policies, processes, and consequences through a relatively simple process taught by human performance guru, Dr. Robert Mager. He calls it "goal analysis," but he describes it as "defuzzifying fuzzies."

Once a fuzzy is discovered, it must be translated in terms of observable performance. In conversation, this process would sound something like this:

Boss: "There will be no unwelcome conduct!"

Defuzzifier: "Well said, Boss. When you observe 'unwelcome conduct,' what actions are you observing?"

Boss: "Well, no one should tell jokes that the listeners consider to be inappropriate for the workplace."

Defuzzifier: "Fair enough. What else?"

Boss: "There should be no pictures on display that people consider to be sexually oriented."

Defuzzifier: "Got it. What else?"

The "what else" continues until the boss has articulated a list of observable performances that fall under the fuzzy umbrella of "unwelcome conduct."

This process is how the aforementioned financial services company addressed the fuzzies in its policies and its communications dealing with sexual harassment. This complemented the leadership's strong message of "cultural clarification." With the fuzzies translated into observable performances, there were no places left to hide.

When I say this process is "simple," I do not mean it is easy. Defuzzifying the fuzzies takes a lot of effort.

The work processes that must be reviewed are all of those that support leadership's cultural message. In our sexual harassment example, there are processes for:

Educating people on the subject

Reporting violations

Addressing reports of violations

Taking disciplinary actions

Reviewing and revising policies

Each process consists of steps taken in order to achieve the intended outcome. The steps must be reviewed to ensure there are no gaps in the process and that the language is free of fuzzies.

What Is the Danger of Other Cultural Fuzzies?

Subjectivity cannot be allowed in the language, policies, and practices of a critical cultural component of an organization. Sexual harassment is an obvious example, but this applies also to cultural descriptions, such as "high-performance culture," "a great place to work," or "an inclusive culture."

The problem with having fuzzies is that it puts bosses in the tenuous position of being judges. Yes, you want bosses to have good judgment, but you don't want work processes that force them to subjectively interpret what should be done, how it should be done, and how it should be evaluated. Subjectivity in policies and procedures opens each situation to conflict, which is a tremendous obstacle to performance in the workplace.

When you drill down to the root of most workplace conflict, you will find disagreement over the interpretation of a subjective work process. Even a good boss will find it difficult to be good when they are trying to defend subjective work processes and systems. As W. Edwards Deming, the acknowledged father of the quality movement, put it, "A bad process will beat a good person every time."

Rex Conner is the author of What If Common Sense Was Common Practice in Business? and the lead partner and owner of Mager Consortium.