The Corporate Shrink

Dealing with toxic corporate parents, plus what to do when your culture's a catastrophe.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

Our new group is pushing hard to turn the business around, but our corporate parent seems to block our every initiative. Requisitions for even the smallest expenses take weeks, and every new idea faces a battle. This rigidity may somehow be in the company’s best interest – but it’s clearly not in ours. (issue 75, page 56)

Whenever you encounter a system that seems so irrational, you should ponder what’s going on beneath the surface. One possibility: This is a simple display of power. Those unaccommodating managers may be trying to show your new team just who’s in charge.

Waging outright war with the minders of bureaucracy will only provoke them to dig their heels in deeper. So before trying the Terminatorapproach, understand that, in the long run, establishing a good relationship with these folks is clearly in your best interest.

Think creatively about the situation. Who in the corporate hierarchy has ultimate responsibility for these senseless decisions? And which top executive put your new group in place? Approach these people to seek their “guidance” on dealing with your predicament. A bit of guilt and empathy can be powerful motivators. Put these people in your frustrated group’s heels or wingtips, and they may soften their stance.

If reasoned appeals fail, then carefully turn up the heat. Don’t resort to name-calling – although I’m sure that as weeks and months pass with your purchase order still in limbo, your potential vocabulary knows no bounds. Instead, make the case that the bureaucrats are blocking your ability to do business effectively. Put some of the responsibility on their shoulders. Do they really want your group to fail?

By the way, why wasn’t this sorted out before now? Could it be that your group’s leaders made faulty assumptions about existing corporate practices or inadvertently communicated that you’d do things their way? Just wondering.

People always talk about changing the corporate culture. Well, our company needs a culture transplant. It’s cutthroat and punitive. Poor performers are routinely berated in public, and the rest of us are afraid to speak up. Can a culture like this really be changed?

A culture can be changed. But to borrow from the old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a lightbulb, it has to want to change. And change has to start at the top.

Like an individual’s personality, corporate culture is constant and predictable over time. Formed early in the life of an organization, culture is determined by the personalities and behavior of its founders or key leaders, by the company’s strategy and practices, and by its position in the marketplace. Culture is embedded in the fabric of the company, and it tends to live on long after even top executives depart.

Changing culture usually starts with leadership. In your company, I have to wonder what hidden purpose is served by maintaining the status quo. Are leaders “identifying with the aggressor,” doing unto everyone else what was done to them by leaders past? To break this vicious circle, leaders need to model a different way of treating others. They also need to make it clear that abusive behavior – and silence – will no longer fly.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (