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What is weak workplace culture?

What Are the Most Common Organizational Culture Problems?

Common organizational culture problems can include ambiguity, poor communication, and inconsistency. These can contribute to the experience of a hostile and unpleasant workplace, which can make workers less loyal and may contribute to issues like harassment, bullying, and high turnover. Companies with concerns about their structure and organization can use outside consultants to get a fresh look at their culture, and may also want to consider the use of employee evaluations to get feedback from their personnel. These tools can help companies identify and address problems with organizational culture.

Ambiguity is a common issue. Employees may not understand what is expected of them, or could feel as though stated policies are in conflict with actual practices. For example, workplace policies may state that management supports a healthy work-life balance, but the company may only promote single people who are willing to work long hours without complaint. The stated claim is that the company is family friendly, but in reality, this is not the case.

Poor communication is a common problem with organizational culture at companies of all sizes.

Inconsistency can be another contributor to organizational culture problems. Employees may feel like policies are not applied evenly and fairly; managers may not be penalized for activity employees would expect to see punished, for example. Companies may also be inconsistent across departments, which can contribute to the development of resentment. People in human resources, for example, might want to know why the information technology department has better offices or always seems to be on vacation.

Employees may feel that a company focuses too much on income and pushes employees to work long hours.

Poor communication is another common problem with organizational culture at companies of all sizes. Employees may not communicate well with each other and could feel uncomfortable about approaching supervisors with ideas, suggestions, and concerns. From the top down, companies might not clearly articulate expectations and goals, which can make staff members confused about what they are supposed to be doing.

Inconsistency is a common organizational culture problem.

Other organizational culture problems can include differences in priorities. Employees may feel that a company focuses too much on income and pushes them to work long hours, foregoing rights like breaks and overtime. Some companies have an organizational culture of guilt that forces employees to overstretch themselves to get work done. This can create backlash as resentful employees take out their anger about the organizational culture on each other or clients.

Poor leadership can be a major organizational culture problem.

Poor leadership can be another issue. Employees may have trouble following people they do not respect, or taking orders from supervisors who do not appear to know what they are doing. If leadership is weak, inconsistent, or disreputable, it can contribute to organizational culture problems.

Companies that know they have organizational culture problems can define them, creating lists of examples to understand the specifics of the issues that must be addressed. With this information in hand, they can start to address the situation. For example, if a company’s goals are ambiguous, leadership can meet up to discuss what the company wants to do and how it wants to accomplish it. This information can be communicated to company personnel so they feel more comfortable.

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

donasmrs January 29, 2014

Ambiguity is an issue at the organization I work at. There are quite a few people in our office, who are not sure of what they are doing because they are not given proper directions and feedback. How efficient can an organization like this possibly be? fBoyle January 28, 2014 @ddljohn— Conflict exists at all workplaces, but the administrators should have ways of dealing with it.

I think that conflict doesn’t only arise from organizational policies. If an organization is competitive as you said, it can contribute to conflict. But I think the real reason behind conflict is poor communication. Employers and employees either don’t talk to one another or don’t understand each other.

I think that people who work together need to be able to talk to one another and share their opinions. But in some organizations, there is a very rigid, bureaucratic structure which prevents this. People are not very comfortable with one another and this is reflected in the organizational structure. ddljohn January 28, 2014

I think that workplace conflict is a major organizational culture problem. Some organizations are very competitive and employees are often pitted against one another. There are incentives for employees to outpace one another but that creates a lot of trouble in the workplace. People lose interest in working together and cooperating because things become personal. This was the case at my previous workplace. That’s why I left and found a new job.

Toxic Work Culture: 16 Examples and How to Improve It

Going from toxic to healthy can improve employee morale, retention, and boost your company’s reputation.

Written by Kate Heinz

Product Marketing Manager at Built In

Kate Heinz is a Built In product marketing manager who formerly covered career development, HR and tech recruiting topics. She previously worked as a content strategist for Yakkety Yak. Heinz holds a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan.

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Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Updates Reporter at Built In
Rose Velazquez | Oct 25, 2022

A company’s culture, which refers to a workplace’s overall ethos, as well as the values and initiatives that set the tone for how managers lead employees, can either be its greatest strength or its most harmful weakness. The trick is to be vigilant against the signs of a toxic work culture and seek to improve them. In most cases, it only takes five steps to change your company culture.

