How to combat acid-flinging swans

Martha swan eyesThe behind-the-scenes drama at the famed Russian Bolshoi Ballet has made worldwide headlines since the acid attack on artistic director Sergei Filin in January. But the poisonous culture at the Bolshoi has long been reported prior to this.

Stories of years of in-fighting, jealousies, money scandals, lurid photos, threatening phone calls, slashed tires, hacked Facebook and email accounts—and it goes on—are nothing new. The toxic culture was endemic. Toxicity was the culture.

Does your corporate culture have Black Swan complex? The pond may seem smooth and serene and then one day, SPLASH! A major upset causes commotion, confusion and chaos. The results could swell to lost production, loss of high value employees, disgruntled clients and a bleeding bottom line.

But like the Bolshoi Ballet, there are always signs of unrest, ripples in the pond. Malcontent doesn't come out of nowhere. Leadership needs to listen, engage and respond to signs of unrest before they blow up into a major problem (or even acid flinging).

Signs to look for:

  • Patterns of complaints to HR
  • Undue turnover at entry level and middle management positions
  • Territorial conflict among departments
  • Stagnation in productivity
  • Loss of clients/decline in sales

What you can do:

  • Acknowledge complaints. Let employees know that they have been heard. You don't have to have an answer right away, but let them know when they can expect to hear back from you. Follow through.
  • Revisit your mission and values. When faced with a tough conflict, your mission and corporate values should guide decision-making, not emotion, old allegiances, temporary convenience or avoidance.
  • Bring in a mediator. Some situations are better addressed when an impartial third party can mediate.
  • Don't delay. Conflicts fester and worsen when left alone. Address problems in a timely (not rushed) manner.
  • Be flexible. Know that sometimes one course of action may not bring the desired result. Be willing to pivot on a decision if needed.

Tuesday, the Bolshoi Theatre (parent organization for the Bolshoi Ballet) announced that its director will step down and a new director is challenged "to unite the troupe and continue the development of the best theatre in the country and one of the best in the world."  

Hopefully, new leadership will help stabilize the situation and establish a new and positive creative culture. It will be interesting—perhaps the subject for a new reality show—to see how the employees, especially the dancers and teachers spanning all sides of the acid attack scandal, react to new leadership and to what extent they will participate in crafting a new culture for the famed company.

Keeping your flock of swans swimming harmoniously in the same direction requires a careful and deliberate cultural choreography—and keeps your company en pointe.

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