By now you've probably heard all about Greg Smith's very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, the large and powerful global investment bank. I can't vouch for the veracity of his claims but I think he provides us with a teachable moment,when we can learn about the significance of organizational culture. 

Smith says that he left Goldman because it had become a toxic corporate culture. He writes: 

...culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, Medium_2585039824 integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.

A change in the way Goldman thinks about leadership, according to Smith, was a major factor in the change in culture. He writes:

...The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence.

Smith sees that toxic culture being played out in sales meetings and in the way employees think about their customers. He describes those meetings in this way:

...I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them. If you were an alien from Mars and sat in on one of these meetings, you would believe that a client’s success or progress was not part of the thought process at all.

If Smith is right and that is indeed the culture in Goldman Sachs, the company will eventually implode. Employees, under pressure to make money for the firm, will cross the ethical line and begin to violate the law, if they haven't already. Directors will begin stepping on each other in their ambitious climb to the next level. Customers will leave Goldman or choose not to go there in the first place. 

Fortunately for Smith he is probably a multi-millionaire, 30-something, who can walk away with a sense of security and a bright future ahead of him. Unfortunately for many others working in toxic work cultures, they feel trapped in their current work arrangements. They don't believe they can walk away. They don't have the financial security nor the career opportunities of Greg Smith. They are stuck. Their only recourse is to try to change the corporate culture, which has risks but can be done.

One example is what Atul Gawande has accomplished by using a checklist in hospital operating rooms. He and his staff have changed the culture of surgical teams and set an example for hospitals around the globe. They changed from a top-down, doctor-is-always-right, don't-question-authority culture to an accountable, quality-of-care-comes-first culture. When you don't feel you can walk away, you either have to find the levers for change or learn to tolerate the work environment, and the latter is never a satisfying solution. 

photo credit: swisscan via photopin cc

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