Dealing With Four Silent Culture Killers

Here are four silent culture killers you need to watch out for, and some tips on how you can avoid them in your organization.

Derwin Dexter Sy
Nov 27, 2020 · 8 min read
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Company culture — a holy grail that most companies hold in very high regard and rightfully so. Yet, despite all the motivational speeches and slogans plastered throughout our office walls, we often find ourselves in holes that are a bit difficult to climb out of and cycles that seem… counterproductive, to say the least.

There are, of course, the obvious red flags you need to watch out for — power struggles and in-fighting, incompetent or absentee leadership, expectations of overtime as a norm… the list goes on. And then there are the more nefarious ones that seem harmless (or at least not quite as harmful) on the surface, but are slowly digging a grave for your company’s culture.

Most of these have been ingrained in corporate culture for the longest time that they seem to be the only option. Sometimes, it can seem impossible to properly scale a company without putting these “safeguards” in place. Unfortunately, these things bear a heavy price and one that’s often hard to recover from for any organization.

Here are four silent culture killers you need to watch out for, and some tips on how you can avoid them in your organization.

1. Handling a few bad eggs by tossing the bunch.

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We humans are slightly smarter than eggs and most of us are capable of becoming better if we get the right feedback.

Fun fact: many of the unreasonable (and occasionally, super obvious) rules you have to deal with on a daily basis are there because someone at some point decided it was a good idea to take advantage of the lack of such rules. You’ve been there. And I bet you won’t forget that idiot who cost you your extra break time because he thought it would be reasonable to take three hours off for lunch and, coincidentally, miss two client meetings.

But idiots will be idiots and it’s how the company chooses to react that ultimately makes or breaks team morale. The easiest way is obviously to put in all these restrictions and lock everyone out of reasonable freedom. Sadly, this is the road a lot of companies end up taking. It won’t be long before you lose your best employees due to the overly restrictive work environment.

What To Do About It

“But wait, doesn’t the saying go, a few bad eggs ruin the bunch?” Well, that’s true — a bad egg is a bad egg. Fortunately, we humans are slightly smarter than eggs and most of us are capable of becoming better if we get the right feedback and put in the right effort. Make sure that bad behavior is called out and necessary actions taken on them. Sure, it’s easier to just put in restrictions that keep anyone from making the same mistake, but doing this sends a message to the more responsible employees that they too can’t be trusted and might as well not even try to be good.

Is it risky to give them so much freedom? Of course. But so is making otherwise productive employees unhappy. And if it feels riskier to give your employees some freedom than it is to potentially demoralize them, you might want to take a closer look at your hiring decisions.

2. Failing to address rumors.

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Information always bears risk. But until you’ve properly assessed that, misinformation will always be the bigger risk.

A little office gossip doesn’t do much harm, but if you’re withholding too much information from everyone for no definite reason, you’re bound to get more than a little gossip going. “Above your pay grade” is a dangerous, dangerous phrase to speak.

Companies tend to get into this habit because they are uncertain about how the bad news will cause people to feel. When you think about it, it’s counterproductive to withhold information for this reason, because while you can’t control people’s reactions to news, you actually have an opportunity to get the right information and message out there.

A lack of information leads to fear, uncertainty, and doubt. That consequently leads to speculation (essentially trying to make sense of things), misunderstanding (when different people say different things), and eventually bad morale (because despite their best efforts, they still end up in the dark).

What to do about it

It would be naive to say you don’t withhold any information at all, but be intentional about why and how you do it. Understand why the information needs to be withheld, what part of it is particularly sensitive, and whether there would be any time or condition when it would become “de-classified”. And most importantly, have an official statement on hand for the people who will most likely be asked about it (even if they don’t know the whole story themselves). “Kill the grapevine”, as Rands in Repose puts it, and score a point for yourself in The Rands Test if you are continuously doing this.

To be fair, information almost always bears risk. But until you’ve properly assessed it, mis information will always be the bigger risk. So do this quick and make sure they hear it from you first.

