5 Signs of a Dysfunctional Organizational Culture

by Tom Wright, on Apr 1, 2016

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An Overview of Dysfunctional Organizational Culture

You know what it's like. You walk into a company for a meeting and something feels wrong. The receptionist is rude, the staff seem flustered and the place is a mess.

When you meet your client or colleague, you feel an almost palpable detachment and annoyance towards the organization. When you walk away, you feel relieved you don't work there and surmise that the culture must be bad.

Your feeling is actually correct.

The importance of workplace culture

Culture is about how work gets done in an organization.  It's about the behavior and habits employees have learnt over time, through modelling their peers.

That's why many people report that they can tell, anecdotally, if a workplace has a great culture, just by walking inside reception and watching employees.  

According to social psychology, we can be very accurate with our quick behavioral judgement and they even have a term for it known as a "thin slice of life."

Monitoring workplace behaviors is so important because they form a unique company culture.  Habits and behaviors indicate how workplaces function because evolution has taught us that it is beneficial to live in tribes, where we can share out the work of daily survival.

Humans want to be part of a group that accepts them and that seems to be going somewhere.  Being part of a group is important to mental health.  We quickly model group behavior in a workplace, so that we fit in and become accepted.

Introducing one toxic person to the mix can be devastating to a high functioning culture. It's because employees will model their behaviors (over time).  

While those that can evaluate the bad behaviors will feel disappointed when these behaviors appear to be rewarded.  If left for too long, the culture can stop functioning effectively and employees start arguing, don't collaborate and start taking more 'sickies'.  It can take years to mend.

Here are 5 indicators of a poor and dysfunctional culture (confirmed by research various studies) that signify toxic behaviors are becoming rampant and that employees have fallen into despondency.

dysfunctional culture

1. Untidy workplace

In the book, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, he mentioned how New York’s crime scene in the 1980’s was effectively cleaned up by removing graffiti.

 It was fixed by a belief that when there is any sign that there is a lack of care or no one in charge, it sends a message that there is a collapse of the system.  All it takes is one broken window, for bad behaviors to take hold.

Untidy kitchens, messy offices and hallways are a big indicator of an unhealthy and dysfunctional culture. In fact, really messy kitchens show a total disrespect to fellow employees.

Interestingly, they also indicate a poor safety record. You’ll find that safety auditors can accurately tell the safety record of a site office, just by seeing how tidy the kitchen is or even the state of a factory.

Tidy workplaces are a healthy indicator of a company that cares for its staff and premises. They also send a subtle message that poor behavior isn't tolerated.


2. Pronoun Test

In the book, Drive, by Daniel Pink, he mentioned that former US labor secretary Robert B. Reich had developed a simple diagnostic tool to assess the health of any company. 

When Reich talked to employees, he listened carefully for the pronouns they used.  Did staff refer to their company as "we" or "they"?

"They" suggests disengagement and at its worst, alienation.  While "we" suggests that employees feel as of they are part of something meaningful and significant.  They're engaged.

At a large manufacturing company I worked for, I was stunned when factory floor workers were constantly talking about "them," even when they spoke about their supervisors.  The criticism was pretty intense.  Three weeks later they were all on strike.

Listening to the language of staff (including whether they have their own terms and language), as well as watching their body language provides vital clues for culture.

dysfunctional culture

3. Car Park Test

Another visual test, particularly if the organization has had a merger, forced redundancies or had a major safety accident, is to have a visual look at the car park.

This one is easier to do over time, but tracking it regularly or asking staff about the numbers gives you a feel for how the absenteeism rate, just by visually checking the number of cars in the car park.

When companies are experiencing a crisis, have high levels of bullying or even lack an inspiring vision, absenteeism is common.

Of course, if you do notice the number of cars have dropped, you’ll want to ask why, in case it’s quite innocent.  For example, one company I worked with always had an overflowing car park.  

One Friday morning I arrived, to find a car park (a big win for me). When I enquired, it was because of an offsite staff party.

dysfunctional culture

4. Meeting Test

Another important visual clue is how meetings are executed within organizations. Meetings reflect a company's culture.

Signs to watch out for:

  • People don't want to attend (waste of time, nothing gets done)
  • False consensus - employees agree to what's been said, but when it's time to take action, nothing happens.  Consensus is merely a tool to change topic or not talk about it further.
  • People often get shut down in meetings, with leaders doing the most talking.
  • Boredom (eg: checking smartphones, or watches, looking out windows).
  • No actions are taken at the end or a delegation of responsibilities with clear timelines.

When people complain about all their meetings, you know that they are being managed poorly.  It's also an interesting indicator of how employees act.

Meetings need to be purposeful.  Time wasting shows a lack of an inspiring vision and poor leadership (and disrespect of other people's time).  It also means poor strategy execution.

Great meetings empower people to understand information, participate, constructively debate information (feel heard), receive clear deadlines and actions.  They energize, align and enable collaboration.


5. Happy Test

Okay, this one probably sounds a little bit corny.  But you really can evaluate a workplace culture by visually assessing people's happiness levels.

The sound of laughter is always a good sign.  So is a friendly receptionist or helpful employees when you enter the grounds.  Oh, and also people who greet you in a warm manner during a meeting (and value your time).

You also really want to see people acting as if they know what they’re doing and appear super-focused on tasks, rather than gossiping or ignoring the phone (or each other).

Being visually aware of subtle behavior changes to your corporate culture is a requirement of executives, leaders and even board members.  

If you do notice any of these indicators of a dysfunctional culture at your workplace, it's important to nip them in the bud before they turn into bigger issues that are much harder to turn around.  

That way, with a positive workplace culture and engaged employees, you will ensure that you can more easily execute on your strategy.

Topics:Strategy Implementation
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