During World War II, many islands in the South Pacific lived on a salty canned meat-ish product called Spam. The original Spam had nothing to do with junk mail in your inbox. A hunger-induced and acquired taste, affectionately named “mystery meat”, it was slightly more nourishing than dirt and sticks. While visually unappealing, it served a noble purpose: keep people alive when food was in short supply.
Today, the need for Spam has disappeared but it is still a staple in the diet of many cultures. Spam sales globally have not slacked even as food supplies and advanced preservatives abound. People eat it for breakfast with eggs and for dinner with rice.
My business partner Donnie (a proud descendant of Guamanian parents) smiles, laughs and eats Spam with delight (and a hint of guilt). He knows it is not good for him. That knowledge does not dampen his evangelistic zeal for the stuff. Admittedly, I also get a little giddy when he makes a feast including the suspicious substance. I enjoy the salty oddity like I’m an Islander. It’s not good for me. I know it. Donnie knows it. Spam, Inc. knows it. No one on the planet thinks Spam is good for them. But we still choose to eat it. It is comforting.
Some workplace cultures have comforting cans of Spam in them as well. Practices, norms, behaviors that were adopted at another time and served a purpose but are no longer necessary. Behaviors and habits that erode the health of the organization but that we keep doing because we like them so much.
What are the Spam cans in your workplace? Perhaps “venting” is one of your Spam cans. Regardless of all common sense and deep research outlining the destructive impacts (to the individual and the team) resulting from a culture where venting is accepted, you like it. So it continues.
Perhaps your Spam can is the “we have it so hard; this job is so stressful” mantra where individuals think that no one else works as hard as they work. Maybe your Spam can is the belief that no one else could do your job. You and your team members are irreplaceable snowflakes of excellence. Perhaps your Spam can is the mindset that Management doesn’t get you, so you must have an adversarial labor/management relationship.
Or, your Spam can is about conflict avoidance. You remember a conflict that went poorly, so you all agreed to keep things tranquil at all costs. Never upset one another because, after all, making everyone happy is your organization’s mission. All of these and more were probably appropriate at one point. They might have been the best you could muster for the season. Now, they are Spam. They remain part of your culture, not because they are correct and good and powerful, but because you like them. At one point, there was someone to blame. He was a hot mess, after all. Now, blaming is just comforting. At one point doing more with less was the right thing to do. Now, it’s just an excuse for not achieving replicable excellence.
What can you do about it? First, share this idea with your team. Bring in a Spam can and serve it up with eggs and rice. Laugh over habits and practices that you all have that are not good for you. Then identify the ones that are not all that funny. Pick one of them. Decide how to stop it. And, stop it. Then, replace it with expectations and behaviors that get you to your mission more effectively. Rather than comforting gossip (called “getting feedback”), learn to communicate directly. Rather than eating the Spam of “common sense,” do the hard work of clarifying expectations. Rather than feasting on the salty goodness of your personality because “that’s just the way I am,” replace with the nourishing meal of humility. Adapt.
You get the idea.
You’ll likely have Spam withdrawals. But it’s worth it. Thanks for reading. Now, I’m going to finish off this pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.