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How to identify and fix a dysfunctional work culture in your organisation
A dysfunctional work culture can wreak havoc on your organisation from the ground up. Cultivate the best outcome for your business through identifying, mitigating and resolving a company culture gone awry.
Updated 19 September 2023
A dysfunctional culture can wreak havoc on your organisation, result in power struggles, stifle good ideas, lower productivity, and attract public criticism.
Organizational culture is like a flower bed. You have the vibrant, healthy flowers, the shrubs, the soil and fertiliser to support growth, but you also have the weeds that appear. The weeds infiltrate your happy, co-existing flower bed and ruin it from the roots up.
Identifying and understanding what those weeds are, how they manifest and how to pull them out by their roots, is the key to identifying and mitigating, a toxic work culture.
Why does culture matter?
An organization’s culture – or flower bed – is the personality of the company. Organizational culture matters because it influences everything that happens in organizations. It guides the way people approach their work and how they interact with each other. It influences how people behave to ‘fit in’ and be successful. It signals what behaviours get rewarded and what behaviours get punished. It helps to shape what happens when priorities shift or when mistakes are made. Essentially it defines how the game of work is played.
The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage the environment. If you do not manage your culture, (continue to cultivate and nurture the flower bed) it will manage you and you may not even be aware that this is happening.
What is a healthy workplace culture?
A healthy work culture, often referred to as a positive or thriving work culture, is a workplace environment where employees feel supported, engaged, and motivated, and where they can achieve their full potential whilst maintaining their physical and mental well-being.
If you were to start a garden bed and just leave it alone, it may grow but not necessarily in the way you had hoped. Just like a flower bed, a healthy culture begins with the right soil, the right environment and the right amount of care and attention.
What is a dysfunctional workplace culture?
A dysfunctional work culture is one that is toxic and inefficient, arising from a multitude of issues. It is characterized by a set of negative norms and poor behaviour, that hinder effectiveness, employee and team well-being, and overall success.
Addressing a poor organizational culture requires a concerted effort from leadership and each team member alike. It involves identifying the root causes of the dysfunction, implementing changes to organisational systems, processes and behaviours, and fostering a more positive and inclusive work environment.
But before we address it, we need to know what to look out for.
What does a dysfunctional work culture look like?
An unhappy workplace is tense, dull and plagued with inefficiency and inadequacy. If you look for it, it can be quite obvious that the work culture is dysfunctional. Are meetings usually listless and disorganised? Are employees generally confused about what they need to do and why? Is there hostility? Is the rumour mill gaining momentum? Once you recognise the signs by asking the tough questions, it is time to act.
Asking the tough questions
Are we, the leaders, the problem?
Culture is heavily influenced by leadership. Leaders taking a long, hard look at themselves is key to understanding where this dysfunction could stem from.
Do we have a high turnover rate?
When people are unhappy, it is unlikely they will stick around. High turnover could be a telling sign that things aren’t right with your work environment. Whilst it may not always be work culture related, it can be helpful to why employees are leaving.
Do we have ongoing employee disputes?
Conflict can be a sign of a toxic workplace. Whilst some conflict between employees can be healthy, sustained conflict is not.
Does office gossip run rampant?
Office gossip and the rumour mill cause unwanted cliques that can turn employees against one another, fostering distrust.
Are our employees disengaged, or showing signs of unhappiness?
Absenteeism, declining productivity, customer satisfaction and even employee theft are signs that point to disengaged, unhappy employees. These are signs your staff are not happy in the work environment.
Are our customers sticking around?
If you are noticing an increase in customer attrition, it is likely they are feeling the effects of a dysfunctional culture, putting your company’s reputation at risk. Unhappy staff are less willing to go the extra mile for customers, leading to unhappy customers.
Are we suffering from a lack of innovation?
Exciting work is at a standstill, processes are the same and there is no free flow of ideas. Staff may feel unwilling to push for change and present new ideas if they feel like they won’t be listened to.
Identifying the weeds before they sprout; what are the warning signs of a dysfunctional work culture?
The destructive weeds in your flower bed don’t sprout from nothing. Once you begin to observe your dysfunctional company culture, you can start to identify the red flags.
Perhaps your management team is behind the times, following a more traditional hierarchy or simply not evolving. When employees see that processes and policies aren’t changing to reflect the times, or management isn’t willing to modernise or adapt their behaviour, they could become disengaged and uninterested.
Where there is no clear organisational vision or set of values, restlessness and inefficiency are abundant. With nothing to follow, nothing to strive for and nothing to guide employees with, how can anything worthwhile get done?
Shutting down debate and discouraging challenges silences employees, and stunts the growth of people and the organisation. Healthy workplace cultures allow room for constructive debate and relevant challenges because that is how a company’s culture can evolve. You could be showing signs of a dysfunctional work culture when these types of conversations are not encouraged, or there isn’t the psychological safety to have them in the first place.
If communication is ineffective, and expectations are unclear, how can you expect efficiency and hard work? A dysfunctional work culture thrives through miscommunication and misguidance.
Do your employees understand how they can become more successful, and how they can achieve promotions? If not, this poor transparency is reflected in your culture, where employees feel like they are stuck in one place with limited personal development opportunities and that they can’t grow in their roles. A high employee turnover rate can also reflect this.
