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Winning at All Costs: What the Astros Cheating Scandal Can Teach Us about Organizational Culture

by Suzan McGinnis

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Peter Drucker 

Culture is always on my mind when I'm working, but now it's on my mind as I'm getting ready to watch a new season of baseball.

You've probably heard something about the Houston Astros cheating scandal. I’m a diehard baseball fan, so when I learned of the MLB Network interview with AJ Hinch, I had to watch. For those of you who aren't baseball fans, Hinch was the manager of the Houston Astros, but a few weeks ago he was suspended by Major League baseball and then fired by the Astros because his team cheated during the 2017 season.

After an MLB investigation, it was determined that the Astros took stealing signs to a whole new — and illicit — level. The players mixed high tech (watching a live feed of pitches) with low tech (trash can banging) to signal to their teammates at the plate what pitch was coming, to gain an unfair advantage over the competition.

The interview was rich. First, Hinch took responsibility. I was happy to see that. He admitted that he was aware of the cheating and should have stopped it. Second, he acknowledged that it was about culture, and it was his responsibility to develop and monitor that culture. He admitted that he “tolerated too much,” that he should have said something to the players — to call it out, stop it. But instead of calling a meeting and telling them to knock it off, he showed his displeasure by breaking the TV and equipment the players were using in their sign stealing — twice.

This is the part I struggle with. He went on to make a statement about leaders not getting second chances to respond to a challenging situation (which this surely was). But he did have a second chance. He said he broke the sign stealing equipment twice.

He actually had a "second chance" every single day that he knew about it but didn't do anything about it.

Scandals like this are hard on the soul of the players and coaches involved. I know it's hard on my soul as a fan, and as someone who for years has tried to help companies find out what is "right" for them and their values.

You see, I'm a baseball fan. I've been a die-hard Cubs fan my entire life, and I know it's because my father was a Cubs fan. The last time I saw my father alive was in a hospital room as he was awaiting surgery. I was 13 and he was 48. I remember my mother going down the hallway to talk to a nurse, my sister (also Cubs fan) went with her, but I lingered in the doorway. The Cubs were playing the Astros (ironically) on his hospital TV and I was watching with him. They were winning, which was rare in 1982. The last thing I remember saying to my dad was, "They might win!" and him laughing.

Photo from 1978 of my dad, sister, and me (right).

Photo from 1978 of my dad with my sister Melodie (left) and me (right).

I think about that moment today, and how disappointing it is that the culture of baseball has become "win at all costs."

How many companies have similar cultures? We’ve seen the results of “win at all costs” business decisions in the news. In the well-documented Wells Fargo scandal, pressure from management drove employees to commit fraud to reach unreasonable goals. In the case of Volkswagen’s emissions fraud, when a group of engineers realized they could not design a diesel engine that met U.S. emissions standards, they programmed “defeat devices” to get around emissions tests. In both cases, the employees involved were responding to pressure from leadership—pressure that led them to believe it was more important to meet the company’s business goals than to act ethically.

A photo of me (left) with Melodie (right) keeping the tradition alive at Wrigley Stadium

Me (left) with Melodie (right), keeping the family baseball tradition alive at Wrigley Field

It all comes down to the messages companies send their employees. A recent study found that workers at organizations that emphasize urgent action over thoughtful consideration are more likely to make unethical decisions. The opposite is also true: companies that emphasize thoughtful and ethical decision making are less likely to face scandals like the ones at Wells Fargo and Volkswagen. Employees pay attention to leadership’s words and actions, the same way baseball players look to their coach to shape the team’s culture and respond to unethical behavior.

Like Hinch, we have the chance to influence the cultures of the companies we work for every day. Review and examine the messages your company sends to employees. Are you telling them how to “do the right thing,” even when it conflicts with business goals? Are you training your leaders to set ethical examples and partnering with them to craft their messages? Are you working across the organization with other important partners (HR, Legal, business team leaders) to help them identify when an issue might be developing?

Or, like Hinch, are you tolerating too much?

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