Is your company infected with Culturitis, the deadly toxic corporate culture disease? Here are 7 tell-tale signs. Let’s begin by doing a company CAT scan (culture assessment test) to spot the early signs of culturitis infestation:
1. The Heads Down culture
There are times when I walk into a company and can immediately sense that things are amiss. The receptionist couldn’t be bothered, and people walk past you like you don’t exist. I call this the heads down culture, where people walk around looking down, busy doing their own thing, oblivious to what’s going on around them.
This reflects a deeper issue, where employees aren’t free to express themselves, and just go about doing what they must do, and nothing more. They can’t wait for the end of the work day to burst out the door!
2. The rumour mill effect
The next sign of culture toxicity is the evidence of a culture of gossip and corridor whispers. This toxic chat culture is extremely damaging to the positive work environment, and is a dangerous method of power play.
This chatter, often fake, spreads fast through the office gossip mongers, along with speculation and negative energy, which will weigh down the productive work environment.
You often see a select few (the corridor clique) head outside to chat secretively at any excuse. It feels like the rumours never stop. Those who don’t fit in with the conversation, or are being gossiped about, end up being isolated.
This creates unnecessary tension among employees, and breeds speculation and doubt.
3. We are incommunicado
The office vibe is serious. You may as well have entered a morgue! People just don’t communicate, and all you hear is the clicking sound of fingers hammering away at computer keyboards.
No one talks, jokes, or says much. The atmosphere is very formal and business-like. Employees interact on a need-to-do basis; there is none of that friendly banter or jovial moments that go with a friendly office vibe.
Newbies or visitors can sense this vibe and will wonder what really happened here. People would rather email or WhatsApp each other than walk across to the adjacent desk and have a chat!
More evidence of this negative culture is when people refuse to speak up, even when things are obviously unpleasant. They choose to remain silent and ignore the issues.
4. We just don’t help!
The fourth sign of culturitis brewing is when people stick to what they are doing and don’t care about helping anyone else. This reflects a very individualistic and silo culture. “We just don’t care, and it’s everyone for themselves,” is the message that is being sent out loud and clear.
For new employees, this sets the tone for the rest of their career in the company. All the initial euphoria, enthusiasm, and gung-ho-ness of joining a new company, quickly disappears.
This stems from the top. Senior management isn’t helpful, and expects everyone to fend for themselves. People are afraid of sharing their knowledge, for fear of losing their importance and the little power they command.
It is expected that everyone should figure it out for themselves. No mentoring here, just tormenting!
From a work environment perspective, there is hardly any inter-department mingling or cross-pollination of ideas.
5. The sick leave syndrome
You notice a high absenteeism rate in the office. There’s also a clear pattern emerging. People appear to be maxing out their sick leave, and staying away at crucial periods when they are needed the most.
I find this particularly prevalent in Asian office cultures, where employees who have been hurt or disillusioned with their managers or co-workers, deliberately stay away to make a silent protest point.
You also notice this absenteeism at meetings, company D&D events, recreational events, or town halls.
Also, employees don’t give notice of their leave, and they don’t bother to call their manager if they have fallen ill suddenly. These are clear signs that something sick is going on in the organization, and needs to be cured soon.
6. We love staying put
The next sign of a toxic culture is when there is clear resistance to change. Although HR or leadership may want to implement change, there is a general lack of enthusiasm and excitement for the initiative.
This usually happens when there is a deep infiltration of a culture of inertia that is perhaps left over from the previous leadership. Merged and acquired companies oftentimes must deal with this inherited culture issue.
In this instance, drastic measures are called for from the new or merged leadership team. They need to swiftly craft and articulate a new vision, align and agree on new values, and come up with a powerful communication strategy. The new culture needs to be implemented quickly to eradicate this manifestation of culturitis.
7. Bottom line focus and lack of true purpose
The company is chugging along, but everyone is mainly focused only on the bottom line, with no greater sense of purpose. The “WHY” is clearly missing. Even with the senior management team, everyone only speaks about the next quarter, or what needs to be done to achieve their immediate target.
The greater good and purpose of the business isn’t communicated, which results in a general lack of passion and commitment from the rank and file.
The job kind of gets done, but that’s about it. The lack of vision and non-articulation of the business philosophy, makes the employees feel that they are just cogs in the wheel and are not contributing towards something bigger. The job feels mundane, and everyone just gives their bit and nothing more. The end of the working day can’t come soon enough for them.
Leadership is focused on delivering on the bottom line, and that message is conveyed to the rank and file during reviews and town halls.
The opportunity to articulate a greater good vision, and thus fire up passion and commitment from employees, is a lost opportunity. Also lost is the potential of the business to innovate and scale to greatness, and have a bigger impact on the world.
People are rewarded for hitting their goals, not for challenging the status quo and creating the potential for new revenue streams. Radical and non-conventional thinkers don’t last too long, as their behaviour upsets the balance and vibe of the business.
We’ve covered a few typical toxic culture red flags. But there’s more lurking in various iterations and forms of the ones we’ve talked about. Most companies don’t even know they have culturitis. It has become a way of life, deeply ingrained in the people, and everyone has learnt to live with this pain. It’s only visible to people on the outside.
Do a CAT scan of your business, and see what shows up. You might be surprised.
About the author
Ashok Miranda is a Business Transformation Architect and founder of Transform and Transcend. He is the author of the book: Culling Culturitis, How To Rid Your Company of this Toxic Disease and Build a Winning Company Culture.
As a speaker, consultant and trainer, he is passionately committed to architecting a better business world by building purpose-driven companies that nurture happy and engaged employees and positively impact peoples lives.
He connects the dots between company culture, branding, marketing and customer experience and works with business leaders, owners, founders and HR professionals to transform their companies for success in the digital age.
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