Service Culture and Human Nature – A Leadership Conundrum

Every organization I have ever engaged with wished for and talk about a service culture. Service for external and internal customers. Yet few of them get it right and those who get it somewhat right still struggle with the leadership conundrum of building a culture that supports it. One of the main challenges I notice across the spectrum of organizations I have engaged with over the years revolves around the breakdown of an internal service culture and the consequent impact of that on their external customers.

Most leaders and managers work extraordinarily hard to change the internal culture and to get different departments to cooperate, but often fail to see that the issue is not with the processes, tools, equipment, lines of communication, and cultural vision. It is about individuals and relationships that seem to not gel or that clash. Often that is simply a matter of organizational and system design, and other times it is about candidate selection in specific roles and sometimes it is about poor behavior that remains either unnoticed or unchecked.

A key question we need to ask is whether the people who do not perform cannot perform their duties or decide to not perform their duties. Are their actions deliberate or as a consequence of something beyond their immediate control?

One answer to this question will lead to development interventions and the other to performance management or discipline and dismissal in the more serious cases. So asking and answering this question is important.

But here is an issue to consider: Perhaps the problem is with the idea of service itself, and how it is positioned and explained to the people working in our organizations, who then put their interpretation of what that means into action in a way that seems most logical. We assume that we all have the same interpretation of service and how it works. Calling internal support departments service departments inevitably creates an internal budget structure and in some instances what some organizations would call internal tax or contribution margins, etc. The basic principle is that the income generated by the activities of some teams incurs a percentage allocation to another department that is then seen to provide a service to the operational teams.

A natural consequence of this is that we manage expectations by hopefully discussing and agreeing to sets of roles, responsibilities, and timelines, often under the umbrella of service level agreements. The question, though, is how often these agreements are based on our expectations of each other rather than focussed on the overall purpose of what each of us needs to do within the overall mission of the organization. A transactional representation of what is essentially built on relationships.

Most of these service level agreements and internal service associated conflicts revolve around “us and them” disagreements that lead to nothing constructive. Attempting to embed a service culture that is not aligned to a common purpose and goals simply and inevitably translates into a master-slave mindset, power struggles, unrealistic expectations, miscommunication, distrust, and petty email warfare involving a lot of copying and blind copying to cover each and every individual. It is human nature to become defensive when feeling accused, unjustifiably exposed as incompetent and to retaliate with reciprocal evidence of competence versus incompetence being shared with an increasingly wider audience in the email trail. It is not a useful part of our human nature, but we cannot deny that it happens.

Very few people I have come across go to work to intentionally mess things up, yet it happens – perfect human beings do imperfect things. The greater majority of people have a sense of pride and seek fulfilment in what they do.

Yet, the way we often go about instilling a service culture goes against some basic human needs, including a sense of progress, appreciation, and fulfilment. Instead, we introduce service culture concepts through generating documentation outlining team and departmental expectations rather than principles such as mutual pursuit of common goals. Many years ago someone told me that the word WAR is an acronym for We Are Right. Most internal service level arguments seem to revolve around this principle and ignores the overall collateral but important damage being done to the brand, organizational culture and those we actually serve in order to fulfil the organization’s mission and vision.

Leaders who become managerial and too operational simply cannot focus on these cultural issues. There is no time to, and although we may think that we can multitask, and often manage to multitask, we are not able to multi-focus. Although we may be able to do several things at the same time, like type an email while listening to music or work on several operational activities while having a leadership function, we simply cannot focus on cultural issues and strategy while working on too many operational activities. Unless there is a clear purpose for getting involved in operational activities for extended periods of time, don’t.

This is particularly important as I often hear from leaders and managers who simply end up running between departments to make sure that the service expectations are met from a client perspective. This means that they are not able to focus on the cultural issues, relationships, and setting their teams, departments and the organization up for success. Part of the issue is that responsibility and accountability appears to sit only with the manager or leader and there is a lot at stake that will affect a lot of people in a good or a bad way depending on the outcome of the service provided to their customers. Another part of the issue is that it is challenging to deal with relationship tensions and often dealing with it is avoided. Dirt under a carpet is still dirt on the floor.

Getting involved in operational activities to hide from dealing with relationship challenges or because it simply feels less uncomfortable is also not effective leadership. Managing operational outcomes should not come at the expense of leading people to work together towards a common goal.

