The Threat-Adaptive Culture

The real problem organizations face now, and what leaders must do to accelerate recovery.

Over twenty years ago, my colleagues and I concluded that the health of relationships, teams, and organizations is a function of the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems. We were serious about our conclusion. But we never imagined our reference to “health” would become so literal. In coming days, leaders will likely be challenged to restart operations during a “Danger Gap.” This will be the period of time between a return to closer social interaction and widely available testing and vaccination. My guess is the Danger Gap will span at least a year. It could be longer if vaccination has either limited efficacy or distribution.1

During this Danger Gap, leaders will be challenged to develop COVID-resistant cultures. This will require unprecedented levels of candor about how to behave in light of these threats to both human and organizational survival. If I can sit in an Uber and hesitate to address an obvious infraction with a docile stranger, imagine how much time the people in your organization will waste as they consider raising politically risky ideas that could save the business. Or, imagine their delay in calling out noncompliance with new practices enacted to keep employees and customers feeling safe and actually being safe.

It’s Always Been About Lag Time

In a recent survey, I asked 3,000 employees and leaders to identify how their organizations will adapt in order to survive the coming months. Most said survival depended, among other things, upon:

  • Reprioritizing spending—including stopping or starting major projects
  • Rethinking products and services
  • Selling in new ways or to new customers
  • Reorganizing roles and teams—downsizing or furloughing
  • Getting things done and managing performance more virtually

Apparently, everyone knows that pivoting is the priority.  Having established that, I went on to ask what kind of behavior will determine the speed of the pivot. “How long do you think it will take to gain real agreement on the bold decisions that should be made?” Close to half said it would take four months or longer. Twelve percent lamented it would be more than a year. Six percent predicted there would never be agreement on measures critical to survival.

Why? The biggest barriers were not intellectual deficits or resource shortages. These managers and executives reported that reasons for the lag time include:

  • Mistrust
  • Concerns about losing power
  • Past histories of conflict
  • Worries about job security
  • Ego

When asked “How quickly would these bold decisions be made if people were completely candid?”, 73 percent predicted it would take less than a month. And only 4 percent expected it to take longer than four months to get it done. Our biggest threat is not a lack of competence. It’s a lack of candor.

As you can see, our twenty-year-old discovery that lag and health are correlated has deep relevance today. But the impact that response lag is making on organizational health goes back further than the arrival of the COVID-19 virus. Cultures of silence allow the threat to spread.

The good news is that leaders who address this existential weakness today will reap dividends for years to come.  There has never been a more urgent time, and as you’ll see below, an easier time, to address this long-standing barrier to organizational vitality.


The novel coronavirus is menacing. But it is human behavior that gives it free rein in our social systems. And, of all behavior, it is our silence that makes its prospects most propitious. Silence is the substrate on which organizational illness spreads. Now is the time to take decisive action to shut down COVID-19, and similar future threats, in your organization by becoming threat-adaptive. A “threat-adaptive culture” is one where crucial decisions are made quickly and implemented flawlessly; and where life-saving norms are defended relentlessly.

There are two ways to get started:

  1. Crucial Conversations.

You must eradicate the morbid beliefs that power trumps truth and that career survival means choosing between honesty and loyalty. The study I described above underscores decades of evidence that silence drags performance in myriad ways. It slows decisions. It saps commitment. It escalates transaction costs. Employees must know they can say anything to anyone if it is in the best interest of individual and collective safety and success.

  1. 200% Accountability.

You must abolish the scourge of collusion that infects most organizations: the unwillingness to confront bad behavior in hope that others will give you a pass as well. To ensure broad adoption of life-protecting behaviors, where bold decisions are implemented flawlessly, you must create a culture where everyone is 100% responsible for their own compliance and 100% responsible for correcting anyone else whom they see deviating from healthy norms. The speed with which norms are reset in any social system is determined by the probability of a person being challenged when they violate the new norm.

Without these, organizations will experience avoidable suffering. Resetting norms at this time will help in three ways.

  1. Bold decisions demand candid dialogue. Rapid execution requires real buy-in. In an increasingly virtual work-world, decisions become more elective. In a physical workspace, foot-dragging is more easily seen and fixed. But when managers have limited visibility into day-to-day action, passive resistance has infinite growth potential.

Now, more than ever, leaders need commitment rather than compliance. They must be skillful in utilizing the three ingredients of “H2 decisions” (the combination of highinvolvement and high-speed). These decisions include up-front crucial conversations about:

 › Decision rights – is this a command, consult, consensus, or voting decision?

 › Boundaries – what time limits do we have for deliberation?

 › Stakeholders – who is key to getting it right and getting it done? As testing is to halt a pandemic, so is candor to execution. If you don’t gain full visibility of intellectual and motivational land mines during the decision process, you’ll pay dearly in unnecessary lag time. Candor is crucial.

