• Ashley Fry

Stop CYA’ing All Over the Place

We all know this person. Sometimes, it’s more than just a person. Sometimes, it’s an entire department- or worse, a whole company. Those who constantly and consistently CYA- otherwise known as covering your ass. A CYA culture is a dangerous and expensive thing for a company- it promotes fear and squashes risk taking and innovation. It makes people shut down. It makes people stop focusing on the real goals of delighting customers and instead forcing them to shift their focus on simply surviving in your organization.


Below I talk about 5 symptoms of CYA culture that you may recognize in your own organization or even in your own behavior and the detriment they’re causing to your business.


Overuse of CC, BCC, and Reply All

In a CYA culture, the use of email tools such as adding people into the chain via CC and BCC’s, in addition to replying to everyone on (sometimes already massive) email threads runs rampant. This desperation to be sure that everyone saw and was witness to something that was said in an email thread happens when people feel like they’ve gotten burned in the past- and likely burned multiple times. They want as many people as possible to witness the situation that might occur by being able to point to an actual email and say ‘I told you so’ or ‘Look! This is what I was told to do!’. This mentality is a total hindrance to a collaborative workplace and seriously damages any kind of healthy communication that exists in the company.


The management blame game

This is #classiccya- Manager is asked by her employee why the business has made some kind of decision. Manager either a) doesn’t know why the decision was made, or b) doesn’t agree with why the decision was made. At this pivotal moment, the manager says something to the effect of, ‘I don’t know, it’s what “Management” wanted’, or ‘I have no idea, it’s just what I was told.’ This classic manager mistake happens all the time and it’s the ultimate example of the manager not taking ownership for a business decisions, creating an us vs them mentality, and ultimately covering their a**. This is not to say that all managers need to agree with every single decision that’s made by the company, but it is management’s job to represent those decisions well and be able to tell some kind of story about the decision to their direct reports. Mangers just focusing on making sure they’re not blamed for the decision by trying to pass the buck are ultimately covering themselves and hindering a communicative, honest environment.


The avoidance of risk and intolerance of failure

Risk and failure are, arguably, two of the most important ingredients for innovation in a company. To think of new, novel ideas, the business needs to be comfortable with employees taking risks and failing. If failure is punished or shunned, people will stop failing, play it safe, and stop taking the risks necessary for innovation. This sad cycle has CYA written all over it. When employees feel like they’re constantly needing to cover their a**, no one is willing to think or play outside the box. They feel that taking the necessary risks are just not worth it and the status quo becomes playing it safe and simply doing things the way they’ve always been done, which can be a death sentence for a company.


Meetings full of unnecessary cooks

In line with the over use of carbon copies above, meetings that are chalk full of what seems like mostly people who don’t need to be there are a tried and true CYA culture symptom. People tend to invite more and more people to meetings to simply be witnesses or ‘have their back’ when things inevitably go awry or turn against them. You’ll recognize this when you look around the room and very few people are actually participating in the meeting or conversation and most people have their laptops open working on other things. Not only does this perpetuate the very CYA culture this is a symptom of, but it also slows meetings way down when you have too many people in them. With so many cooks, not as much can be accomplished, more people feel the need to have their opinion heard- even those who may not even be involved in the project or be qualified to talk about it, and it again hinders healthy collaboration.


Responsibility hot potato

Ah- responsibility hot potato. Let me describe to you what this looks like. You’ll recognize this symptom of a CYA culture when you’re noticing people are antsy and pushing to ‘get the ball out of their court’, so to speak, much before it’s actually time to do so. Employees want to be sure they don’t get blamed for any hold ups, slow downs, or bottlenecks with the project, so they’re constantly saying (whether it’s true or not) they’re waiting on something from someone else involved in the project. Like a hot potato nobody wants to hold, employees will prematurely pass the ‘owness’ of the project to someone else just to not be held responsible when someone asks why things are going slower than expected. In healthy company cultures, teams work collaboratively together to move projects along, not just point finders and live in constant fear of being held responsible.


Process is king

Another symptom you’ll see in these kinds of cover your a** cultures is the propensity to argue over process. Here’s the thing: solving big, complex problems are a couple things: 1. Often times difficult to wrap your head around. Large, complex problems take more work than say, arguing over if it was decided the group would use Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel, and 2. A large risk. Talking about the real crux of issues and what you believe to be the solutions to those deep rooted problems is putting yourself out there in a vulnerable state and taking a large risk that people with either reject your idea or perhaps take it as their own (in particularly unhealthy environments). So instead, to avoid discussing the real issues, people will argue over something that’s much more concrete, black and white, and dumbed-down: process. It’s easy to point fingers at Sara because she didn’t use the agreed upon project update template, but much harder to discuss the underlying issue of why the project is running later than the expected timeline. Don’t let superfluous arguments about process creep their way into your workplace and make people unnecessarily defensive, distracting from real and actual progress.


The first step to squashing a CYA culture is to start recognizing it’s happening. Start simply noticing when it seems like people are overly defensive, when new ideas and innovation stop happening, when people disengage and focus only on the day-to-day or only on the ‘process’. Work with other leaders in your company to start taking baby steps to break down this defensive culture by praising people for their new ideas, celebrating employees’ failures when they go out on a limb and try something new, or even something as small as letting them know you don’t need to be BCC’ed on emails- encourage transparency, openness, and honesty. With time and effort with these small steps, your organization can be free of this cover your a** mentality and really propel into a culture filled with support, encouragement, and innovation.