Innovation

A Pinch of Poison in Your Company Culture Can Be Deadly

A Pinch of Poison in Your Company Culture Can Be Deadly

What do high performing company cultures and successful television shows have in common? Just about everything – minus an Emmy and the drama… hopefully.

Both create a product (or service), both must capture and hold the interest of their customers, both deal with frequently changing variables and both must optimize multi-functional teams. Writers know this scenario very well – they’re right in the middle of the melee, or so it must seem at times.

In television, a team of writers is constantly creating scripts to guide a story, bring out the best in the actors and capture the compulsions of viewers – that’s right, viewers compelled to DVR, to download, to binge-watch or even take shows to the gym – you know who you are. These writers are creative and often under pressure. If they don’t capture the fascination of their audience, empowered viewers will change the channel or their DVR settings faster than you can skip a commercial.

A Pinch of Poison in Your Company Culture Can Be DeadlyQuite like a company striving to stay on the bleeding edge of technology and innovation, writers must constantly consider all the elements of their characters. If characters become too static and comfortable, viewers tune-out; if they push the envelope too hard, viewers become lost…and tune-out. It’s this last scenario that’s uniquely problematic for TV shows and organizations.

A Pinch of Poison

A “pinch of poison”, thankfully a metaphor, is when a character does something out of character. The writer, producer or director decides (sometimes inadvertently and sometimes to disguise other challenges) to have the hero or heroine wear gray pants instead of khaki, switch sides of the bed, or some other deviation from the character’s norm. The result—a sense in the viewer that something isn’t quite right. An almost subliminal message that this character isn’t who we thought they were.

The anecdote for a “pinch” is simply to recognize the element and course correct as soon as possible, preferably within the next scene or the next episode. Fail to address it, and the pinch can actually poison the show.

Occasionally a pinch of poison can be something even more dramatic. Recently, in an extraordinarily popular show, a well-established character did something radical and incongruent with his character’s nature – he murdered someone. While this was certainly a potential short-term ratings bump, the risk of losing viewers long-term was real and it happened.

What’s the parallel to a pinch of poison in business? When a leadership team works tirelessly on creating a company culture of candor and openness, then suddenly keeps information from their people that had always been shared in the past, this is a pinch.

When leaders with a reputation for their commitment to employees are seduced by the opportunity to maximize profit by moving jobs to a less expensive alternative, this is a pinch – a very painful one. And when a company decides to acquiesce to pressures for cheaper, faster, broader appeal in its products, this isn’t just a pinch, it’s a full dose.

Leaders face constant pressures from multiple sources, often simultaneously. Short-term gain is a powerful lure. Shareholders and boards want profitable results – quarterly; customers want low prices – daily, and employees want job security – for as long as they choose to stay. These pressures more often than not influence decisions to maximize profitability, irrespective of cost and long-term collateral damage – itself a conundrum. When the “cost” is a key element of culture or product identification, the results can be terminal for everyone.

To avoid pinching investors, customers or team members, leaders must ask, “What are the most valued elements of our organization’s character we must not alter? (i.e. What have our people, our investors, our customers and our marketplace come to expect and hold dear?)”

Leaders who identify the core character of their organization and persevere consistently in honoring it, despite the pressure to do otherwise, create a company and culture that everyone values. If there does come a time when a pinch of poison leaks through, the people they’ve served will be happy to provide their own anecdote.

Category: Innovation Leadership

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About the Author: AmyK Hutchens

Speaker. Author. Trainer. Business Strategist.


A former executive of a billion dollar global consumer products company and awarded the Vistage UK, International Speaker of the

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