  1. Employees who don’t feel safe won’t work. Customers who don’t feel safe won’t buy. From an infection-control perspective, dental offices are recognized as one of the riskiest places to work. The leader of a dental practice association recently explained to me that one of the biggest challenges his members face is ensuring employees feel safe to return to work. Creating a safe workplace is not simply about having good policies. It’s about ensuring they are rigorously implemented. Every hygienist must know that he can call out anyone—even the boss—if she compromises the standard.

As customers crawl out of their caves, they will be hypervigilant about all social contact. Organizations that recover the quickest will be those that send clear and consistent safety signals to their customers. A single wheezing Uber driver will instantly destroy customer trust. Consistency is a product of strong norms. And strong norms require 200% accountability.

  1. Virtual workplaces put a premium on candor. We’ve moved to new, more distant modes of working. This new landscape of work enables all of your old cultural weaknesses to be magnified. Any complaints you had in the past about how you make decisions, manage performance, or work across teams, will multiply precisely when you need the opposite. If leaders fail to create strong norms of candor, teams will duck uncomfortable subjects, supervisors will let poor performance slide even longer, and weakened social ties will create fertile ground for a pandemic of mistrust.
There’s Never Been An Easier Time

Investigations following the horrific 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center showed that while smoke billowed into the upper floors of the Twin Towers, many employees checked their email, gathered trivial belongings, or simply milled around. One group was saved when a low-level employee began issuing orders.  He directed colleagues toward the fire escape. A survivor named Elia Zedeño reports that she was filling her purse and walking in circles until the man yelled, “Get out of the building!” Lives were saved because a self-appointed leader created clarity about vital behavior.2

There is no easier time to reset norms than when no one knows what’s normal. During periods of uncertainty, you have a far greater opportunity to invite novel behavior. Power differentials can be flattened. Likewise, when fundamental values are threatened, people are willing to engage in novel behavior to protect them. You can build a healthy culture for the future with far less effort now than ever before.

Create a culture of candor and 200% accountability to save lives and jobs, and you’ll reap dividends for decades to come.

What You Can Do Now

Here are steps you can take now to increase candor, hold needed crucial conversations, and cultivate 200% accountability.

  1. Issue a call to arms. Take advantage of the moment. Send a clear and personal message to your team that “new times call for new behavior.” Acknowledge past failures to address things as openly and directly as you should have. Then, indicate that the urgency of the moment means finding solutions is of greater priority than managing defensiveness. Declare a moratorium on pettiness, then propose a new set of “rules of the road” for the days ahead.
  2. Engage everyone. Identify the most crucial conversations you need to hold in order to pivot quickly and well. Involve everyone needed to “get it right” (those with expertise who should inform solutions) and “get it done” (those whose commitment you’ll need to ensure flawless execution). Develop competence in managing group decisionmaking so you get good decisions, deep buy-in, and rapid implementation. Use these meetings as opportunities to teach crucial conversations skills in bite-sized pieces. People learn best when they put what they are taught to immediate use. Now is the time to teach while you do.
  3. Identify vital behaviors. Identify the places, times, and conditions where you need to take steps to make people be safe and feel safe. Decide what behaviors and tools you will use to do so. Develop an influence plan to ensure the behaviors are adopted immediately and consistently.
  4. Create feedback loops. Implement a weekly “Town Hall” ritual where anyone can point out roadblocks, confusion, or mixed messages related to the solutions you are driving.
  5. Teach now. Teach virtually. The best way to develop skills is to practice them in a context that most resembles where they will be used. Leaders must not wait until life returns to “normal” to train employees on healthy norms for virtual work. Things will not be “normal” for well over a year. People are especially mystified at how to address uncomfortable subjects in virtual forums. If you don’t teach them how, they’ll default to old games. Leaders should take advantage of unsettled cultural conditions to take a strong stand for candor and the skills needed to practice it. And they should roll those skills out in virtual intact team sessions. Either way, since life is now more virtual, training must be, too.
  6. Model. Praise. Teach. Confront. Be a role model of the candor you’re asking of others—especially when it’s risky or embarrassing for you. Praise those who take risks to operate in healthier ways. Become a “teacher of culture,” sharing skills at every opportunity to reinforce the rules of the road you’re establishing. People are especially mystified at how to address uncomfortable subjects in virtual forums. If you don’t teach them how, they’ll default to old games. And, when needed, confront those who play by the old rules in a way that sends clear messages about your expectations to the rest of the team.

Months from today, there will be two types of organizations: the quick and the dead. You won’t adapt with speed until and unless your team rises to new levels of directness. But if you do, you’ll position yourself not just for survival, but for enduring success. You’ll build a threat-adaptive culture that will pay dividends against unanticipated future challenges and will remove drag that has cost you, whether you know it or not, up to this present moment. It has always been about lag time.

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