How Fiefdoms Destroy Company Culture (and What You Can Do about It)

Recently, I had breakfast with a friend, Martha. As friends do over coffee and pastry, we filled each other in on the latest happenings in our work and personal lives.

I was particularly concerned about Martha’s work experiences as her company has gone through some “right sizing” in recent months. As part of the restructuring, the groups in her building have officially divided into two formal divisions within the larger organization.

The outcome, while beneficial in some ways, was detrimental in others. One division, I’ll call them Alpha, in particular believes they deserve to be entirely separate and have no need to participate with the Bravo people (the other division) at all. Keep in mind, these divisions share the same building and facilities.

A glimpse into inter-company problems

Why is this so bad? Here’s just one example:

Martha heads up the employee recognition team for the Bravo division. She coordinates pizza lunches, bagel breakfasts, holiday events and the like. (While I will argue this isn’t real recognition, the example still highlights the dysfunction.)

She was informed last week that the Alpha group doesn’t want to participate in the “thing” Bravo does and will create their own. Of course, this generated ill will, not the least of which is a result of Alpha not stepping up to create their own recognition solution.

The problems run much more deeply, however. Martha’s company offers a glimpse into why multiple disparate recognition programs cause problems.

Fiefdoms destroy culture

The senior leader of the Alpha group was a driving force behind the decision to split the group into two formal divisions. There’s a reason team members call him “Napoleon.”

Indeed, Napoleon has effectively built himself his own little fiefdom within the larger company. He runs things his way, without concern for the larger needs or desires of the entire organization. (A fiefdom is very different from an organizational division or business unit. Business units exist for valid business-based reasons. Fiefdoms exist for the glorification of the local leader.)

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The company itself has a strong culture. These fiefdoms are rapidly eroding that culture. Employees within Alpha do not feel part of the larger group, many see themselves as distinctly different and separately entitled. Are Alpha employees as committed to the overall company goals and mission? I wonder.

How recognition programs can prop up fiefdoms

By choosing to “go their own way” with employee recognition, Alpha further distances themselves from the rest of the organization. This is why we strongly advocate as best practice a single strategic, social recognition program for the entire organization as this is the most efficient, positive (and cost effective) way to create one culture across the entire organization. When done right, strategic recognition reinforces the company’s overall core values and strategic objectives, uniting all employees in a common vision and mission.

Executives must stop propping up fiefdoms in their organization. They must take control of their culture, which is most easily done through strategic recognition. Again, when done right, strategic, social recognition generates the big data necessary to see your culture in action, everywhere, in all divisions, across all employees. That’s simply not possible when fiefdoms are allowed to create their own approaches.

If a company decides to pursue one culture of appreciation through a single, universal (or global) strategic recognition program for all employees, then executives must step up and clearly, firmly inform divisional leaders (especially fiefdom lords) that local recognition programs will no longer be funded or encouraged. The expectation is for all units to join into a One Company culture and engage with each other through the single recognition solution.

Does your company have fiefdoms? How do they affect your overall culture?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


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