3 Toxic Cultural Patterns you Should Squash Today
Read Time: 4 Minutes
We talk about culture ad nauseam. It’s the foundation of everything we teach, but sometimes hard to convert into practical concepts and learning. Most companies devolve into poor behavioral patterns. Remember, culture is the sum of all the behaviors in your company or team.
A prominent problem leaders have is that they get sucked into these paradigms themselves, don’t know how to address them, or don’t know how to identify them. This keeps us on the treadmill of crappy culture. Today I’m going to walk you 3 three toxic signs to keep an eye out for and what you can do about them.
Our goal as leaders should be to build and nurture a responsible organization. I’ll talk more about responsibility and give you some resources at the end, but let’s focus on the yucky stuff now.
Is everybody frustrated about how things are run? Are contrarian opinions squashed or “eye rolled off”? Does management have unrealistic expectations? Do we constantly have a “we’ll fix it in post” attitude toward every significant problem?
This is textbook denial. If you can’t accept reality, you can’t adapt. If you can’t adapt, you die.
Denial is devastating to organizations. It’s the coping mechanism we use first as humans and the easiest way to avoid responsibility for our environment and outcomes.
Denial is brutal to address because you’re confronting people with things they’ve taken pains to avoid. As a responsible leader, though, you must persevere.
Here are some tips
Collect data and show it to the team without judgment. If there are negative patterns nobody feels comfortable discussing, reflect the results to the team and make it harder for them to avoid.
Check regularly to see if the team feels like the plan is realistic. If they don’t, have a conversation about it.
Think about the things people only discuss in dark corners, then create official channels (meetings, etc) to discuss them openly. Get other leaders invested in listening in those forums and openly engaging.
When assessing the culture of game companies, one of the things I’ve trained myself to keep an eye out for is blame. Blame is poison in a company’s veins, not just because it’s “us against them” but also because it gives everyone a free pass to take their hands off the problem. In organizations where blame is a “go-to” pattern behavior, it’s common to see that very little progress is made on the issues people care about most.
If you hear these kinds of statements:
“The executives only care about money and deadlines. They don’t understand a thing about game development!”
“QA keeps complaining about not being able to test everything on time. If their managers would hire more, we wouldn’t have these problems.”
“Team X has been promising us this component for months, and they can’t seem to deliver. How can we get our work done if they can’t meet their commitments?”
“Creative just can’t decide on or describe what they want. If they actually created halfway decent documentation for us, we’d be able to get this done.”
Chances are you’ve heard this sort of thing many times. When we hear a lot of this type of talk, it’s a strong sign that collaboration is breaking down, AND there is a culture where people feel like they cannot take full responsibility for their work. In other words, they feel inhibited by an outside force.
When you detect that blame is working its way into the conversation regularly, take these steps with the relevant parties:
Have everyone sit down and listen to each other’s concerns and struggles. It’s harder to pass the blame onto someone you’ve connected with and even more challenging to pass the blame on someone you empathize with.
As much as possible, even briefly, force tighter collaboration by having these groups share work.
Encourage the teams/individuals closest to you to work outside your direct area of responsibility. This tests the boundary of what your team believes it has power over.
Sit down with the leaders of the other groups (when blame is being exchanged) and share your observations. See if you can collaborate with them to come up with solutions.
This is tricky because the game industry is full of intelligent, enterprising, and industrious people. Justification is the perfect kryptonite. What better way to avoid responsibility than to have the rational explanation, “This is just the way things work in game dev”?
I hear this all the time, and it’s even tougher to crack in our industry because we have a bit of a complex around our “uniqueness” as an industry as well. Other solutions, techniques, or methods won’t work here because we’re different.
This is rationalization masquerading as acceptance, and it’s still a toxic method of avoiding responsibility. As a leader, you must bust through these rationalizations and show people firsthand that there is no such thing as “that’s just how it is here.”
Here are some ways to approach this:
Find an entrenched process, get other leaders on board, and change it. This will shatter the illusion that there are non-negotiables. Even something simple will do.
Expose an executive/senior leader/founder to a “that’s just how it is” narrative you’ve realized they’d disagree with. Ask them to talk to the team about it face-to-face.
In closing, keep an eye out for these toxic cultural patterns. Some of you may recognize these as being the “base three rungs” on the responsibility ladder from Christopher Avery.
A responsible organization is a cultural project differentiating between successful organizations with rich cultures and drab corporations where everyone just “does their job.” I’ve given you three examples above showing how a company can go off the rails and how to watch for toxic patterns. If you want to look more into responsibility, check out Christopher Avery’s book and dig into the rest of the “ladder.”
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