True story. A healthy culture doesn’t mean we don’t get sick; it means we heal quickly. The question addressed in this post is not whether your culture will face headwinds and challenges but what happens when it does.


We got sick one day at RBB recently. And yes, I got permission from those involved to tell this tale. I, the CEO and Owner of our 55-person company, was out of town and had zero impact on this situation.


Recently our sales reps began working from home on Wednesdays. As a courtesy they informed everyone in the company. Our production employees got upset and saw this as unfair… especially right then, since sales were not at our goal. One of our young and passionate supervisors fired off an email to senior managers. She closed her message with “How can we overcome this without losing valuable employees who want to work for a more honorable company with rules fair enough to all?”
Say you’re one of those senior leaders. What would your reaction have been?



Thar she blows

The senior leaders, like you would have, took that email personally and got angry fast. Being called dishonorable is not a difference of opinion; it’s a judgment. Those who were on-site immediately (and privately) vented among each other. Their first response was to air it out with a colleague. “They don’t understand.” “It’s not their call.” “What a bunch of whiners.” “Why don’t they just go back to work?” You get the idea.


But they calmed down before taking action. I don’t know, maybe they said the anti-resentment prayer: Lord, help me forgive those who sin differently than I do. In any case, here’s what happened next.


They pulled every available manager and supervisor together into a room right away. Polling the team, they listened fully to all parties and didn’t react, even nonverbally. The main arguments, both of which the supervisors shared with their shop floor folks, were:
  • Why do the salespeople get a day off every week and we get into trouble when we’re not here?
  • Don’t the salespeople feel the same pressure that we do to get our numbers up? If not, why not?


Once they knew their concerns were heard and respected, I’m told that a lot of the steam left the conversation.


Back to shore
At that point the leaders took over. They thanked everyone for their courage and honesty. They reminded these influencers that our culture is based on trust – of other departments, management, and each other.

They emphasized our Core Values and RBB Behaviors. In particular they thanked them for fighting to maintain our good mojo, which was felt to be in jeopardy. We can’t ‘Speak the Truth’ or ‘Make Harmony Happen’ if all we do is complain among ourselves.


Next came a respectful explanation of the unique roles that various employees play. In RBB’s case, most people build and test printed circuit boards which requires the use of equipment (which is on-site) and each other (on a set schedule). Our salespeople don’t have these same constraints so they have the freedom but also the obligation to work early, late, on weekends, and from anywhere – without additional compensation.


As to the pressure for the numbers, this is exactly why the reps focused a day per week to get even more undistracted work done from home. Unlike most employees, salespeople’s paychecks are directly affected by our numbers.


While that sunk in, the team was encouraged to tell themselves a different story: The reps are moving heaven and earth in their own way so we have more work to do out here on the floor.


The leaders looked for unified understanding, not consensus. They valued everyone and even though some didn’t agree (and still don’t), that’s okay as long as we’re cohesive going forward. The meeting wrapped up with a communication plan for outside the meeting.


Later that day our excitable supervisor was coached privately about her use of emails and word choice!


My Take

People spoke up, even though it was an icky subject. Feedback was shared and mojo restored (mostly). Future two-way dialog remains open.


The best news is that we had this conflict. We leaned into it.
Not: Leaders pretending it would blow over.
Not: Waiting until Bruce got back into town.
Not: “We’ll take it under advisement – get back to work.”
Not: “Don’t bother complaining, nobody ever listens anyway.”
Not: “How dare you!”
Not: The end of a promising supervisor’s career.

Not: Letting a valid concern go underground and destroy our mojo.


I received this email from the supervisor before I got home: It was an icky topic and believe me I was terrified. But if anything, it got us to a place where we had to sit down and agree and/or disagree. The managers said this wouldn’t be a business if we didn’t have a little bit of conflict. They brought some new light to my eyes that I hadn’t thought about.


I felt anxious and scared going into the meeting and a whole lot of relief and understanding leaving. I am growing, Boss. I might not be able to handle all the situations I face the best way, but out of each and every one I learn and move forward.


That right there is culture worth fighting for.


When it comes to culture, what you tolerate, you endorse. If you tolerate stuff like passive aggression, you’re saying that’s okay with you. Or missed deadlines, or tardiness or sweetness used to avoid facing important issues. Healthy cultures are intentional; they’re flexible and sometimes messy. They’re not accidental.