Dead Air

Why toxic behavior can kill the best company or product

“What happened here, as the New York sunset disappeared? I found an empty garden among the flagstones there…”

A doctor, an existentialist philosopher and a psychic medium walk into a bar. The bartender looks at them and says, “Oh my God, this is perfect. Can you do me a favor and settle a bet I have with my musician friend here?”

“Sure,” they say, taking a seat.

The bartender throws a white towel across his shoulder, leans in to the strangers and asks: “How do you know death has occurred?”

“That’s easy,” the doctor says. “It’s when the heart stops beating and the brain synapses stop firing.”

Then the existential philosopher chimes in: “No, no, no,” she says, “Death, you see, is when the soul transitions from the realm of the conscious to that of the spiritual.”

Then it was the psychic medium’s turn. “It depends on several factors,” she says, pulling a set of tarot cards from her pocket. “You got $50 on you?”

“Oh. Thanks,” the bartender says, turning and returning to his customers.

“Why?” the doctor says. “When does your musician friend think death occurs?”

“When Elton John sings a song about you.”

“. . . Who lived here? He must have been a gardener that cared a lot, who weeded out the tears and grew a good crop. And now it all looks strange…”

Yes sir, Sir Elton—aka Rocket Man, aka Captain Fantastic, aka Reginald Dwight (his real name)—has exhibited a penchant for penning posthumous salutes to the famous and not-so-famous. “Candle in the Wind” was written in 1973 as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, and in 1997 rewritten to honor Princess Diana. He also wrote songs dedicated to Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, as well as American teenager Ryan White, who both died from AIDS in the early 1990s.

But his best homage was the one he and longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin came up with to pay their respects to John Lennon of the Beatles, who was murdered in 1980. And the best lyric in his best homage, titled “Empty Garden,” describes—in as fitting a metaphor ever conceived—how a bad person can harm so many good people.

“It’s funny how one insect can damage so much grain.”

Which is what the killer did. If you’re of that generation, the generation of flower power, free love, burning your bra and landing on the moon—the generation of Paul, John, George and Ringo—this tragic episode slayed not only a man, but a movement as well.

“All we are saying,” Lennon once sang, “is give peace a chance.”

Nah. F that. I could give peace a chance and all that but instead, I’m going to ambush you outside your apartment in Manhattan and shoot you. Four times. In the back. And while the blood and the life spill out of your body and onto the sidewalk, I will stand there, reading a book, until you are good and quiet and dead, and millions of your fans around the world are contorted in anguish over their loss.

You may never cross paths with such a monster, but nearly every day in nearly every company around the world, we come across culture killers. Intentionally or inadvertently, they have the same effect on the morale in the workplace that Lennon’s murderer did on a massive swath of society.

“It’s funny how one insect can damage so much grain.”

Because these folks, the complainers, gossipers, passive-aggressors, bad-mouthers, muckrakers and #$@%-stirrers, are the true Patient Zeros in the cultural viruses that infect companies. The math is pretty simple: The longer they’re around, the more people they’ll infect, and then those people will infect others.

And so on, and so on.

Until you’ve got a pandemic on your hands.

The image of John Lennon as a gardener, a nickname he gave himself years before, conjures visions of a man constantly working at his craft. Of a man sowing seeds. Of a man experimenting and cultivating. Of a man nurturing soil until it’s the most fertile.

Of a man ripping weeds before they can spread.

And that’s what you have to do in business. Everything spreads from culture: it’s the Big Bang of every company’s universe. The environment, the ecosystem, the whatever you want to call it, dictates your chances for long-term success. Sure, you may be blessed by coming up with the right product at the right time—the equivalent of a lucky punch in a boxing match. But if you want your reign to be more Joe Louis and less Hasim Rahman, you must take care of your culture like it’s a garden.

Counsel employees who exhibit toxic behavior. Squirt a little Roundup on them or rake a Garden Weasel over them. And only them. Don’t hurt good employees in the process. Remember, nothing angers a flower more than being treated like a weed. Be specific and targeted. And immediate. You cannot let it slide, no more than you would—if this were 150 years ago—let someone infected with smallpox stray from the pest tent to mix and mingle with the healthy folk.

Quarantine and control. And if that doesn’t work, get rid of the pests. Doesn’t matter how long they’ve been there or what they’ve done in the past. Unchecked, they will damage so much grain that no one will ever eat again.

They will move on like a locust to the next fertile field and do it all over again.

Protect your company’s culture as if its existence depends on it. Because, ultimately, it does.

Imagine what might have happened if someone had gotten to Lennon’s killer a year before, a month before, an hour before he pulled that trigger. Imagine what Lennon would have written. Imagine what he would have accomplished. Imagine who he would have inspired and what they would done to make the world a better place.

Imagine.

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Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Scientific Games. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Scientific Games Corporation or its affiliates.

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