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April 30, 2015

6 Ways to Hurt Organizational Culture

The culture of an organization may be the most influential factor affecting employee satisfaction.  In many entities, however, culture is unlikely to receive attention from senior leadership, if at all.  Why is that? One reason has to do with the fact that it’s intangible.  Culture lies beyond the brick and mortar of the office environment or the products, expenses, and revenues that appear on the balance sheet.  Culture exists in the conversations that occur within the organization, and in the actions, choices and attitudes of its people.

Wait…Did I say “people”? That’s why giving proper attention to culture is hard.  It involves the complex and squidgy nature of employees as people.  The culture of an organization is the character that emerges in the collective space between coworkers and colleagues. Oh, and wherever people are involved, it’s gonna take time and work.  As Stephen Covey wisely said,

“With people, if you want to save time, don’t be efficient.  Slow is fast and fast is slow.”

Yet given these challenges, culture can be managed.  Or better yet, it can be led.  Actually, in that way, it’s kind of like a company brand.  Culture will exist whether or not it’s managed.  If it’s not managed and influenced proactively, its existence can do more harm than good for an organization and its employees.

To look at what creates effective organizational culture, let’s examine what doesn’t work.  So if you’re just tired of your company’s incredibly satisfying and rewarding organizational culture, here are six ways to take it in the opposite direction:

  • Create Ambiguity Around Purpose:  Starting from the cultural ‘inside out’ perspective, if an organization doesn’t have clarity and unity in communicating and understanding its collective purpose, no one will see the big picture or know how they fit into that larger context.  The purpose of an organization defines what it is at the core, and that core identity affects almost everything else that follows.  Without alignment on core purpose, the essence of an organization becomes disjointed, creating a culture that feels equally so.
  • Lead Without a Service Mindset:  Anyone can take a leadership stance within an organization, no matter what their position.  But not every leader is effective.  Ineffective leaders often lack a sense of service.  They can appear self-serving, and are not oriented toward serving the organization’s vision and the development, wellbeing and success of their fellow employees.  Without a servant leadership mindset that’s modeled from the top-down, individual team members can fall into the pursuit of their own separate agendas or get caught up in smaller conflicts that get over emphasized or blown out of proportion.
  • Don’t Clarify Roles & Responsibilities: There’s no better way to make a team ineffective than to leave employee roles and responsibilities unclear.  Without definitions that are made known to all, employees are left with their own assumptions about their role and that of others.  Work gets easily duplicated, creating frustration or competition.  Worse yet, some work just never gets done because “I thought that was their job!”
  • Hold No One Accountable:  When no one is accountable for their actions, choices or performance, then there is no responsibility taken for any outcomes, good or bad.  Accountability is that important element that links what we do to the results of what we do.  When it doesn’t exist in our organizations, forward movement typically slows to a glacial pace.  No one is clearly tied to any particular outcome.  Goals and objectives aren’t met, and finger pointing commonly occurs among coworkers.
  • Embody Scarcity Thinking: When team members think from a place of scarcity, as opposed to abundance, they are automatically oriented towards competition and self-protection.  If resources, attention, and possibilities are viewed as limited, each person then has to fight for their piece of the pie.  This easily erodes any sense of united purpose and collective effort.  Conversely, when a team thinks from a perspective of abundance, they can leverage creativity and resourcefulness to bring about greater success than previously thought possible.
  • Encourage Gossip & Negativity:  If culture exists in conversations, then gossip and negativity are surefire ways to spoil it.  “Positive thinking” can sound cliche, but everyone would admit that there’s something powerful about a shared “can-do” approach.  Negative attitudes squash creative and innovative thinking.  No one likes to be around or work with negative colleagues.  Period.  Workplace negativity’s cousin, gossip, is also a culture killer.  It seeks to undermine the credibility and integrity of others for the sake of increasing a sense of individual power.  But if true power is connected to having authentic influence on others, power that ultimately isolates someone is false. Gossip lessens the authentic connections between people.  It puts distance between team members, resulting in duplicitous and superficial interactions.


  • Although an effective organizational culture is strongly tied to employee satisfaction, it’s often not a priority for senior leadership.  It’s intangible, hard to measure, and it involves the hard and slow work of managing interactions among people.
  • Culture exists in the conversations that occur within the organization, and in the actions, choices and attitudes of its people.
  • Like a company brand, organizational culture exists, whether it’s managed or not.  A proactive strategy to influence and affect the culture will ensure it’s being driven intentionally.
  • To look at effective organizational culture, let’s look at what isn’t.  Six ways to hurt organizational culture are outlined above.


Try This Out:

  • Take a look at your organization’s mission, vision and values.  Do they make their way off the page and into the consciousness and conversations of the team?
  • Devote one day to being focused on acting and thinking from a true service mindset.  See what happens.
  • Spend time in an upcoming performance review to clarify anything about your role or responsibilities that may be ambiguous, or that of others with whom you work.
  • Pause the next time something goes wrong or doesn’t get done.  Before pointing the finger at someone else, look to yourself and be curious about what you could have done more proactively.
  • If you begin to feel protective about one of your projects or initiatives, intentionally shift to a place of abundance and see what emerges.
  • Go a week without engaging in any gossip or negative conversations about your coworkers.  We’d all like to think we don’t ever do this anyway, but give it a try and discover how hard it can be sometimes to avoid.


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