What Is a Toxic Work Culture?

A toxic work culture is a company environment dominated by practices, policies and management styles that perpetuate unhealthy habits and conflicts among team members. It can be harmful to employees, preventing them from being productive and growing professionally. Bad organizational culture can also lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction that drives employees to look for jobs elsewhere. On one level, toxic work culture is institutional-centric; the company’s policies and procedures are designed with itself, not its workforce, in mind. Negative workplace culture also often means outdated work policies — for example, a requirement to work from the office — that are mistakenly thought to squeeze the most productivity from an employee, or an offering of benefits and perks that are easy on the company budget, but tough on employees’ lives. A toxic work culture typically results in workplace “illnesses,” such as lack of cohesion among teams, increased absences and tardiness, lower productivity and high turnover.

Red Flags of a Bad Company Culture

  • You don’t have a list of core values.
  • There’s a lot of gossip in the office.
  • Unfriendly employee competition.
  • Employees are often tardy or absent.
  • Employees often work late or don’t take lunch breaks.
  • Still hiring for culture fit.
  • No DEI policy.
  • No workplace giving initiatives.
  • Little or no hiring from within.
  • Public criticism of employees.
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A strong company culture is important for your company’s longevity and business success. In order to build an exciting culture that will entice job seekers and retain employees, you need to be thoughtful with the type of organizational culture you aim to create. Be vigilant against the following bad company culture red flags to allow a positive work environment to flourish.

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16 Signs of a Toxic Work Culture

1. Core Values Are Absent

The Problem: Perhaps the most concerning sign of a bad company culture is a lack of company core values. These are the driving force of an organization — not having core values means your culture is likely to progress without any sense of direction. Unwanted subcultures will form and undermine your business’ success.

The Fix: Draft and publish a list of core values. These should be the set list of ideals that truly matter to your team and will help you achieve your goals. Before promoting them to the rest of the team, ensure C-suite executives, HR representatives and long-term employees are aligned on core values. Then, go over each value with the rest of the team. Doing so will help elicit positive behaviors and attitudes, creating a cohesive company culture. Refer back to your core values during the hiring process to ensure each employee you onboard shares the same values as your team.

2. Managers Don’t Follow Core Values

The Problem: Employees look to managers for direction. If senior and middle management aren’t abiding by the core values you’ve set forth, employees will follow suit. Even worse, they’ll begin to distrust leadership for exempting managers from the office rules. Authority will be discredited, and a clear divide will form between leadership and the staff.

The Fix: Lead by example and hold everyone accountable. Core values are important to your culture and your success as an organization, so ensure they are upheld by every member of your team. Holding all employees to the same set of standards will foster an open culture based on equality. This will also help promote your core values across all departments so they become ingrained in your culture.

3. Office Gossip Runs Rampant

The Problem: It wasn’t cool in middle school, and it certainly isn’t appropriate in the office. Gossip leads to unwanted cliques that divide your workforce, turning employees against each other and creating a culture of distrust.

The Fix: If you’re noticing that the rumor mill is churning more often than not, address the situation head on. Try to identify the individuals who seem to be involved most frequently and speak to them one-on-one. You should also formally address the entire company so every employee knows this behavior will not be tolerated.

4. Turnover Is High

The Problem: High turnover is almost always a guaranteed sign of a toxic company culture. Not only will a bad culture drive employees away, it will also deter job seekers from taking your organization seriously; more than 30 percent of workers say they left a job in the first 90 days because “company culture was not as expected” and 20 percent reported switching industries because of a “toxic work environment/culture.” If you’re saying goodbye to employees left and right, they’re probably looking for a less toxic work culture.

The Fix: It’s time to double down on your company culture strategy. To do that, however, you need to understand the root of the problem. Probe employees during exit interviews on their reasons for leaving. Try to understand what it was about your culture that frustrated them and which aspects they found difficult to part with.

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Then, talk to employees — especially long-term employees — to get a sense of what’s kept them around. Consider conducting an employee engagement survey and carefully analyze the results. Once you know what you need to improve, act on it.

