Signs you have a culture problem

Organisational culture. It’s a funny old thing.

Described in many ways. Quotes abound. Said said to be ‘the way things get done around here’.   Allegedly, it eats strategy for breakfast.   A potential source of significant value creation, a potential threat to everything you are trying to achieve.

Hard to define, to pin down. Easy to talk about, less easy to truly understand.

Said to be hard to change. Shaped by leaders, by stories, by history, by people, by social conformity, by behaviours.  Organisational culture is fundamentally, your identity.

For me, organisational culture is what happens outside the structures. Not what is said to be done, or written down  or agreed, but what happens in the spaces in between.

So just how do you know if you have a culture problem, at your place? There are many signs and signals that something just isn’t quite right.  It is, as is often the case, the little things that are telling you a story, if you listen hard enough.  Here are just a few from my own observations.

People are constantly working excessive hours.

Busy periods or one-off problems aside, unless there is something very wrong with the job design, employees should be able to do their job within their contracted hours. When they actively chose to sit at their desk long past home time, work through lunch every day or getting in consistently early, then something else is going on.  Perhaps somehow, it has become part of your culture that this is how you get on, or even worse, this is how you get well thought of. Time over actual contribution.

People constantly talk about the past.

Quite possibly indicating that they are not totally with you today. It is all too easy to look at the past through rose-tinted bifocals.   Stories can be useful; they are after all, part of this thing overall thing called culture.  There is nothing wrong with a little reminiscing.  But when this reaches an unhelpful level, there’s usually a reason why.

There is no chance of flexible working, even when the roles permit it.

Employees are either not trusted to do their jobs, or they are being judged on the wrong things – again, valuing time spent at the desks over contribution or value added.

Social media is blocked on the network.

If a company is blocking social media, it is also preventing its people from learning, from collaborating, from bringing the outside perspective in. Maybe it also stops that one person in the finance team from doing a bit of extracurricular Facebook surfing, but nothing says we don’t trust you to behave like adults than not letting people make their own choices about what is and is not acceptable.  This is also all about trust. And if people do abuse access where it is provided, that is sending you a cultural message, too.

There is little value placed on learning.

Whether this is people dropping out of formal learning courses at the last minute because of some super important just dropped in the diary meeting (because learning isn’t important, is it?) or just a total lack of engagement with any kind of learning from the formal to informal, if people aren’t learning they aren’t growing. Over time, their contribution may diminish. They are not exposed to new ideas or fresh thinking.  Staleness results.

Everyday language is filled with ‘the management’ and ‘the business’ and them and they.

Telling you that people, for whatever reason, don’t see themselves as being part of the business, the team, the solution.

Issues go on and on without resolution.

Just like the point above, this can mean that no one sees themselves as part of the solution. Or people don’t feel sufficiently empowered to get on and make the necessary changes or take overdue action.

The place is a tip.

Maybe no one cares enough to do anything about it, or feels that they have the permission to begin.

Excessive use of the cc field on email.

People are covering their backs. There is fear going on, somewhere, somehow.  Or too many people like to play a big fat game of ‘I told you so’.  Deeply annoying, ever so slightly poisonous.

Senior leaders have to sign everything off.

More trust issues. Not enough empowerment.

Each and every one of these signs has a multitude of possible causes.  Reasons underneath. They are symptoms, not causes. It is impossible to generalise the reasons why, and what it means at your place.

Theses are only the signs. Doing something about it starts with understanding the why.  What is going on in your spaces in between?


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