This does mean responsibility and accountability sits at every level of the organization. It also means putting people in places where they fit and perform best, developing them and managing relationships rather than focussing on operational activities and outcomes. Many managers misjudge the effort that goes into leading people effectively. Any parent knows very well that focussing on picking up toys and cleaning up a mess made by their children while their children are having a disagreement will lead to far worse outcomes and consequences. Deal with the relationship issues first and eventually, the messes and disagreements will lessen and if the frequency doesn’t reduce, at least the intensity and duration will, and it won’t lead to the natural negative consequences associated with this kind of internal conflict.


Dr. Lehan Stemmet
Dr. Lehan Stemmet
Dr. Lehan Stemmet is deeply passionate about people reaching their full potential and through his work the negative impact of stress on this ability became obvious. Since then and for over 20 years Lehan has pursued his interest in how people deal with stress and challenges through what started as a personal project he called ‘Deal With It’. Lehan links his observations and experience over the years with some of the latest published research on stress and resilience, including his own research findings. He has been invited to present numerous talks, workshops, keynote presentations, and seminars to diverse audiences, including senior leaders in businesses from a range of industries, scientists, school and university students, etc. His work is published globally in mainstream business media, academic research articles, as well as book and encyclopedia chapters internationally. He is qualified in biochemistry, microbiology, organizational and experimental psychology and actively contributes to multidisciplinary research projects focusing on resilience, mental health, and technology to support health and wellbeing. Lehan has worked in and with organizations from several industries, including biotechnology, consumer electronics, banking, FMCG, manufacturing, security, logistics, and tertiary education. He has also held various senior management and leadership roles in many of these industries and has taught a range of undergraduate and postgraduate business courses, including to senior executives completing business masters’ degrees. Besides his leadership and research roles, Lehan actively engages with the business community globally and is an examiner and research supervisor for master’s and doctoral students. His latest book, “Deal With It – Do What Inspires” is available from Amazon.

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  1. Such an important question you pose, Lehan. I truly believe that our results are simply a byproduct of the impact that we have on others and you’ve given us a beautiful argument to examine our part, as leaders, in our big-picture outcomes.

    • Thank you, Kimberly. That is true – we often focus on managing the byproducts (positive and negative) instead of leading what will lead to the results.

  2. I have had a poster of this phrase in my office for many, many years – “If you can’t find the time to do things right, where do you find the time to do them over”. Totally aligned with your thinking! Your article is spot-on – Lead By Example at Every Level.

    • Thank you, Alan. That is a great phrase to have on the wall. It speaks of responsibility and accountability which is a major societal issue to contend with.

  3. Very important points made in this fine article, and all managers would be wise to internalise the lessons provided. Leadership is indeed about people, and therefore the responsibility for ensuring harmonious relationships in the workplace is a primary leadership challenge. Sadly, the biggest difficulty is the swathe of attitudes brought to the workplace from the outside. The embedded culture of the sovereign individual is now hurting western society in every area of life – family, school, workplace, community, and nation. Relationship breakdown is a leader’s greatest challenge.

    • Thank you, Andre. You touch on a critically important point and my sense is that the broader societal issues require leaders to be even less involved in day-to-day operational tasks to manage the impact of those external issues on internal organizational matters. I find it interesting that many people I engage with bemoan the increase in management structures, but often wonder whether that is a direct effect of the very issue you raise. If the societal culture feeds into organizational culture we would naturally need to increase management to supervise what one could, should and would expect individuals to be personally responsible for at operational levels. The confusion of individuality and individualism.

  4. Excellent article! I agree with all the points. I particularly like “We don’t lead strategy, we develop strategy and implement strategy. We lead people. We don’t lead operations and projects, we manage them, but we lead people. People will take care of those things. Select them well, support them, develop them but mostly inspire them. ” This fits with another recent article about happiness. It’s the leader’s responsibility to do all those last items – and that will create a culture in which people are happy, satisfied and provide service.

    • Thank you, Christine. Leaders can and should create the environment and then it is also up to individuals to take responsibility as individuals. By way of illustration: it is the manager’s responsibility to make sure the environment and conditions at work make performance possible, but the manager is not responsible for individual variables allowing performance. When personal choices have a negative impact on one’s ability to perform, that is a different matter altogether.