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MCLEOD: Why the GM ‘don’t blame me’ problem really happened

Science defines culture as “the cultivation of bacteria, tissue cells, etc., in an artificial medium containing nutrients.” The same principle applies to business. Culture is the cultivation of the human beliefs swirling and growing in the petri dish labeled: “your organization.”

Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

In the light of the recent General Motors debacle we might want to amend Drucker’s wisdom to, “Culture eats safety for breakfast.”

People’s beliefs about what’s important to leadership will always trump any actual goals the leader puts forth.

When you were a kid, if your mom said, “We’re going to clean up this house from top to bottom, you knew whether you were in for a week of scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush or the effort would be abandoned by lunch. In the case of my mom, proclamations made during the family meetings were serious business, but any instructions given after 5 p.m. when she had a glass of wine in her hand, could safely be ignored.

We didn’t write down the rules in a kid code book; we just knew from years of intuitively figuring out “how things work” in our house. It didn’t matter what my mother said, we knew, after 5 p.m. her real goal was relaxation.

In business, unspoken beliefs about the leader’s “real goals” can create a culture where it is entirely possible for the leader to direct people to do one thing, and have their team respond by doing the exact opposite.

For example, if you tell employees that safety is your top priority, yet they know that hitting the earnings target is what really matters, they will do everything they can to protect the earnings, and insure bonuses, even if it means looking the other way about problems.

The Valukas Report (released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the GM product defects that killed 13 people) cleared GM Chief Executive Mary Barra, but it exposed a culture where lower level employees either made decisions or did nothing (about critical issues) without letting company leaders know.

We shouldn’t continue to be surprised by these situations. A culture focused on entirely quarterly earnings will never be anything other than an every man for himself rat race.

Imagine two car companies, one says, “Our purpose is insure that our stock-holders receive a superior return on their investment.” The other car company says, “Our Noble Purpose is provide safe innovative transportation that thrills our customers.”

Which set of employees would be more likely to overlook safety issues? The employees whose purpose is to drive earnings, or the employees who know that their true and noble purpose is to serve customers?

Culture is the result of a million small interactions. I doubt anyone at GM said, “Forget safety, earnings are what really counts.” But in the absence of a clearly defined Noble Purpose (focused on the customer), employees get the message about what matters most.

The GM debacle is costing them millions. But scariest part thing about the debacle is that it could very easily happen elsewhere. A corporate ethos focused on earnings, always result in short term, cover yourself behavior, no matter what type of company you have.

I hope that GM is able to redirect their culture. It won’t reclaim the lives lost, but it will prevent future catastrophes. The drive to hit numbers is real, but when leaders make earnings their primary purpose, the culture they create winds up being downright dangerous.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of several books, including “Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud.”