Drops in profitability and productivity go hand in hand with a dysfunctional work culture. If you observe the disengagement of employees, you are likely to have noticed these dips in profitability and productivity. When your flowers aren’t watered and fertilised regularly (like a healthy workplace culture), they won’t grow, and weeds will take over the whole flower bed. Just like disengaged staff won’t work harder for your company or be willing to be a team player.
An authoritarian style of leadership can contribute heavily to a dysfunctional work environment. If a workplace is tense and anxious as a result of a command control leadership style, there is less room for growth. Inefficiency, resentment and dissatisfaction are likely to build and no positive culture can survive in that environment.
High employee turnover rates and employee retention go hand in hand with a dysfunctional work culture. In an ever-evolving world, employees are becoming less and less willing to put up with an unhealthy culture. Employers nailing their culture exist all around us, and nobody is willing to stick around when they can find it elsewhere.
Dysfunctional work culture isn’t always the result of ineffectual leadership, but can also be due to ineffective recruiting, disrupting the whole team. One bad weed can easily destroy the whole flower bed.
Customer attrition is another warning sign of a dysfunctional work culture. When employees are unhappy and disengaged, it is highly unlikely they will be putting in the work to keep their customers happy as well. Customers may not be willing to stick around if they feel they are not being looked after.
Pulling out the weeds; how to fix a dysfunctional work culture
Whether the weeds of dysfunction have well and truly blossomed or are just beginning to bud, fixing your dysfunctional work culture is the number one priority for your company. But therein lies the question: how?
Begin with accepting responsibility. The resolution begins by accepting and admitting fault for inaction. When disgruntled employees see that self-awareness and accountability are taking place, they may feel that the leadership team respects them and is willing to admit to their faults. Nobody is perfect, and leaders make mistakes too.
Discover what your employees need from you. All employees are different and therefore have different needs. For example, baby boomers are loyal but may not respond to authority well. Whereas millennials are focused on working on their strengths, and may not like to dwell or work on their weaknesses. When you start to listen and understand what your employees need, you can start to implement a healthier culture that they can respond to.
Encourage innovation. Encourage debate. Encourage discussion. Listen to what your employees have to say. Get real with them and let them tell you what is wrong. Do they feel like they are stuck in the same place with their career? Show them how they can change that. Do they feel like they can’t question authority? Encourage them to debate constructively, with you, with other employees, and with leadership. Give them a space to discuss and reflect. Create a space where taking risks is okay.
Set clear company values and an organizational vision. Show employees what their work, behaviour and mindset should reflect by outlining exactly what you expect from them, and what the company stands for. When there is a better understanding of who you are as a company, it allows room to explore that as an employee.
Finally, be open to discussing and improving culture. Build trust, establish goals and recognise employees for their work. This immediately boosts productivity and profitability as staff feel safe and understood, and are far more willing to work harder and better for their team. Rebuild your community with openness and compassion, we are all only human after all.
Flower bed maintenance; how to mitigate or avoid developing a dysfunctional work culture
Restoring a healthy culture is not easy. Offer transparent leadership that encourages healthy emotional ties between employees, management and even stakeholders. You may have to make compromises and ask for tough sacrifices, but the long-term benefits far outweigh a negative work environment.
Ensure your employees feel listened to, and keep communication open to all. Listening is free and can be the turning point for your culture.
A level of trust goes a long way. Encourage autonomy, and empower staff to make their own decisions related to their work.
Cultivate a high-performance flower bed – the Keogh Way
So how do you go about developing a high-performing culture? While identifying a toxic workplace culture cannot always be done through a special test, or specific formula, using the Keogh Way you can take the necessary steps to move your company culture from where it is now to where it needs to be.
Read how by applying the Keogh Way, we helped an organisation design and embed their desired future culture. Our work contributed to increases in employee engagement and net promoter scores.
The toolkit you need to build your flower bed
Our Cultivate model and offering is more than just a diagnostic tool. It is a complete toolkit developed to help identify and fix your toxic work culture.
Once you have an understanding of your current state, we will step you through a series of evidence-based steps to define your future culture and build and implement a plan that will deliver success.
The benefits of using Cultivate
Behaviour is at the centre of our model. The survey will shine a light on the behaviours needed to create a flourishing, high-performance workplace culture. Additionally, it will identify an organizational culture considered dysfunctional.
We will align your culture with your business strategy. Our holistic approach will help you to understand your strategy and measure the current culture focusing on the specific behaviours required to execute your strategy.
In order to attract top talent you need to have a healthy work environment. We will help you to build an environment that makes people run towards you and love coming to work.
Using the 13 elements that underpin organizational success and business performance we will have a solid foundation to build your desired future on.
This is not just something that happens and you forget about the results. When you come on the Cultivate change journey you will be supported each step of the way, setting you on the right path from the outset.
To begin change the organization must be ready. We will map your organization’s change readiness to help inform the cultural transformation and maximise the cultural changes you want to make.
Listen, be proactive and don’t give up. A dysfunctional company culture is a difficult, uphill battle, but once it is improved upon, the benefits will come.
Much like building a flower bed, it takes more than just one tool to build a high-performing culture. You need a whole toolbox.
Following the Keogh Way, we will guide you on a comprehensive process to help you establish an environment where your people can flourish and benefits flow to the bottom line. A process you are in control of, with support as you progress.
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