3. Trying to keep peace by holding back on feedback.

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Unfortunately, if such a culture is not established early on, the lack and avoidance of feedback easily becomes prevalent.

360 reviews are a controversial topic in the world of management and for good reason. Feedback can be used in the best and worst ways, and it could also be taken quite differently from one person to the next. At worst, feedback could end up becoming a tool for politicking and ruining other people’s reputations, as learned in Amazon’s performance management controversy.

Regardless of your view on 360 reviews, however, a culture of feedback is important in any organization, and it can’t just be a top-down thing. Feedback from peers is even more crucial as your peers are the people who know you best and are dealing with your impact on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, if such a culture is not established early on, the lack and avoidance of feedback easily becomes prevalent. People become afraid to give it and hesitant to offend. On the receiving end, it’s easy to become overly sensitive and resistant to receiving criticism.

What To Do About It

It’s as simple as establishing a culture of feedback. Well, actually, it’s not as simple as it sounds. I believe feedback is most effective not in “big-bang” evaluation cycles, but in basic day-to-day interactions — in code reviews, in stand-up meetings, even casual water cooler chats.

This is where leading by example really pays off. If you reward people for giving feedback to you, their untouchable leader (just kidding), you set them up to recognize that feedback is good. And no, you don’t need to give them a big bonus for speaking their mind. You just need to, at the bare minimum, hear and address their concerns — even if the answer is that you don’t have an answer. Taking action, if at all possible, is much better.

Personally, there’s a lot at my work that’s way beyond my control and it can get uncomfortable having to answer these questions from my team. But it’s my job to do this, and I know things will be much better in the end if I do. Truth be told, there’s often always something you can do about it.

Bonus read: Here are some tips on how to establish a safe environment for feedback.

4. Being (unreasonably) afraid to lose employees.

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If a good piece doesn’t fit the puzzle, perhaps it’s time to take a look at the big picture.

If there’s one thing that might actually be a root cause rather than a symptom among these culture killers, it’s an unhealthy fear of attrition. Without a doubt, we want to keep certain people in the team for as long as possible. On the other hand, letting go is sometimes the best option to keep the team going steadily and healthily.

An excessive fear of people leaving the company is indicative of a much deeper-rooted problem (read this for my detailed take on the matter). Could it be that there’s a skill imbalance in the team? Or perhaps a tendency to look at headcount as just another statistic or quota to meet?

This can unfortunately lead to a lot of unhealthy behavior in the organization. Withholding information (see no. 2), for one, is often a result of this fear. Likewise on withholding feedback (no. 3). Come to think of it, it would seem this unreasonable fear is behind a lot of dysfunctional communication in many organizations.

What to do about it

Think about the worst case scenario that could happen if the best people in your team leave. Now think about how you can fix that scenario, or prevent it from being a problem. I’ve brought it up a lot in this entire article, but risk management, yet again, is key when dealing with attrition.

Just as important is to treat every resignation as a chance to learn how to do better, and an opportunity to hire even better fits for your team. A resignation is often just a bad fit manifesting, and ultimately, you’ll find that both parties are better off after it. That doesn’t mean you don’t do anything to fix it, however. If a good piece doesn’t fit the puzzle, perhaps it’s time to take a look at the big picture rather than forcing a piece in place.

These are just four of many things that could go wrong in your company’s culture. Even if you’ve addressed the most obvious issues you might have, the small details that go unnoticed could be the differentiator.

Ultimately, culture dictates how we do things and how we communicate. It often doesn’t come of intention, but it very well should. It’s crucial to actively promote a healthy culture of alignment and good communication. Good performance (and employee retention, for that matter) will often follow suit.

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Derwin Dexter Sy

Written by

I’m an engineering manager and entrepreneur who loves exchanging ideas and helping others become better at what they do. I run a blog at techmanagement.life

Data Driven Investor

empower you with data, knowledge, and expertise

Derwin Dexter Sy

Written by

I’m an engineering manager and entrepreneur who loves exchanging ideas and helping others become better at what they do. I run a blog at techmanagement.life

Data Driven Investor

empower you with data, knowledge, and expertise

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