What Can Elephants Teach Us About Workplace Culture?

Gustavo Grodnitzky Organizational Culture

What species gets cancer more often: elephants or humans?

Now you might think that since elephants are so much bigger than humans — and have so many more cells that could be affected by cancer — that they suffer from the disease more than we do.

Actually, though, elephants don’t get cancer. Well, they do occasionally. But not nearly as often as we humans do. Less than 5% of elephants die from cancer, compared with 25% of humans.

Why? Elephants have developed a natural resistance to cancer. In this study, researchers identified the LIF gene, sometimes referred to as the “zombie gene.” It is turned on when there is a mutation in a cell. When the LIF gene is turned on, it kills the mutated cell.

And then there’s the p53 gene, also known as the “genetic police” because it suppresses tumor growth. Elephants have dozens of copies of the p53 gene. Humans have just two.

Are There ‘Tumors’ in Your Culture?

Now that’s all very interesting, but what does it have to do with workplace culture?

Like all other living things, a workplace culture is always growing and changing. As we put people into different groups, teams, departments and locations, subcultures naturally develop.

If you look at your organizational culture as a living organism, every subculture can be considered a group of cells or even an organ. If the various subcultures align with the overarching culture, the “organism” is functioning well. But if a subculture fails to align, a tumor forms.

When that happens, our cultures need their own versions of elephants’ LIF and p53 genes.

Statements That Protect Culture

What can act as a p53 gene in your workplace? Culture-based statements to “police” damaging behaviors. Culture-based statements do not say things like “That’s against policy; you’re going to get in trouble for that” or “I’m your supervisor and I forbid it.”

Instead, they convey this message: “Hey, you’re one of us. And that thing you are doing and/or considering is not part of us.”

Culture-based statements sound like “We don’t do that here” or “This is how we roll here.” The key is that employees must be empowered to use culture-based statements at all levels of the organization, without retribution.

3 Steps to Stop Culture Damage

The cultural equivalent of a LIF gene is a strong supervisor who can take charge of a subculture and use influence and authority to squash behaviors not aligned with the overarching culture.  To do so, I suggest a three-stage model:

  1. Coach. Educate as to why you are requiring the behaviors you do and how other behaviors undermine the culture.
  2. Train. Assess and fill any gaps between the employees’ current skill sets and the performance you are striving to achieve.

And if steps 1 and 2 don’t work …

  1. Set them free. I use these words very intentionally. I believe people genuinely want to be successful where they work. If they can’t succeed in your culture, set them free to succeed in someone else’s. I’m a big fan of retention if and only if the employees perform at a high level and contribute to your culture.

Historically, “the elephant in the room” has referred to massive problems that no one is willing to discuss or deal with. “The elephants in your culture” are those people willing and able to become the “genes” that ensure the health, longevity and cancer-free growth of your culture.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!