How to Diagnose Your Business’s Unconscious Trouble Spots

Nathan Havey November 10, 2017

By examining workplace symptoms such as gossip, conflict, and dumb mistakes, it’s possible to diagnose an area of unconsciousness within a company and its leadership team. The following four real-life examples will show you a few common mistakes business leaders make and help you become savvier in your diagnoses.

Symptom: Burned Grilled Cheese

The owner of a bowling alley watched as an employee walked out of the kitchen with a badly burned grilled cheese sandwich and, apparently without a second thought, served it to a customer who took one look at it and asked for it to be remade. While your company may not serve grilled cheese, there may be other mistakes that seem like they would be easily avoidable if employees showed even an inkling of common sense, attention, or care.

Common Misdiagnosis: Employee doesn’t care or is an idiot
Better Diagnosis: Unclear purpose beyond profit

Tempting though it might be to bemoan the lack of care displayed by the employee, that’s unproductive because a lack of care is a symptom, not a root problem. You can get to the root problem by asking yourself, “Why should the employee care?” If your answer is a general mix of work ethic, professionalism, and customer service, consider that you may be partially unconscious in your business. This was the case with the owner of the bowling alley. His business had no purpose beyond making him money.

Companies that have a clear purpose beyond profit and that connect all of the work within the company to that higher purpose earn the care of their employees. A bowling alley that existed to fund ending breast cancer in its community (for example) would create a much more compelling reason for employees to get orders right, minimize waste, and delight customers so the business could channel more resources toward achieving its purpose.


One easy way you can check the strength and clarity of your purpose is by asking employees what they do. If they tell you about menial tasks and say nothing about the broader mission of the company, you likely need to clarify your purpose or help employees see how their role contributes to it.

Symptom: Talent Drought

At a statewide small-business development conference, hundreds of attending business leaders agreed that the number one challenge facing businesses in the state was a shortage of “good people” to hire. As evidence for this assessment, many business leaders cited high rates of turnover, low rates of engagement, and a litany of “burned grilled cheese” examples.

Common Misdiagnoses:  There is something wrong with this entire generation, or “someone” needs to do something to attract “good” people to this community.
Better Diagnosis : Misunderstanding employee engagement

Culture is very much en vogue, but many business leaders falsely equate workplace culture with perks like Ping-Pong tables, stocked refrigerators, and paid company outings. Most companies genuinely try to make employees happy, but fail to pay sufficient attention to the needs those human beings have in their lives outside of work. What would matter more for an individual employee, concert tickets or snow tires? The potential for a holiday bonus or childcare near the office? There isn’t one right answer to these questions, but getting to know individuals and demonstrating that they matter as people, and not just as their job functions, is the essence of conscious culture.

The fundamental assumption in a conscious culture is that people are doing their best to navigate life successfully, and the mark of great culture is helping people grow into ever more capable iterations of themselves. This is far more difficult and complex than decrying there being a lack of “good people” to hire, but companies that do it effectively do not struggle to find and retain talent. They grow the talent they need in the medium term by doing their best to provide for the needs of the talent they have in the short term and, in this way, they become the employer of first choice in the community — and in their industry — in the long term.


Check for culture misunderstanding by reflecting on how well you know your team personally. Do you know what keeps them up at night? Do you know their hopes and dreams? If not, go find out, and be ready to offer assistance however you can.

Symptom: Mutiny in the Factory

The executive team of a manufacturing company that prides itself on treating workers like family felt that they had built a great culture and had been very generous with their compensation package. That’s why they were shocked when a group of workers initiated the process to form a labor union. While you might not be in that precise situation, do you feel at times that your team underappreciates what you do for them?

Common Misdiagnosis: Employees are entitled and selfish
Better Diagnosis: Restricted communication

While employees’ actions may indeed be entitled and selfish from your perspective, what matters in this case is what is true from their perspective. Often employees are not privy to the full financial picture of a company. To them, it can seem like management is getting rich off their hard work. This was exactly what was happening at the manufacturing company. The executive team was great about holding “ask me anything” meetings and keeping employees in the loop on big decisions, but they held most of the financials close to the vest. Employees did not know that executives were not being paid exorbitantly, and they had no concept of the complicated financing deal the company was using to fund its rapid growth and the intense requirements the company faced to remain in good standing on its loans and lines of credit. The executive team thought this information was too complicated, not necessary, or even dangerous for employees to understand, so they inadvertently allowed employees’ inaccurate perceptions to go unchecked.