5. Unfriendly Competition Abounds

The Problem: Healthy competition is good for business. It motivates employees and encourages stellar performance, which can help grow your company. However, having competition as the focal point of your culture will breed animosity between employees.

The Fix: If you see that individuals are highly competitive with one another, you may be placing too much value on performance. Of course you want your team to be full of top performers, but you also want your team to be full, period. Pitting individuals against each other will frustrate employees and undermine their value as individuals.

To avoid sending great employees packing, recognize performance on a broader scale and outside the confines of monetary rewards. Encourage managers to recognize their direct reports’ effort and reward their achievements with prizes centered on wellness, such as a comped fitness class, gift card to a favorite restaurant or an extra day off. Additionally, create a platform for individuals to congratulate and thank their coworkers for a job well done. This will motivate employees and encourage a team-oriented mindset.

6. Employees Often Show Up Late or Miss Work

The Problem: Excessive tardiness and/or high rates of absenteeism are clear signs of a bad organizational culture. Your employee’s tardiness should tell you that they’re either lazy — a negative quality that will hurt your culture — or disengaged. Similarly, if employees are frequently out-of-office — with remote or flex-schedule employees being the exception — they’re likely disinterested and not passionate about their work.

The Fix: For starters, ensure that middle and senior managers are prompt at the start of the day. Employees learn from managers, so if one manager routinely shows up 30 minutes late, their direct reports will believe they can do the same. From there, talk to the repeat offenders about their work schedule. It’s possible they have a regular conflict — such as dropping their kids off at school or commuter restraints — that merit an adjusted start time.

Engage your HR department to improve how your team tracks sick days, doctor appointments and other approved absences. Of course, you should be open to discussing personal matters and extenuating circumstances. Together, these approaches will help improve your absenteeism rate and create a positive work culture that prioritizes communication.

7. People Work Through Lunch

The Problem: If employees often work through lunch, it’s either because they feel they don’t have time to stop working, or they believe management doesn’t condone taking breaks. Not only is that poor business logic — more than three-quarters of workers say lunch breaks improve job performance — it’s also a surefire way to turn employees away. Expecting that employees will perform well while working eight hours nonstop is ridiculous. Moreover, it signals to them that leadership only values their work output, not their contribution to the culture or personal commitment to the organization.

The Fix: Simply encourage lunch breaks. Start by taking lunch yourself, and remind employees to enjoy their break time. Occasionally providing food for the office is a great way to impose a midday break, get to know your team and allow employees to socialize with their peers. Additionally, make a point to inform new hires of how long they’re allowed for lunch. Otherwise, they may avoid taking a break altogether.

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Peter Kang

Co-founder and CEO of Barrel / Barrel Holdings Chairman

Strong Company Culture vs. Weak Company Culture

What is Culture?

If I’ve learned anything in my 16+ years of running Barrel, it’s that there’s no magic bullet when it comes to creating and sustaining a strong company culture. Culture–and in the context of this post, I’m talking about company/organizational culture–is a slippery concept that can mean different things to different people.

In some definitions, it encapsulates the behaviors, values, and attitudes of the people that belong to the company. In others, it includes the way the company treats its customers, employees, and partners. In yet another interpretation, culture more specifically refers to the processes and systems that are in place inside the organization and the results they produce.

Personally, I like to think of culture as a measure of the business’s overall health. A strong culture means the business is enjoying robust health. A weak culture means the business is in trouble or on shaky footing. There is usually a correlation between strength of culture and financial performance, but this is sometimes not apparent on a short-term timeframe. Long-term, a weak culture inevitably trends towards a decline and has difficulty sustaining performance.

Signs of a Strong vs. Weak Culture

Since culture is difficult to clearly define, it helps me to think about what I’d observe if I were to look at an organization with a strong or weak culture. What are the behaviors, the ways of working, and the interactions like? Below are a limited set of potential observations one might find in strong and weak cultures.

