When I worked on Wall Street, my husband was doing postgraduate work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in molecular biology. His research involved growing cells in beautiful pink-colored media. But the cell culture never stayed pink for long. Within three or four days the media would change to a dingy light brown. As the cells used nutrients, they produced byproducts, some of which were inhibitory to growth, and even toxic.
Much of how I view sustaining an innovative business culture comes from observing my husband maintain those cell cultures. Growing and maintaining a culture is an active process, which utilizes resources and generates byproducts. The dirty little secret of innovative cultures is that some byproducts are inhibitory to growth—and any organization that is not prepared to handle these toxins quickly puts itself at risk of contamination and failure.
Most innovative companies have an impressive ability to generate lots of ideas. Attached to each idea is someone’s dream. But not every idea can be pursued, which can make people grow angry, jealous, or bitter. If left unattended, these negative byproducts can become toxic, killing off projects and discouraging others.
Companies can avoid bitterness by making the message clear: no to your idea, yes to you. Consider the experience of Peter Eder-Buys, an IT executive at W.L. Gore & Assoc., a manufacturing company best known for its breathable fabric Gore-Tex. He and several other employees had presented ideas for the restructuring of the controller’s function and the calculation of transfer prices within the company. His idea failed to garner sufficient votes. Upset by his loss, his wound could have festered. But because his colleagues solicited his feedback and worked on getting a consensus, he didn’t become resentful. Eder-Buys told me, “Even though my ideas were not adopted, I was taken seriously and treated equally.” In time, he became one of the project’s biggest proponents.
Even when you do your best to be encouraging, rejection can stick. One small U.S. town government is facing intractable gridlock because one town commissioner’s idea met some resistance. In order to ease the town’s budgetary strain, one commissioner suggested charging residents a minimum fee for using the town’s recycling service. His colleague who had championed the recycling initiative turned vitriolic. He berated those in favor of the recycling fee–and got in the way of their proposals. And the mayor was too burned out to call out his bad behavior.
For organizations dealing with this kind of toxic or vengeful behavior, there are really only two options for preserving your innovative culture: reformation or termination. If you envision that the resentful party can still be a positive contributor, point out the unacceptable behavior while reaffirming your commitment to that individual. If the individual is unable or unwilling to reform, then they have to be removed. No scientist would ever endanger the outcome of an experiment by allowing toxins to build up in their cell culture, nor should any organization, manager, or mayor, tolerate toxic behavior spoiling the positive effects of an innovative culture.
One company that has found a unique way of dealing with toxic behavior is Riot Games, the maker of League of Legends. As Riot enjoyed an influx of new, inexperienced players, established players who considered themselves experts were subjecting newcomers to derogatory and disparaging comments. The negative behavior spread, threatening the company’s goal of creating a fun, collegial gaming environment and affecting the bottom line. Players who were subjected to abusive behavior were 320% more likely to quit. To counteract this trend, Riot started temporarily banning players for inappropriate or abusive behavior. The bans have gone a long ways toward removing the toxic behavior. Moreover, Riot has found that if you tell the players why they are being banned, half of them reform—and if you can show them evidence, that number jumps to 70%.
Giving a “timeout” to employees who are dismissive or actively haze new or more junior people is not always feasible, but calling out bad behavior is. Jeffery Lin, the Lead Game Designer of Social Systems at Riot is quoted as saying, “When a society (managers, employees and clients) is silent, deviant behaviors emerge, and they can become the norm.” Sometimes we turn a blind eye to this behavior because the bullies have standing or we just don’t want to deal with the upheaval and consequences of reprimanding the offender. But the danger of toxic behavior destroying what you have built is real and must be addressed.
My biologist husband found that to keep his cell cultures clean, healthy, and growing, he had to wash away inhibitory byproducts, re-plate the cells into a fresh medium, and at times, actively add antibiotics to remove a virulent contamination. The same applies to the unpleasant byproducts of a growing innovative business culture: management must be vigilant in keeping its cultural petri dish clean.
This article was co-authored with Roger Johnson, who holds a PhD in microbiology from Columbia University, and is a former assistant professor at UMass Medical School.