Cultural Killers

He asked the typical candidate question. “Tell me about your company’s culture?” I asked him what he meant. He responded, “I don’t know. I’m just wondering what it’s like to work at your company?” 

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The business owner raved about how her company had an amazing culture. When asked about what made it amazing, she said she was not sure. “It just has great people, who do great things. We got lucky.”

The business world finally respects culture! Candidates, employees, business leaders, and owners talk about it.  People understand that great cultures lead to higher productivity, less turnover, and become attractive to top talent. No more convincing…no more relegating culture to the “nicety” pile…no more eye rolling. 

However, mere talk about culture does not equal the skill of building healthy cultures. Great leaders do not simply know about healthy cultures; they know HOW to build them. Great leaders can quickly identify and eradicate what I like to call “Cultural Killers.” These are organizational norms, practices, or structures that pollute a culture. Failure to combat them wreaks havoc throughout an organization. Here are a few cultural killers to consider. 

1. Policies and Forms to Support Policies and Forms—Unnecessary Bureaucracy

Walt Disney’s cartoon “Pigs is Pigs” does a phenomenal job showcasing how quickly bureaucracy spins out of control and demotivates a worker and destroys an organizational culture. In this cartoon, Flannery runs a railroad station where he follows the rules religiously. His organization runs methodically based upon specific rules…sometimes, to the detriment of common sense. One day, he receives a package of two guinea pigs. As a rule follower, he has no clear rule of what to charge the customer. Are they pigs ($.48), or are they pets ($.44)? The prices are different, and a disagreement ensues between the customer and Flannery. Flannery refuses to sell them at the lower “pet” rate, so he ends up keeping the guinea pigs and notifies Washington D.C. to provide direction. Time passes, polices are written, meetings take place, and the guinea pigs have babies, who have babies, who have babies. Laws, rules, paperwork, and guinea pigs abound. In the end, Flannery, sees the nonsense in all of this and simplifies the rules. A great worker almost quits, and a healthy culture was almost destroyed due to a poor response to change. The poor response? Adding rule upon rule to create a complex bureaucracy. 

2. The “Whisperers”—Creating a Culture of Mistrust

Have you met “The Whisperers?” You probably see them on a regular basis. These are the people, who huddle in each other’s offices and have “quiet” conversations. When you walk by, they stop talking. You know the conversation is probably not promoting a healthy work environment. Now, to these peoples’ credit, they either do not feel empowered, or they may live in fear. Let us assume that they work in a healthy culture. “The Whisperers” can be entry-level team-members, or they can be owners. It can come in the form of straight up gossip, or it can look like a supervisor complaining about a worker to another supervisor but never talking with the actual employee. All of this “whispering” leads to a culture of mistrust. Mistrust is a MAJOR cultural killer!

3. Structural Imbalance—Over or Under Structuring an Organization

Organizations fall into different business strata. Differences exists between the four main strata…Ma & Pop, Small Business, Corporation, and Fortune 500. Yes, these can be sliced and diced into other organizing components, but when looking at revenue and headcount size, these help to identify the size and complexity of a company. Many organizations fail to have the proper structures in place to meet the size of the organization. For instance, a Ma & Pop organization does not need a five-hundred-page policy manual. It does not need a pile of forms to take a day off. These poison the culture as bureaucracy stifles innovation and common sense. On the other hand, though, defined and strong structures must exist to strengthen the culture. In a Fortune 500 organization, defined policies, procedures, and supporting forms create an organized environment. This is essential. Under-structuring leads to confusion, redundancy, and frustration. On both ends of the spectrum, proper structural balance to support culture is essential…whether it be reducing or adding structures. This is as much an art as it is a science. 

Great leaders quickly identify practices (unnecessary bureaucracy), people (“The Whisperers”), and structural obstacles polluting healthy cultures. They strive just as hard to address these challenges as they do operational or financial obstacles. 

In part two of this two-part series, we will address the importance of aligned mission/vision/values, clear communication, and enacting purposeful employee corrective action. Stay tuned, and strive hard to build healthy cultures within your organization!

Need assistance with addressing short and long term HR needs for your business? Contact me at, and we will address them proactively.

Disclaimer: This blog is not legal advice, but merely informed opinion or general information meant for no particular purpose. Issues addressed in this blog often implicate federal, state, and local labor and employment laws. This blog is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Readers should consult labor and employment counsel to determine whether their particular policies, procedures, decisions, or courses of action comply with such laws. 

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