Signs of a Strong Culture

  • Customers are happy because they are receiving excellent service and quality products.
  • Customers are eager to tell others about the experience of buying from or working with the company.
  • The team is doing meaningful and challenging work that they find engaging.
  • Each person on the team has a clear sense of their role and responsibilities along with a high degree of autonomy to execute.
  • Each person feels supported by others with clear avenues to get guidance and mentorship.
  • Everyone on the team feels that they are part of something special and has a strong sense of belonging.
  • The team understands how the business works and how their contributions can positively drive business performance.
  • Each person won’t hesitate to help their team members on anything.
  • The team has a “we can do anything” mentality and unafraid to take on complex challenges.
  • Everyone on the team takes responsibility for mistakes and is eager to learn from them and get better.
  • Each person asks their team members and supervisors: “What I do to get better? How can I improve?”
  • The team makes time periodically to review their existing processes critically and to explore ways to make things more effective and efficient.
  • The team methodically documents and guards their collective knowledge, using it to save time, keep quality consistent, and to bring new team members up to speed.
  • Everyone on the team is proud to tell others who they work for and what they do.
  • If they see something done improperly, incorrectly, or inefficiently, anyone on the team speaks up and brings it to attention of others for immediate action.
  • Everyone on the team is eager to praise and thank others.
  • Everyone on the team enthusiastically celebrates the team’s wins, even if they’re not directly involved.

Signs of a Weak Culture

  • Customers are often frustrated and confused about the products and services.
  • Customers have an uneven experience and may or may not become advocates.
  • The team feels micromanaged and disempowered, afraid to make even the smallest decisions on their own.
  • The team is afraid to tackle hard things and quick to come up with why something won’t work out.
  • At the first sign of trouble or frustration, team members are quick to point fingers, either at the customers or at each other.
  • Each team member feels like they’re on an island at work and must look outside the company for help.
  • Nobody is eager to volunteer or take on extra responsibilities that can help the business and the words “not my job” gets used often.
  • If they see something done improperly, incorrectly, or inefficiently, everyone on the team assumes someone else would catch it and does nothing.
  • Everyone has “their own way of doing things” and is reluctant to create shared processes or documentation.
  • Everyone is quick to point out the flaws of others, especially the customers and their team members.
  • Each person wants maximum credit for their contributions and feels slighted when they don’t get their due praise.
  • Very few people see a long-term future for themselves at the company and in fact would jump ship immediately if a new opportunity presented itself.
  • The employees believe management is trying to exploit them and management believes the employees are overly entitled while underperforming.
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Related: See my post on The Seven Learning Disabilities of Organizations from The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

The Key to Building a Strong Culture…

I’d be lying if I said that I knew the key to building a strong culture. There are days when I observe more bullets from the weak culture list than the strong culture list. Some bullets on the strong culture list seem hard to attain or difficult to sustain.

Instead of a definitive answer, I have a few hypotheses and ideas that I’ll leave you with–they’re themes that I think about in some capacity on a near-daily basis.

  • Smaller and newer companies have an easier time creating a strong culture. The larger you get, the more baggage, complexity, and bureaucracy get in the way.
  • People with healthy, stable, and happy personal lives tend to be great teammates. There is no work life and personal life. There is life and how people behave with other people. These are the people to build a culture around.
  • Everything I do impacts our culture. As co-founder and CEO, I understand that my behavior will often be under a microscope. The way I interact with others, the way I show up to and participate in meetings, and the way I follow through on my promises, are all signals communicating to the team what I believe is important, whether or not I’m conscious of what I’m doing. The same can be said about other members of our team, especially the team leaders and senior-level folks who’re modeling for others.
  • There is no easy solve and transforming culture takes time. I described culture as a measure of a business’s overall health. A business, or any collaborative organization, is a complex system within a complex system, with hard-to-predict behavior and dependencies on relationships, competition, and other external factors. Complex systems cannot be controlled in a top-down manner with bold pronouncements and flashy initiatives. Transforming culture will require a great deal of experimentation, a willingness to adopt new language and ways of communicating, and perhaps even outside perspective via 3rd party consultants or coaches. It’ll also require patience to see changes play out, to learn from them, and to make adjustments. As I mentioned above, I don’t have the answers to building a strong culture, just some thoughts. What I do know for certain is that it’s quite an undertaking and one where the job will never quite be finished.
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