The recent tropical storm Isaias left me without power for more than 3 days. It just came back at 2 AM this morning.

During the last 24 hours, I often thought of how my parents lived 3 weeks without power after an ice storm in 1997. For 40 miles in any direction, businesses were closed. No ATMs, no gas stations, no restaurants. No hot water, no heat. In the middle of winter.

I recall my dad telling me that after the power was restored, it felt like magic when he flipped a switch and a light went on. He felt gratitude every time. It was almost as if electricity had just been invented.

Imagine a world where we lose our ability to make ethical decisions for 3 weeks. Or even just 3 days. A relatively short period where everyone cheats, lies and steals. A time when you can’t trust anyone. You can’t trust your family members, or your neighbors, or your boss, or the press, or the government. Then imagine trust is suddenly restored and when you ask a question you can trust the answer.

It would be like magic.

This is my 700th post. Coincidentally, I also wrote about magic on my 600th post. You can find all my milestone posts here.

This is post 600

Remember that uncle who did magic tricks when you were young?

He would find a ball behind your ear and guess what card you picked out of the deck. Every time you saw him, you focussed your attention and tried to figure out how he did it. And, eventually, you did figure it out.

Endeavoring to write a blog post every work day has forced me to focus my attention on ethics and compliance problems, and solutions, wherever they are found. Knowing that I have to write something tomorrow keeps my mind alert. It allows me to see how a new technology can improve compliance at work. Or how a behavioral science finding can nudge people into making more ethical decisions.

It’s practically magic.

You should try it.

Ethical answers are in your pen (or keyboard)

I met with a small class of 7th graders yesterday to discuss ethics.

One student shared that when she does something wrong at home, she often writes an apology letter at night and leaves it on her parents’ bed before going to sleep.

It reminded me of the power of putting thoughts to paper. Not only after an event but also before we take action. There is magic in writing things down. What we know to be true surfaces.

When you face your next ethical dilemma, consider writing about it. Privately or publicly. The truth will more readily show itself.

What if your pilot had no checklist for take-off?

Some things are complex. Flying an airplane, building a house, or performing surgery are no simple matters. Making an error while engaged in these activities can have disastrous effects. This is why the pilot, builder and surgeon all have a checklist and a process to follow. They have a system to ensure that no mistakes are made.

Creating the right culture in our organization is no simple matter either. Yet, many of us have no system in place to guide us through the complexity. We leave it to chance – to the tens or hundreds or thousands of supervisors to behave in the perfectly coordinated way that will lead to an ethical culture of compliance. We act as if each will magically know how to hire, onboard, compensate, promote and discipline their employees.

When surgeons were first required to write their name on the limb they were about to operate on (while the patient is still awake), their egos were affected. But the practice was soon praised by all for eliminating mistakes.

Perhaps it’s time for corporate executives to create systems leading to a better culture.

Even at the risk of bruising some egos early in the process.

Hat tip to The Checklist Manifesto and Seth Godin

I will help you

Employees who are victims of wrongdoing are sometimes in a messy state.

Some of them are so focussed on what has happened to them that they cannot see the big picture. They are so emotional that they cannot tell their story without providing every detail. The day before they came to you for help, they were in someone else’s office asking for their support; tomorrow, they’ll be writing to the Board of Directors.

The easiest way to defuse the situation is to pronounce a magic formula before you say anything else.

The magic formula is: “I will help you.”

The behaviors we tolerate

There are so many definitions of corporate culture floating around that anyone should be excused for not being able to properly define it.

One of my favorite definitions goes like this: How things are really done around here. It’s simple, intuitive, and it highlights the sad reality that in many organizations we often say one thing and do another.

Today I ran across another definition that may be slightly superior: The behaviors we allow or tolerate in the workplace. It has all the benefits of the prior definition and adds an element of responsibility (or blame) on all employees. Anyone who tolerates bad behavior is partly responsible for the culture they live in.

Many E&C professionals are being asked by their C-suite how to change the culture of their organization. These leaders feel that culture is amorphous, random and magical. By defining culture as “the behaviors that the C-suite tolerates”, it should instantly create in their mind the path they need to take.

Whether they take it is another story.

ACCA’s culture-governance tool

I get excited when I find a new ally in my efforts to convince organizations that culture is an outcome of their processes.

So allow me to share the ACCA’s (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) Culture Governance Tool. With the help of a simple visuals, it shows the interplay of tone at the top, processes, behaviors, and organizational objectives.

Have a look and give it a try. Change one process in your organization and watch the culture change.

It’s like magic*.

* But it’s not.

The musical nature of values

The world is complex but out of that complexity our brains can identify patterns.

This is how, and why, rules are born. Rules simplify and protect our world to help us accomplish more by ignoring the noise.

But the noise doesn’t go away. It simply becomes the exception created by the rule. Those who don’t understand or agree with the rule learn to hide in the noise. And so we create more rules to make the noise quieter. Of course, no amount of rules will ever create a world without exceptions.

This is where values come in. Values help us make decisions when rules are conflicting, unclear, or nonexistent. Where rules simplify the world, values simplify the world of rules.

Rules are important but can accomplish just so much. Values are the magical ingredient to harmonize even the noise.

Book report: Primed to Perform – Introduction

Reading notes by Yan Tougas


This book is about creating high-performance cultures.  Culture acts as a primer to performance.  The right culture leads to high performance.  High-performance cultures financially outperform others.  In mediocre cultures, the best laid plans often fail.

There are two types of performance:
  • Tactical performance: the ability to execute against a plan
  • Adaptive performance: the ability to diverge from a plan
A single-minded focus on tactical performance (present in most organizations) can cripple adaptive performance.

Building a culture is not magic.  There is a science to it.  Which means cultures can be measured.  Building a high-performance culture is an intentional act.  It doesn’t happen accidentally.

Why you work affects how well you work.  There are six basic motives behind people’s work:

  • Play
  • Purpose
  • Potential
  • Emotional pressure
  • Economic pressure
  • Inertia

The first three strengthen performance.  The last three weaken it.  The best motivation is inspiration.  Inspiration to find play, purpose, and potential in work.  This is called Total Motivation (“ToMo”).  The best workers are the ones who work for the pure joy of working.  And ToMo positively affects all stakeholders, not just employees.

An organization lacking shared values often turns to money as the value holding the firm together.  Money is a weak glue.  It is an indirect motivator.  High-performance cultures realize that purpose, not profit, is the reason a company exists.