Something is Burning

Published: January 11, 2023

The aroma is clear, but the source is a mystery. The frantic search begins the moment you smell something burning. Until the smoldering whatever is located, disaster looms. Imagine treating workplace culture with the same urgency. Some percentage, albeit small, of employees are actively disengaged. Often there is a lead toxin with a few lemmings doing that person's dirty work. Everyone can smell the fire, but the odor has lingered so long that it has become normalized. What to do?

The trademarked model for evaluating workplace wellness we employ has sniffed out many fires over the years. It is research validated. It never misses. Sometimes it detects the aroma that a workplace team tolerates because teammates have become inured to it. Sometimes the fires are so strong that if a stranger walked in, they would be taken aback by the smell. Yet, the everyday inhabitants just seem to wear it.

We were once invited to assess a financial services team who had been inexplicably underperforming for six consecutive calendar quarters. Headquarters wanted an answer, and none was immediately apparent. Our team of culture experts sat at the leadership table and listened to their story. The talent appeared well-matched with job functions and everyone seemed to get along. We had a mystery yearning to be solved.

After the assessment survey was administered and the data was revealed, we could smell something burning. Two survey questions jumped out in apparent contradiction. The team scored high on the question, “I have a trusted colleague in the workplace.” However, on the question, “There is an undercurrent of disrespect on my team,” trouble leapt off the page of the summary report. As we considered the contrast, we realized that despite nearly everyone having at least one trusted teammate, the workplace was woefully weak with trust.

We presented the results to the leadership team. The room went cold. One of the team leaders scribbled a note and slid it across the table to his boss. His boss read it, shook her head, and said, “Time out!” She had the room’s attention and asked, “How did you know?” “Survey said,” we replied. She read the scribbled not aloud. “We should have let him go a year ago.” Everyone at the table nodded in agreement.

By the time you smell the smoke, some damage has already begun. The fire prevention industry endeavors to create a world where nothing smolders or ignites. Effective teams and strong workplace cultures do the same, but it’s not always possible. The best they can do is set the conditions for aligned mission, productive conflict, respectful exchange, accountability, creative problem-solving, and adaptation. That way, when the normal smell is sweet, even the slightest foul odor can be detected. The early aroma is a call to action, and the fire can be put out before engulfing the scene.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.