Cultural permission is the tone, attitude and language that emanates from the executive suite. It is a mantra, expressed in oft-used catch phrases and philosophies that move like waves through the organization. They get adopted and interpreted as actions to be followed. They become part of everyday lexicon and cultural idioms that people hear coming from the highest levels, and form a platform for what the organization believes and expects of its people. “Get it done!” “We will not be denied.” “Take no prisoners!” These are just a few of the things I heard coming up in the business world, and from my perspective, no good came from any of them.As a former New Yorker, now a London resident, it has been nearly impossible to avoid the drama of News Corporation’s phone hacking scandal, which has shuttered a more than 100-year-old newspaper and, even as of this writing, has executives and politicians alike running for cover. It is yet another in a catalog of companies caught up in the misdeeds of their people. I was struck by the steadfast claims of executives that they had no knowledge of inappropriate acts, and certainly had not condoned any inappropriate actions. Yet, the inappropriate behavior seems to have happened not just randomly, but systemically.
The real drama however, unfolded not when the leaders of the company claimed, perhaps accurately, that they were unaware of and shocked by the actions of errant employees hacking phones, manipulating markets and cooking the books. The real drama happened long before — when these leaders played a major role in setting the cultural climate for inappropriate actions to unfold. In the race to find culpability, what doesn’t get talked about is the very climate that creates the conditions for people to behave badly and feel perfectly justified in their behavior. It is, in fact, the very same thing that creates an environment and provides the fuel for people to conversely do great, generous and far-reaching things. It boils down to cultural permission.
Take Enron, for example. Lurking amidst Enron’s excesses were the unmistakable cultural cues that I believe drove employee behavior. “We’re an aggressive culture,” “Guys with Spikes,” “Money is the only thing that motivates” and “Rank and Yank” are but a few of the statements heard. Is it any wonder traders thought they had the right to shut off electricity supplies and manipulate the market?