Tighten Up, Lighten Up or Both?


For the past twenty years, I’ve had the honor of working with some of the most seasoned and dedicated leaders around, from both small boutique companies and large conglomerates. Over these years, I can confidently say that I’ve never met a leader who doesn’t want to see his or her company succeed.

Yet, even with the best intentions, leaders can find themselves needing assistance in developing culture that establishes practices and habits for success. Most often, I’m called in to help existing companies address a “situation.” They have a problematic department; they aren’t hitting their ideal performance metrics; they have relational dysfunction; they want to diversify or open new branches; they want to expand their horizons…but something is holding them back. In these situations, most company’s leadership simply needs to be reminded of what will make the company fire on all cylinders—from both a results-oriented standpoint and a relational one.

When the leaders are sound, solid people, with every good intention for their company, the problems come down to a basic imbalance—overplaying a particular strength, or a focus on what some have called “the tyranny of the Or.”

This imbalance can be hard to put your finger on unless you’re trained to look for it. But once you understand what you’re looking for, the signs are quite obvious (and often more widespread than anyone realizes):

1. Highly productive companies with a workhouse atmosphere, where well-paid employees eventually feel inadequate valued. This could be from a personal/work-life balance or a what have you done for me lately feeling. (We need to “lighten up” the culture and value the contributors)

2. Highly relational companies whose people enjoy the perks, the camaraderie and pats on the back but eventually become frustrated with the lack of achievement, feel an inadequate sense of purpose, accomplishment or momentum. (We need to “tighten up” the culture)

3. Highly confused companies with an inefficient mix of highly relational departments and highly driven departments whose people eventually never find enough identity to establish any sort of lasting loyalty. (need for both)

In every situation above, the problem is not an utter lack of success. It is simply that a incomplete culture had taken each company as far as it could go. The prescription for achieving that next level of success isn’t a matter of completely discarding what they already have; instead, it’s time for each company to embrace what I like to call an “And” mentality:

Relationships AND Results

People AND Process

Connectedness AND Individuality

Sprints AND Strategic Rests

Service AND Profits

Security AND Accountability

Systems AND Innovation

Today, it seems as though much of the content on company culture focuses on either greater results or better relationships. I would like to propose that these two parts should be of the same discussion. As a result, I have decided to break up this blog post into a 3 part series beyond this intro on the subject. In each subsequent post, I will dissect and exemplify situations in which organizations may need to “Tighten Up,” “Lighten Up,” or do both in order to achieve this “And” Culture!

What does a “Day in the Life” of your team look like?

Relaxed young businessman sitting at his desk


As a leader, you may pride yourself in heading an organization that offers a competitive salary, a great benefits package, and may even be touted by everyone from Forbes to Fast Company as holding the future in its hands. But again, what is it really like for the people who sit within your walls, day in and day out? Don’t just assume that they agree with your press…or even your numbers. You have to actually ask them.

In a case study shortly after the personal computer market took it’s first nose-dive, Dell computers—a company who had seen huge successes—issued an informal survey of its employees. To the surprise of the top brass, it showed that a majority of employees would leave the company if they could. The diagnostic could have stopped there; the company brass could have assumed the uneasiness of the market played a big part in people’s desire to leave and then offered a slew of perks that they believed would solve the problem. Instead, they went a level deeper, and issued another survey about what was making employees feel that way.

The second level survey revealed that no one felt he or she had a connection to company founder Michael Dell—everyone found him distant and aloof—and their perception of the managing COO was that he didn’t listen to their concerns, and simply bulldozed people for the sake of driving numbers.

Again, it could have stopped there, with the founder and COO being tasked to change their behavior to something more relatable. Again, Dell went one level deeper, with some DISC personality assessments on their leaders. It revealed that Michael Dell was a classic introvert, who had turned over operations to the COO who, as a proven driver, was bound to get results or die trying. That system had worked while the demand for Dell computers was high, but when the market took a dive everyone felt detached from the founder and over-driven by the COO, and suddenly they didn’t have a strong enough reason to stay, beyond keeping a paycheck until they could find something better.

The illustration reveals the difference between perception and reality, when diagnosing your organization’s culture. Your diagnosis cannot be based on your perception. It must be based on reality. The workers at Dell perceived the higher-ups as being aloof and uncaring, when in fact they were trying to help the company in the only way they knew how. Similarly, the leadership team perceived, “We’re doing well; we weathered the storm,” while the reality was that the storm had shaken the loyalty of their workforce. The behavior of the people seemed to say everything was alright but upon a deeper review, an MRI so to speak, the chatter in the halls revealed a different story.

Below are three applications for you to actively engage and know your employees’ opinions. I hope you will take the time to uncover the truth in your organization!

  • Make a concerted effort to listen to the chatter in your halls and break rooms.
  • Have open, gut honest conversations with key employees.
  • Conduct surveys of employees that gauge what their work experiences and interactions look and feel like.

Bottom-line, what would your employees say if you asked them if they were happy with their job?