Stakeholder management leads companies to be extremely inclusive and transparent with employees (and their labor unions) and other key stakeholders such as suppliers, customers, shareholders, and key community members. Rather than just keeping these stakeholders “in the loop,” leading conscious companies actually involve stakeholders in decision-making. In these companies, even junior employees have access to and are trained to understand company finances, and as a result can participate fully in helping to refine and innovate their job to maximize efficiency and productivity because they see the alignment between their own advancement and that of the company.


A simple way to check for weak stakeholder management is by asking employees and other stakeholders if they feel like they have a say in the decision-making process for the company. If they respond with anything less than an unequivocal yes, then ask why not, and get to work on stakeholder management.

Symptom: Truth in the Bathroom 

The director of a department in a financial services company observed that most people on her team did not say what they thought during meetings in the boardroom — but they definitely said what they thought in the bathroom after those meetings adjourned. Often, she heard people say how stupid a decision was when they had personally voted to approve it just moments before. Whether in the bathroom after a meeting, the barroom after work, or in private email conversations all the time, does your company have this symptom?

Common Misdiagnosis: These people are immature, unprofessional, or disingenuous.
Better Diagnosis: Leadership blind spots

Nearly everyone would acknowledge that the more diverse perspectives there are at work on solving a problem, the better the solution. But understanding that idea and setting up the conditions to make it work are very different things. Many leaders experience disagreement as a personal challenge and get defensive or grill people with differing opinions; others have little patience for hearing from people who have failed to consider an important piece of information; and others see even amicable disagreement as a threat to team cohesion and go through the motions of a discussion while the decision has already been made privately. Each of these blind spots was present at the financial services company and they created two unspoken understandings: first, that it was not safe to tell the truth (for fear of getting grilled or made to look stupid), and second, that it didn’t matter if you did tell the truth, because the decision had already been made.

Conscious leaders hate pretense. They know that authenticity is the bedrock of trust, and they know that no matter how smart they are, the results born of the full team’s intelligence are better than their own or those of any subset of the team’s. Therefore, setting up meetings as venues for real discussion and debate — even passionate, challenging disagreements — is among the most important skills for them to hone.

The foundation for this kind of leadership is making it safe to tell the truth, and that boils down to three components:

1) Being genuinely interested in the limitations of a proposal or idea in order to make it better (not just seeking affirmation or defending it).

2) Using any error in thinking as a valuable teaching opportunity for everyone, with plenty of acknowledgement for the person who provided the opportunity.

3) Making decisions in real time, together. That doesn’t mean insisting on consensus, it means demonstrating that the debate is the real venue for decision-making.


You can check for leadership blind spots by asking people how safe they think their colleagues feel to say what they think. The obvious problem with this checkup is that people may not tell you the truth. That’s why this question is about “colleagues” and not about the personal feelings of the employee questioned. It doesn’t totally solve the problem, but it will help. If you hear that people don’t feel safe, or even if they have reservations, it’s time to get leaders to take a hard look in the mirror. It only takes one person to make a meeting feel unsafe.

A Note on Symptom Overlap

You’ve probably already noted that these symptoms and diagnoses are related. Could the “misunderstanding culture” diagnosis also apply to the “burned grilled cheese” symptom? Yes. Could the “mutiny in the factory” symptom be diagnosed as a result of leadership blind spots? Yes again. These are simplified examples to provide an introduction to how conscious business leaders diagnose problems. It takes great expertise to correctly diagnose a medical issue (the systems and organs in our bodies have complex relationships), and the same is true for business issues (the disciplines of conscious business are similarly intertwined). Yet, one theme is that most of the common mistakes place blame on others, whereas the correct diagnoses create opportunities for action and growth for you. Barry-Wehmiller, a company that has a lot to teach us on this topic, follows this piece of wisdom: “If you are looking for the source of the problem, you will find it in concentric circles around your desk.”

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
Join the SOCAP Newsletter!