What do FIFA, Uber, Theranos and Game of Thrones have in common? The answer: Hierarchy. Implicit in this list is an almost feudal, territorial wrestling with power, leadership and the estate of domain.
Resulting characteristics of fiefdoms — toxicity, war, greed, organizational rigidity — often appear in modern company cultures and are responsible for their demise. For a business to, well, go about its business, stabilizing elements of structure must be present, however how do you know when the powers that be are holding the reins too tight?
If your company culture is giving you flashbacks to your family’s worst reunions, it’s time to rewrite dynamics. Not only is it imperative for morale, but for productivity and scale as well.
How Fiefdoms Happen
If Amazon’s runaway success demonstrates nothing else, it is that a company learn to successfully self-organize. Accepting a company’s de-evolution into the toxic trap of fiefdoms is basically an act of sabotage.
So why do so many companies succumb to fiefdom culture in the first place? Fear is at the heart of the issue. Any kind of stress can pull a company into isolated warlords.
External pressures such as mergers and restructuring, a bad quarter or an aggressive board can add pressure from the outside. Inside the company walls, a lack of trust and poor leadership lead to fiefdoms.
Perhaps department heads aren’t transparent about sharing their resources, maybe they simply lack the ability, will or tools for cross-functional collaboration. Either way, it’s a cycle of dysfunction in which the customer’s needs are left abandoned in the margins.
Where Fiefdoms Belong
Some military environments, particularly in settings of warfare, demand top-down, unquestioning cultures for the success of the mission. Production line factories success in which workers must perform their specific task well and repeatedly. But in most modern business settings, the power to adapt and pivot is do or die for a startup, where a customer’s needs rather than toxic office politics must take aggressive center stage. Here, fiefdoms serve no purpose.
Dismantle the Fiefdom, Save the Startup
Dismantling fiefdoms is not the same thing as abandoning structure. Company culture, values, expectations, rhythms and routines, is the scaffolding a workforce leans on. Structure is necessary for stability. It provides order, strategies and resource allocation. But structure is not something to hide behind, or wield as a weapon or bargaining chip. It can’t stifle innovation or impede collaboration.
Most importantly, structure must do something its very name would suggest impossible. It must be fluid. A truly adaptive company must always be communicating about how its structure will support its strategy, as opposed to the other way around.
A New Kind of Collaboration
So how to shed negative fiefdom culture while preserving structure? It requires leaders loosen their grasp on the reins, understanding that the mission is a shared one and greater than one’s personal wheelhouse. Gone is the time when department heads could get away with throwing their hands up about their inability to share data and strategy in real time.
Confident leaders are positive leaders. They look upon their teams with trust, and look to them for inspiration. In the end, a team should include everyone on the field and around it, under a roof that both supports and sees members’ individual talents.
Transparency is the only proven cure for morale killers like innuendo and infighting. If department heads lack the tools to successfully communicate with one another in real-time, or are unsure how to huddle the entire staff in one conversation, equip them.
There’s no such thing as a frozen company culture. We’re not required to support dysfunction or instability. Fiefdoms must fall, for the company as a whole to rise.