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  • Dean Williamson

Is your workplace culture terrible?

Let's get this straight - poor workplace culture costs you much more than you think. Take a minute and add up the following for your workplace:

  • The number of employee sick days;

  • The number of times someone goes home emotional or distressed because of something that happened at work;

  • The number of hours that workers spend unproductive;

  • The number of hours wasted due to work having to be re-done;

  • The dollar amount of wasted stock, contracts that have to be paid out, or legal costs for poor performance, breach of contract, oversights etc.

All of these (and many, many more) are impacted in some way by workplace culture. This post will cover what workplace culture is, how to see it, and give you a tool to do a quick assessment.


I outlined in a previous post that one of our skills is applying systems thinking in coaching, and culture is the perfect example of how humans work as complex systems. Common theory says that culture is made up of 3 elements:

  • Values: The intangible and often unspoken things (traits, results, priorities, approaches) an organisation values.

  • Symbols: The images, stories and ways that an organisation expresses itself (often called artifacts).

  • Behaviours: The ways people act.

Culture is the intersection of all of these, but it is usually resistant to anything other than very academic definitions which try to capture the whole thing, or reductionist definitions that only really get part of it (you can see a blog post on Harvard Business Review where lots of experts try to define it). The important thing to note is that culture is not any one of these things, but it is the result of all of them.

The leadership group can have one sub-culture, accounting has another, sales has another and so one. The sum total is one culture, but it is the complex interaction of individuals, teams, departments and the organisation that makes culture.

There is another layer which makes culture even more complicated - a system is never just an entire system - it always has sub-systems (or sub-cultures, in this case). Just as the four elements above interact with each other in complex ways, so too do smaller parts of the organisation. So the leadership group can have one sub-culture, accounting has another, sales has another and so one. The sum total is one culture, but it is the complex interaction of individuals, teams, departments and the organisation that makes culture. These features also make it extremely difficult to influence - imagine standing in the middle of a river trying to get it to flow upstream!


You need to do 3 things:

  1. Want to see it: This sounds simple, but only companies that are really committed to enhancing their culture will take the exercise seriously enough to listen and change. Often, it can be like getting told that you're not good enough - defensiveness is a very common human response, and only those who want to listen and change will embrace the challenge.

  2. Learn to see it: Companies invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to 'see' their culture. It means taking off your problem-solving glasses, your results-oriented glasses, or whatever glasses your normally wear, and watching your workplace with interest, rather than being invested. There's a great episode of How I Met Your Mother where a character goes into a new workplace and feels like he's observing apes - he's seeing the oddities of culture that old hands take for granted. A few weeks later? He was an ape. That's how culture happens, and stepping outside once you're in can be very difficult. You can always engage a consultant (e.g. me) to do some assessment and research work, including observations, interviews and surveys.

  3. Then observe: Once you know what you're looking for, where do you see it? In the board room, in the lunch room, in offices and cubicles, in conversations, in emails, in the hallway. Seeing culture is a revelation once it happens. Some examples of how the most basic things can reflect culture:

  • What companies choose to spend money on: No time off for celebratory lunches for the sales team that just closed a huge deal, but lavish car entitlements for execs? We won't purchase tissues for staff, but a refurb of the foyer of our building is very important.

  • How the office is decorated: Is making the open plan office look nice a waste of company resources? The staff who work there might not think so.

  • How often the CEO/GM talks to staff: Is it only when the pressure is on? Or do staff talk about how the CEO "hi" to them by name when they got in the lift together?

  • How leaders talk to each other: What is the tone between the power-brokers of the organisation? What is ok to say or not say? What is the way that arguments are put forward and decisions are made?

There are so many more - I really feel like I could literally write all day about how I observe culture.


I want to leave you something to do today. I'm going to use staff behaviour as the barometer for this exercise, as it's usually very observable. I would suggest answering the following questions as a start - be honest, it's far better to know you have a problem than to pretend you don't:

  • How would you rate staff morale?

  • Do staff enjoy coming to work every day?

  • Are staff motivated?

  • Do staff like taking on new challenges?

  • Do staff take responsibility for the little things (e.g. food in the fridge, cleaning the sink)?

  • Do staff have a high quality of work and attention to detail (e.g. they try to make sure that others don't have to do extra work as a result of their effort)?

  • Do staff prioritise minimising office conflict and small incidents?

  • Do staff try to minimise gossiping (note here - gossiping is spreading rumours, talking about things people really wouldn't want talked about etc.) about each other, the organisation and leaders?

If you answer "no" to more than 1 or 2 of these questions, I would say you have reason to be concerned. Time to look more closely...

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